Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Greetings

In the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights,Will Farrel, playing race car driver Ricky Bobby, begins his family table grace with, “Dear Lord Baby Jesus.” When his wife questions why he's praying to a baby, Ricky replies that he prefers the Baby Jesus to the Grown Up Jesus. It's meant to be silly, but, in a way, I can see the character's point. There's something so beautiful about the story of Baby Jesus, and the story has a certain power over our imaginations. When we think of an innocent infant, part of us goes soft, warm, and gooey inside.

Some time ago I published a post with the title “Is the Church Irrelevant?” I re-read it recently, and I realized I'd left out the most important argument for refuting any doubt about the importance of the church. Yes, I reminded the reader that public worship and fellowship are necessary forms of human reconnection in this electronic media age. I extolled the virtues of our tradition's ancient wisdom, and I made the point that collectively we can accomplish so much more good than we can do on our own. These are all practical points, but they miss the main point which distinguishes our Christian faith.

I forgot to mention Jesus.

Now, far be it for me to put down the belief systems of other faiths—especially since I am so woefully ignorant about them. Nevertheless, I can't see myself being moved by a victorious and virtuous Mohammed, a wise Confucius, or a transcendental and spiritual Buddha. But I know what I feel when I think of the infant Jesus in the manger—a helpless child, homeless and in poverty. I've never had a baby of my own ( I've never even diapered one!), but the older I get the dearer babies seem to me . When I hold a child over the font for baptism, I'm just amazed by the power an infant has to calm me and bring a smile to my face.
 

Our Christmas story never ceases to have power over us because we all need to feel that sense of joy, wonder, fear, and hope which is the mystical strength of the infant. As much as we need to be loved in this world, so we need to give love. There's just something about the child's helplessness which draws out or better selves. And this is the power of God at work.

And yet there's even more: This particular little baby has so much hold over us because we know how his life will end—suspended on the pain of the cross. He will lose everything: friends, dignity, peace, and life itself because he is the one sent to love us. He will enter completely into our loss, our emotional hurt, our despair, our guilt. Even as we smile at the cooing infant, our hearts are touched by the love which will suffer for the brokenness of this messy planet.

The Christmas story is a gift which keeps on giving, because, as we, age, we learn to treasure sweetness and innocence and to feel empathy for suffering. And every time we see this tiny newborn in the filthy cattle trough, we have the opportunity to enlarge our hearts.

There are many things to love about Christmas. There are family reunions, lights, carols, gift-giving, and parties. But at the end of it all there is nothing as transformative or as humanizing as the love of God found in Jesus.

May God's love enlighten your hearts this season in peace, joy, and the wonder of the Christ Child.

A blessed Christmas to you all, and my deepest thanks for your support.
 
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Hey! Why not give the Christmas gift which keeps giving the whole year 'round? A UNIFIED Christian Church. Sound like a good idea? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, please support my petition for full  altar fellowship between our denominations. Let Pope Francis know we're ready to love our neighbors as ourselves in spite of our differences. Just click here.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

It's a Wonderful Life on Advent Four

Okay. I'll admit it. It's still my favorite Christmas movie of all time—It's a Wonderful Life.
I finally saw it all the way through on a Christmas morning in 1982 when I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin. I was living in a 10 x 20 foot room in a cinder block apartment building in Madison and I didn't have enough money to go home to see my folks. So I ate my Christmas breakfast on a TV tray and watched this old flick on the local PBS station.

And I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end when Clarence got his wings.

One of the things I really dig about It's a Wonderful Life is it's lack of saccharine sweetness. Okay. It's corny and mushy at the end, but the picture is actually pretty honest about the darker underbelly of the Builder Generation. There are key plot points involving the Great Influenza Epidemic, the Great Depression, and—of course—the Second World War. Plus, the movie deals pretty honestly with economic oppression, greed, family tragedy, substance abuse, and thwarted ambition.

But what really strikes me about this old chestnut—and I don't know if Frank Capra ever really gave this a thought—is the excellent theology in the plot line. I mean, here's good ol' George Bailey, the nicest, most ethical guy in the world. Yet all of his good intentions don't keep him off the suicide bridge at the end of the movie. He needs some divine intervention.

I think Capra's Christmas movie follows a similar story line with the gospel for Advent Four. Here's good ol' Joseph. A real nice guy. He's gotten himself engaged to this girl, and she turns out to be pregnant before they get married—and not by him. What does he do? By Levitical law he could denounce her and have her stoned to death. But he's too nice a guy for that. He resolves to “dismiss her quietly” (Matt. 1:19) so she won't be disgraced.

Pretty darn decent of him, I'd say.

But God has an even better plan which Joseph—nice guy that he is—would never have thought of on his own. God sends an angel with a message. Joseph will marry the girl anyway and raise the child as his own. Granted, this is a pretty tall request for a dude whose culture so highly values progeny of one's own issue. But the angel lets Joe know that this is God's child, and God's ways of righteousness are not society's ways.

The beautiful thing about this story is that Joseph has the faith to say “yes” to God's plan.

So here's a shout-out to all the step-dads and awkward, blended families out there. It isn't easy.

(At least that's what they tell me. I'm fortunate that the woman whom I call my daughter was already a grownup when I started dating her mom, and the two of us hit it off pretty well. But that's not always the case in families.)

Family life doesn't come with an instruction book, and on our own we could never figure it out. In fact, on our own, we would never figure anything out. That's rather the point. We don't come to God, but God comes to us. Our sinful, selfish nature so often keeps us from seeing the blessings which our loving Lord is constantly setting before us. Martin Luther put it like this:

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 his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in true faith...” (Small Catechism)

Just as George Bailey needed Clarence and Saint Joseph needed the angel in his dream, so we all need the gospel to point us to the beauty of this wonderful life. Faith doesn't come from understanding. Understanding comes from faith. With God's help we too are able to say “yes” to the wonders God provides.

* * *

Christmas is a time for family get-togethers. So lets get the whole Christian family together, shall we? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, why not sign my Change.org petition asking Pope Francis to allow our two communions to share the Holy Eucharist together again? C'mon. It's been almost 500 years. Let's kiss under the mistletoe! Just click here.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Did I Do Right? (Reflections on Advent 3)


File:Juan Fernández de Navarrete - St John the Baptist in the Prison - WGA16467.jpg

So was it worth it? Did I get it right? Did it all matter?

I'm guessing these are the questions going through John the Baptist's mind as he sits in his jail cell and waits to be executed. He's done what he thought God wanted him to do—he's pointed the way to Jesus the Messiah. But now, at the end of his life with death inches away, he's starting to have his doubts.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” (Matthew 11:2)

Back in chapter 3 of Matthew's gospel John seemed pretty cock-sure Jesus was the one. He even offered to have Jesus baptize him. (Matt. 3:13-15). But as his life is coming to a close he needs a little more assurance.

Don't we all.

Have you ever asked yourself if it's been worth it? I know I do from time to time. I guess you can't help it once you've hit middle age and you know that there's probably more road behind you than in front of you. It's rather like that scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan (Spoiler Alert if you haven't seen it!) where this old guy, an American World War II vet, staggers among the crosses of a European cemetery where his battle buddies lie buried. Surrounded by his aging wife, kids and grandkids, he surveys the graves of those who didn't survive the war and tearfully asks, “Have I been a good man?”

What I love about this pericope is how pastoral Jesus is. He sends John's disciples back with instructions to testify to the condemned man. Go tell your boss what you've seen, Jesus tells them. Haven't you seen God's mighty works? The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead rise, and the poor hear the good news. Tell John that. He'll figure it out.

Then Jesus addresses the crowd and praises John. Why did you guys come out to the Jordan to hear John? He wasn't a reed blowing in the wind. No. This dude had substance. He gave it to you straight and he didn't mince words. And he wasn't some coiffed and rhinestoned TV preacher selling you a feel-good gospel. He spoke real words about sin, repentance, society, and hope for what God can do when you open your heart to Him. He was a real prophet. In fact, he was probably the best prophet in the whole darn prophetic line.

And you know what?

None of that matters. Not really.

You see God doesn't love us for of our human achievements. God's grace is deeper and wider than any of the values by which we puny people evaluate our earthly existence. As great as John may have been, the least in the Kingdom is greater than that. And that means you and me.

I mean, haven't you seen it? I have.

For whatever choices I may have made in my life—right or wrong—God has still shown me mighty acts of mercy. I've still been able to love and be loved. I've seen sunrises and sunsets. I've made children laugh. I've worked hard and enjoyed leisure. And I've seen God at work—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed, loving the outcasts.

If we're ever going to take time to sum up our lives, we should do it in the knowledge of God's unrelenting goodness. We should do it with an eye to the beauty in our brokenness. A failed ambition was still an ambition. A failed love was still a love. A failed relationship was still a relationship. A failed life was still a life.

No doubts. No regrets. Just God.

I hope you're enjoying the Season, my friends. Drop me a comment to let me know you've been here!

* * *

Hey! Want to get your Old Religious Guy a nice Christmas present? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic please sign my Change.org petition and ask Pope Francis to consider a full communion between our churches. It's the gift which keeps on giving! Just click here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Get Your Act Together (Reflections on Advent 2)


In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,   make his paths straight.”'
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.


But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Matthew 3:1-12)

I was walking back to church from the home of some parishioners last night and I had a chance to admire the holiday preparations in the neighborhood. I don't know what Christmas is like where you are, but in Northeast Philly we do it up right. The blocks of row homes around my church are decorated with more lights than the Las Vegas Strip. You'd half expect to see Siegfried and Roy coming down the sidewalk. If it doesn't move, we put Christmas lights on it.

But the beautiful season of Advent asks us to make preparations which don't require electricity. The preparation for the coming of Christ according to that radical John the Baptist has nothing to do with lights, shopping, or making cookies. It's all about repentance.

Repent!” the Baptist tells us. Change your mind. Change your ways. Get your act together and start doing things which seem to be worthy of God's rule.

Don't you just love this guy? With his organic wardrobe and low-cal diet? He's just so beautifully counter-cultural, and he seems pretty pissed off with the power structure. In John's day, there wasn't a whole lot of emphasis placed on individualism. When he calls for repentance, he's calling for the whole society to do a U-turn.

I wish we had a freaky prophet like John attracting crowds now, because our society could sure use a little change. We need an adjustment in our attitudes about poverty and wealth, healthcare, sexual orientation, war, equal opportunity, public education, the environment, and so on. I could be on my annoyingly liberal soap box forever...

BUT: Societies are made up of individuals, and you, my friend, aren't interested in polemical diatribes, are you? You're reading this because you want some kind of insight for yourself and your life, right?

Well, I can't speak for you, but I realize that I sure enough can use a little repentance. As I look back over this past year, I know I have a lot for which I can be thankful. But I also have a lot that needs a tune-up.

I've been a pretty negligent husband at times. I make my wife feel like I value my ministry and my parish more than I value her.

I've also been a crappy brother and friend—faithless in keeping up with siblings and friends who live at a distance. I've not taken the time to contact people I really love and care about.

I've wasted too much time futzing around in my office and missed opportunities to visit with parishioners and hear their stories.

I've talked way more than I've listened.

I've underestimated my congregation.

I've underestimated God.

I've wasted opportunities to learn, and I haven't cracked open the Bible as much as I promised myself I would.

I've taken lots of stuff for granted.

I've eaten way too much junk food.

There's probably tons of other dumb things I just can't remember. And I don't know if I can really pull my head out and make this repentance stuff stick in the coming year.

So thank you, God, because my own efforts to bear fruit have been pretty feeble at times. I just really need your Grace.

Maybe John's metaphor about burning the chaff (v. 12) is actually grace in disguise. Maybe it's not about sending nasty people to Hell, but about what God wants to do. After all, the chaff is still part of the plant. It's just not a part that has any nutritional value. So, God, I'm asking you to burn up my “chaff.” Take all that “me” stuff out of my heart so I have more room for the sweet baby boy in the manger--and all the other beautiful people You've put in my life.  Get me ready to be what You want me to be. I can't do it without you.

And as for you, Dear Reader, I hope your Advent preparations are bringing you peace, comfort, and the knowledge of God's love. Thanks so much for stopping by.

* * *

As always, if you're a Lutheran or a Roman Catholic,I invite you to sign my Change.org petition and ask Pope Francis to consider an open communion between our two churches. I think that would be a swell way to mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It's time we kissed and made up, don't you think? Just click here.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Saint of the Month: Dr. Barbara Rossing

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming...' (Matthew 24: 36-42)

I really have an issue with the First Sunday in Advent in Year A. This apocalyptic jazz always reminds me of the early 1970's when my big sister was into the “Jesus Freak” movement (And, yeah, that's really what they called young Christians then—Jesus Freaks. Personally, I like the sound of that because it has a certain counter-cultural ring to it. But I digress.) and occasionally dragged me with her to one of the churches she frequented.

Every time I read the above passage I'm reminded of a cramped store-front church, filled with long-haired groovy people who were waiting for The Rapture.

If you're not familiar, The Rapture was a doctrine that was pretty popular back then and, unfortunately, has not yet seemed to vanish off of the American religious scene entirely to this day. It is a belief taken from a mish-mash of biblical sources—Revelation, Daniel, some of Paul's writings, and the above quote from Matthew's gospel—which asserts that the end of the world is coming, but, before the final catastrophic unpleasantness is unleashed upon humankind, God will suddenly snatch up all believers bodily into the clouds and protect them from the day of tribulation.

As I suggest, this belief is based on some pretty sketchy biblical scholarship. Thus, (and I just love to use the word “thus”), I'd like to take this opportunity to celebrate a wonderful saint who is doing her best to put the misguided straight on this issue, The Reverend Doctor Barbara Rossing.
 
Barbara Rossing

Dr. Rossing is a professor of New Testament Studies at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and she seems to be pretty darn smart if you ask me. She holds a Master's of Divinity from Yale and a Doctor of Theology from Harvard. In 2005 she published a wonderful book called The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. In this volume she explains how this bizarre doctrine originated and points out two fundamentally dangerous ramifications of this belief:

First, those who espouse the Rapture doctrine are looking expectantly for the end of the world. Personally, I'd like old Mother Earth to stick around a little bit longer. However, for those who think Jesus is coming back to claim His flock any day now, the wellness of our planet is not of much concern. In a world beset with accelerated climate change, such disregard for environmental issues is dangerously negligent.

Secondly, the Rapture proponents believe that the Day of the Lord will come once the Jewish people re-take the Holy Land. This belief, Dr. Rossing maintains, has consequences in U.S. foreign policy. Rapture believers promote a blind support of Israel at the expense of the rights of Palestinians. Such dogged loyalty can only lead to more enmity between the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim worlds.

Dr. Rossing has done her best through her scholarship, teaching, writing, and lecturing to put American Christians on the path of a sound understanding of the Bible—particularly that most cryptic of documents, The Book of Revelation. She is rescuing this book from those who see it a as vision of horror and reclaiming it as a document of hope.

As Lutherans, we understand that the Bible—however much we love it—is not God. It's best described as the manager which holds the Christ. We interpret the parts of these ancient writings which we don't understand in light of the parts which we do. All of Christian scripture points to this chief belief which takes precedence over all others: Jesus Christ entered into our broken world to abide with us and save us from our sins. We will never go anywhere in our earthly journey—be it in sickness, loneliness, shame, fear, temptation, sorrow, or pain—where Jesus has not already been. He died to save us and lives that we might live.

When John of Patmos wrote that confounding and confusing vision all those centuries ago, he made one thing glaringly clear: Our God reigns. And God reigns in love and promise. For all the mystifying symbolism in this book—some of which we'll probably never understand—John's message of Christ's triumph over powers of sin and death remains unambiguous. God's will is to reshape us into a holy people. No Doomsday theology is necessary. Nor is it helpful. I would rather live in the here and now and know that my Lord holds the promise of eternity.

I really hope I get the chance to meet Dr. Rossing some day. I know she often lectures at other seminaries and sometimes at synod assemblies so there's a chance she'll pass through Philadelphia some time. It's rumored that she has a wicked sense of humor, and I know I'd enjoy that.

In the meantime, there's always YouTube. If you're interested in the Book of Revelation, click on Barbara's name and catch one of her talks.

I hope you're having a most blessed Season of Advent. Slow down. Light the candles. Know that Emanuel is with you.

* * *

Some time before the cataclysmic end of the world, I'd really like to share Holy Communion with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. I know it's a long shot, but don't long shots pay off the best? Help me strike blow for Christian unity, won't you?Sign my letter to the Pope asking for full communion to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. What have you got to lose? C'mon! You know you want to. Just click here.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What the Freak Happened to Thanksgiving?!

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
   come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
   It is he that made us, and we are his;
   we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
   and his courts with praise.
   Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
   his steadfast love endures for ever,
   and his faithfulness to all generations.
(Psalm 100)

Okay. Every once in a while your Old Religious Guy has to let off steam and act like the grumpy codger I'm slowly becoming. Please excuse my rant, but would someone please tell me just what in the Name of the Most High God has happened to the American Holiday of Thanksgiving??!!

I mean, when I was a kid I'd see decoration of Pilgrims and Native Americans (we called them “Indians” back then, but that's really neither accurate nor respectful) and turkeys. We'd remember just why it was we were gathering and praying on the fourth Thursday of November each year. Now, when I go into a retail establishment I'm greeted by gaudy Halloween crap in September followed immediately by gaudy Christmas crap in October. It's not enough that the culture seems to have lost awareness of the beautiful season of Advent—we've even lost the secular national holiday of Thanksgiving.
 
Remember folks: That first Thanksgiving in 1621 must have been an emotional, bitter-sweet affair. Half of those well-meaning religious folks had died during the previous year. The remainder were just thankful to be alive. Abe Lincoln declared a national Day of Thanksgiving in 1863 during the blood-letting of the American Civil War. Lincoln figured if ever there was a time for God to smite the American people, it would be during this time of wholesale slaughter. He feared both famine and foreign invasion would result from the chaos. Neither occurred. Later, a date was set for the holiday by Franklin Roosevelt during the height of the Great Depression.

Our ancestors, it seems, had a knack for acts of defiant faith—for turning the darkness of tragedy into the light of obedient worship. And God has continued to sustain us. How disrespectful it seems to me that we have substituted a holy day of gratitude with a new, heathen festival worshiping the Baal of covetousness and greed—the so-called “Black Friday.”

Can I just say that I despise the hoopla around this National Day of Shopping Orgy to the depth of my soul? It maddens me to think that retailers like Walmart and Old Navy are calling their employees away from family reunions to prepare for this Feast of Excess.

Let me make an analogy. A distinguished colleague of mine, Pastor Jesse Brown, has tried in vain to fight Philadelphia's attempt to license and promote casino gambling within the city limits. Pastor Jesse's rationale is simple: if casinos are built in poor neighborhoods, poor people will gamble. This will cause greater financial hardship for those who are already suffering.

Using the same logic, I believe that if America promotes a national day of spending frenzy—especially one fueled by so-called “bargains” and the notion that it is both a communal activity and a great adventure—then poor people will feel compelled to participate. This will lead to greater debt burdens on those who are already unfairly encumbered.

Here's my thought: We can't very well order the retailers to close shop for two full days. They'd just create a “Black Saturday” or a “Black Sunday” anyway. But I think we should try to reattach meaning to Thanksgiving. I see a great deal of hope in the way the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday holiday has been transformed into the King Day of Service. Rather than just hanging out and getting a day off of work or school, young people have started celebrating Dr. King's legacy by doing something positive for their communities.

Why don't we try to attach a similar activity to Thanksgiving? Instead of just using the day to eat ourselves into a stupor, let's use the entire week to actively express gratitude. Let's start the tradition of thanking teachers, parents, community leaders, first responders, military or whomever for their service. Let's suggest that every American perform one tangible act—be it cooking a meal, doing a favor, making a donation, or just writing a note of thanks—for an individual, group, or institution for which they feel gratitude. Let's make this a doing holiday and uplift Thanksgiving in the spirit in which the observance was first created.

Martin Luther wrote:

I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties. In addition God daily and abundantly provides shoes and clothing, food and drink, house and farm, spouse and children, fields, livestock, and all property—along with all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me from all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil. And all this is done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness of mine at all. For all of this I owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.

And I am most grateful to YOU, my friend, for taking the time to read this. May you have a blessed Day of Thanksgiving.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Christ the King

Kings. We don't seem to have much use for them on this side of the Atlantic. But, incurable anglophile that I am, I have to confess a certain fondness for British royalty. I admit it. I just eat that jazz up. I love to watch those royal weddings. I dig the high church processions and clerical vestments. I'm enthralled by the parades with the Household Cavalry with their red tunics and silver helmets and black horses. All that ritual and pageantry and protocol is just so cool. I mean, I'm really glad they have royal people over there! I can't help it—I'm into that stuff. It's just so regal.


Shortly after Will and Kate got married, one of my Confirmation students asked me just what is it that makes a royal person royal. I had to admit that this was a pretty interesting question. I hadn't thought about it, but I guess I'd have to conclude that royalty comes from having some ancient ancestor who was the biggest bad-ass around—the guy who could whoop everyone else into submission and declare that he was in charge. I mean, how else could we account for it?

But today, royalty has different requirements. The king or queen is the representation of the people. If your picture is going to be on the folding money of a nation, you are required to have a bit more going for you than just your pedigree. The job—which I think is ironically both public and lonely—calls for a certain amount of dignity, uprightness, and love for the people.

The Christian festival of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, originated with Pope Pius XI in 1925. Following hard upon the devastation of the First World War, this wise spiritual leader recognized what earthly kings, kaisers, and czars had done to civilization and urged a return to obedience to the one true king who ruled through peace, love, and forgiveness.

The gospel lesson for this Sunday (Luke 23:33-43) does not depict a monarch ruling through force of arms. Indeed, the image of this gospel, the very image upon which Christians focus when we worship, is that of a man being tortured to death out of love for people he has never met. In the cross of Jesus we see his great dignity—his faith in God's purpose. We see his uprightness as he forgives those who mock him. And, most vital and sacred of all, we see his great love and compassion for the people as he comforts the suffering man dying beside him. Try as hard as the earthly powers could, they could not kill the divine love which reigned within Jesus.

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

I also really like this phrase from Shakespeare's Richard II:

Not all the waters in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord...”

Pontius Pilate's ironic inscription over the cross of Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews” may have been intended as a sneering jab at the dignity of a pathetic people who dared to think one of their own could challenge the might of Imperial Rome. “Here's your king,” the sign says, “He's a naked, broken, bleeding, abandoned, betrayed, helpless wretch dying before your eyes.”

Yes, Pilate. Here is my King.




Like a true king showing compassion for his subjects, my monarch has come down from his palace to walk through the rubble of my life. He's joined me in my confusion and my doubt and my neediness. He's assured me of his presence, and he's suffered with me. And, unlike earthly monarchs who inspect the scenes of disaster and then retreat to the comfort of their palaces, this king is always with me.

In his cross we see not only his dignity, uprightness and love, but we also see the power of Christ. When I look at his bleeding, impaled form, I see the depth of human sin—mine included. But I also see the power of sacrificial love. And not all the parades, banners, horses, soldiers, and trumpet blasts for all the monarchs who've ever reigned can bring my heart to repentance like the sight of my King on the cross.

I owe it to him to be obedient. As a pious Jew is constantly in dialogue with the Law, so I wish to be in constant dialogue with Christ. For Christ the King is not an abstraction. He is love made real

Thanks for reading, my dears. Drop me a line if you wish.

* * *

Hey! October 31st 2017 will be here before we know it. Let's celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in a really BIG way. I'm asking Pope Francis to let Lutherans and Catholics share Holy Communion once again. Do you think I'm crazy? Of course I am, but what the heck..?You won't get if you don't ask. Sign my crazy petition here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Saint of the Month: Marlene Miller

I watched her die. My wife and I looked through the glass wall of the ICU bay as she coded. What seemed like an army of medical personnel charged in with a crash cart and surrounded the bed of this tiny, frail, broken woman.

Heroically, an attending physician stormed through the crowd of nurses and techs, parting them like Moses parted the sea. His arms waiving above his head signaled the command: Stop. No more. Let her go.

For the first time in weeks I saw Marlene open her eyes. Her back arched slightly for an instant, and then she sank back onto the bed, eyes closed forever.

Marlene Miller is not a saint whose name will be found on any hagiology, but she was a special saint and example to the people of Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia. A tiny seven-year-old girl in 1960, disproportionately small even for her age, she watched as a new church was being built in her neighborhood. Her parents were not religiously observant, but the little girl took it into her head that she wanted to go to Sunday School. People were instantly attracted to her because she was so very small and yet seemed so very delighted by this holy place. As she grew up, she sought ways to give expression to her faith. She sang in the church choir and taught in the Sunday School. One of her former students remembered her as the nicest teacher he'd ever had.

Marlene felt called, even as a teenager, to help the disadvantaged. She volunteered at the Woodhaven Center, a home for the developmentally disabled. There she met another volunteer, Tom. They fell in love and were married. They made an amusing couple. He was over six feet in height and she did not even clear five. Nevertheless, she always called him her “soul mate.”

As Marlene aged she managed to bring a unique child-like joy and enthusiasm to all of her volunteer work. I always felt there was just a little more daylight in the room when she was around. It was impossible not to adore her.

But what is remarkable about her is the circumstance under which she lived out her calling. Marlene was born with a rare condition called Turner's Syndrome. Girls with this syndrome have only one x chromosome. Characteristically, they remain small and infertile and are prone to very short life spans. Turner's girls almost always suffer heart defects and kidney abnormalities (Marlene was born with only one kidney). She was frequently ill and it was supposed she would never live to graduate from high school. Yet Marlene survived, even though surviving meant spending her first wedding anniversary in a hospital bed following open heart surgery.

A valve-replacement surgery saved her life, but the length of time she spent intubated caused permanent damage to her throat. Marlene lost her singing voice and could only speak with difficulty. She developed a throaty, wheezy whisper which was difficult for her young Sunday School students to understand.

Shortly after I was called to Faith Lutheran, Marlene suffered a major stroke. She lost a portion of her eyesight and her short-term memory was seriously compromised. When I visited her in the hospital her first question to me was about the attendance at the church's Lenten soup suppers. By Holy Week she had been released and dutifully reported to church for the annual Holy Saturday Easter Egg Hunt. It was a gorgeous spring day, and Marlene bounded into the narthex with ebullient delight. “What a beautiful day for an Easter Egg Hunt!' she exclaimed. After greeting me and some parents, she announced that she would go check on the children. She turned and, with her vision impaired, marched directly into the wall. The accident might have been hysterically funny if it weren't so profoundly tragic.

Marlene's health was not her only burden. Her husband Tom, a social worker, grew increasingly depressed in his occupation. Cigarette smoking and endless hours on his feet resulted in circulatory damage, eventually leading to an amputation. His depression deepened. His use of pain-killers increased, and the couple suffered severe financial strain. Through all of this, Marlene maintained an intrepid cheerfulness. I would often visit her at home to bring her communion, and she'd tell me about her day and ask me about the goings on at the church while her three pampered rescue cats lounged at her feet.

In her early fifties Marlene developed an aphasia of her epiglottis. She could not eat without aspirating food and was constantly hospitalized with pneumonia. Because surgery to close her epiglottis would render her permanently unable to speak, she elected to have a feeding tube inserted into her stomach. Nevertheless, she constantly requested the Holy Eucharist. This terrified me because, as a pastor, I have no right to refuse the sacrament. Every time I placed the wafer in Marlene's hand I feared I was killing her. Yet her need to receive Christ was greater than her fear of choking or pneumonia. I confessed my concerns to her, but she was adamant. I marveled at her faith.

In the early fall of 2007 Marlene had a massive brain hemorrhage. It was necessary for the doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital to remove a portion of her skull in order to relieve the pressure on her brain. I was told that she had wakeful and lucid moments following the surgery, but I never experienced any of them. I went to see her several times, to pray for her or sing a hymn, but I could never get her to wake up. For all the time I have spent in hospitals, including my experience as an on-call trauma chaplain at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, I have never witnessed a sight as disturbingly violent as the sight of that tiny woman in the ICU. Her hair had been shaved. The flesh sewn up around the missing portion of skull and the misshapen head were like something out of an old horror movie. It all seemed wrong, unjust, and cruel.

But this sight is not my final memory of Marlene. I will remember her best for a visit I'd had with her a few months earlier. She was recuperating from some illness in a dingy nursing home in the Summerton neighborhood. She sat in bed, restricted because of the danger of falling. Her arms were bruised by IV sites and her short-term memory was all but gone. We shared the sacrament, and as I left she spoke the last words I would ever hear her say:

“Pastor, God sure is good, isn't he!”

Yes, Marlene. God sure is good. And I know this all the more because I have known you.

* * *

By the way, I should mention that at Marlene's funeral a neighbor—a Roman Catholic for over seventy years—received Holy Communion for the first time in a Protestant church. As I handed him the wafer he smiled and said, “There's only one God.” As the 500th anniversary of the Reformation draws near, I'm asking Lutherans and Catholics to petition Pope Francis to allow Lutherans to receive the sacrament with our Catholic brothers and sisters. If you agree, sign my petition here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why Does Life Suck? (Reflections on Pentecost 25)

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Ironically, it was Charles Dickens' birthday, February 7, an icy winter's day in 1999. Faith Lutheran Church was filled to capacity. Folding chairs were set up to handle an overflow crowd which included a chartered busload of folks from my internship parish in New York, Faith's congregation, and a lot of my family and friends who had come to help me celebrate my ordination mass and see me installed as pastor of this congregation. It was one of the best days of my life.

I was unaware of what had happened to Lisa's son that morning. Michael was riding home from a night out with a friend. The friend had been drinking. The car skidded off the road into a pole. Michael was killed. The driver fled the scene. It was the worst day of Lisa's life.

It would be many years later that Lisa and I crossed paths. Today she is president of Faith's church council, a faithful member of our praise team, and a ferocious advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. I don't bring the subject up to her, but I'm certain that every February seventh, while I rejoice over my years in the ministry, Lisa is asking God, “Why?”



The Hebrew Scripture lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for the Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost is from that poetic speed bump in the theology of the Old Testament, the book of Job. (Job 19:23-27a) For most of the OT, the idea seems to be if you live a righteous life, God will reward and bless you. If you don't, you're screwed. But along comes Job asking the question, “What happens when I live a righteous life and I'm screwed anyway?”
 


In this rhapsodic piece of ancient literature Job, the protagonist, is painted as a really good guy. He follows God's law and even makes ritual sacrifices for his kids when they've been out partying. Capriciously it seems, God smites this poor slob. He kills Job's children, destroys his fortunes, and ruins his health with a disgusting skin ailment and a bad case of halitosis. Mrs. Job isn't very helpful. She tells the old man to curse God and die. But Job won't give up so easily. Broke, starving, sick as a dog, and grieving as only a parent can, Job is still faithful to God. He's pissed off, but he's faithful. And he wants an answer.

Wouldn't you?

Most of Job's posse desert him. Yeah, they liked the old boy when he was flush, but now that he's broke, sick, and sad they want nothing to do with him. A few of his buddies hang out with him, however, and try to get him to see that a just God wouldn't simply smite him for no reason. They insist Job must have done something to provoke the Almighty's wrath. But Job isn't buying it. He grows defensive and belligerent and demands that God cough up a good explanation for why his life sucks so much when he's done nothing to deserve it.

God's answer?

None of your freakin' business, Buster! I'm God, and I can do what I want. And just who do you think you are that you even have the right to question me? Hmmm?

Then God leads Job to contemplate the immensity of God's Creation. Which is a good thing, because Job has been getting just a little too introspective lately. God forces Job to pull his head out of his own self-absorption and realize that there is more going on in the world than just his circumstances. Job eventually gets the picture. He pardons the false friends who had been accusing him. Slowly, his fortunes are restored. His ailments abate, his wife bears him more children, and he rebuilds his business. Personally, I don't think he could possibly get over the death of a child, but maybe having experienced so tragic and soul-crushing a loss, his heart has softened. With his new heart, he appreciates his later years more than he had enjoyed his youth. It's a weird thing, but I think the wisdom of pain can bring us to contentment.

I don't know what to say to Lisa. I can't explain why her son had to die that day. All I can do is tell her to hang tough as she navigates the rest of her journey. What I love about the book of Job is Job's angry—almost violent—faith in the face of his own tragedy. When I read this passage, I can almost hear the old guy—his face, arms and legs, covered in puss-oozing rash—screaming in his defiant hopefulness,

For I KNOW that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side...”(Job 19: 25-6)

I love that Job makes a distinction here between “skin” and flesh.” His skin may be rotting off of him, but his flesh—his true self—is still heir to the promise of his faith.

We are not our circumstances. Our age, our bodies, our gender, sexual orientation, surroundings, resources, health, what have you—they may inform our consciousness, but they do not comprise the mystery of our immortal souls. Our circumstances do not speak for or define who we really are. Nor do they speak for or define God.

I'm as guilty as the next guy of curving in on my own stuff and missing the larger picture. I need to take my eyes off of my issues to see the pain around me. And to see the joy and the beauty and the mystery, too. God does not stop being good just because I stop noticing God's goodness. So I keep reminding myself to look up and out. And I will defiantly stand with Job and refuse to accept death and pain as the final answer.

God bless you, my friends. Thanks for reading.

By the way, I also don't accept that Christians can't get along with each other. If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, don't you think it's time we patched things up? I mean, it's been almost 500 years since the Reformation. Let's ask the Pope to open the communion table again. Sign my petition here.






Monday, November 4, 2013

Saint of the Month: Basil Rathbone


(NOTE: This post was originally meant for Halloween, but, as you see, I'm a bit late in publishing this week. I hope you enjoy it anyway!)



Happy Halloween!

Can I make a confession? I have a weakness for schlocky horror movies. Once upon a time in my misguided show-biz career, I had a gig as a horror movie host on a midwestern TV station. Okay. I know. The TV horror movie host is possibly the lowest job in the entertainment industry, ranking only a little higher than the guy in the gorilla suit who stands by the roadside holding a sign which reads, “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS, EVERYTHING MUST GO!” But, hey! I needed the money.

So, in honor of the fact that tonight is Halloween, I'd like to present my Saint of the Month, Basil Rathbone.
Basil Rathbone in Tovarich trailer.jpg

The South African born English actor was trained in Shakespeare. He had a stellar career on Broadway, winning a Tony award in the 1950's, and was also renown for playing suave villains in some of the great MGM and Warner Brothers classics of the 1930's and 1940's. Rathbone is best remembered for his definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in more than a dozen films and countless radio broadcasts from those bygone days.

Of course, all actors have to eat, so from time to time Rathbone found himself cast in some schlocky horror movies. He appeared in classics like The Son of Frankenstein and Tales of Terror, but also managed to misuse his talents in total pieces of crap like The Black Sleep, Planet of Blood, and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. (Hey! The guy probably needed the money.)

What most film buffs may not know about Rathbone, however, is that he was a pious and devout Christian with a deep passion for the scriptures. In 1929, he went to considerable financial risk by producing, co-authoring, and starring in a Broadway play based on the story of Our Lord's passion. The play was called Judas, and Rathbone played the title character.

In his 1961 autobiography, In and Out of Character, Rathbone wrote:

I think I was still in my teens when the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and Judas-ish-Kerioth first troubled me. At first I was frightened for myself for, 'The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape' and was perhaps 'abusing me to damn me.' And yet over the years the thought pursued me and at last became an obsession. I felt I must think it through and try to arrive at some conclusion. If Judas was the mean, despicable betrayer he is said to have been, why did Jesus choose him to be one of his disciples?At what time in his life did Jesus become aware of his divine mission here on earth? Certainly by the time he made the choice of the twelve.

Rathbone's play followed a now-familiar theory that Judas truly loved Jesus and that his betrayal was a misguided attempt to force a confrontation between Palestine's Roman overlords and a rebellious and oppressed people who had finally found the longed-for Messiah in Jesus of Nazareth. Creatively, Rathbone imagined Judas as the devil who tempted Jesus in the wilderness following the baptism by John. The temptation, of course, would be for Jesus to use his charisma to launch a revolution and be crowned as Israel's king when the Romans were overthrown. Rathbone explained,

I do not believe in a hell of fire and brimstone and human misery as in Dante's Inferno any more than I believe in the devil, in either the Mephistophelean form or the one with the long tail and eyes of fire. As we are born in the grace of God so we are born in original sin and our hell is within us.

Rathbone's sympathetic interpretation of this arch betrayer underscores a basic premise: We are all, at the same time, both lovers of Christ and Christ's betrayers. Both justified and sinner. And, sometimes, with the best of intentions, we are capable of the most hurtful deeds. Simul justus et peccator. (Remember—Halloween is also Reformation Day. I just had to get a little Lutheran doctrine into this post!)

Unfortunately, Rathbone's interpretation proved a little too hip for the audiences of 1929. Christian leaders of several traditions voiced opposition to the play. Rathbone even wrote, in so many words, that a Roman Catholic priest told him such questioning of excepted interpretation of scripture was too dangerous for the average believer. The church of the day seemed more comfortable with a demonized Judas and not yet ready for a Judas for whom one could feel empathy. The play had mixed reviews and closed in three weeks.

This did not end Rathbone's dramatic relationship with biblical villains. A few years later, in 1933, he played a very contrite Pontius Pilate in the movie The Last Days of Pompei. He also appeared as Caiaphas in an Italian movie, Ponzio Pilato in 1961. On stage, Rathbone played the character of Nickles, the devil figure, in Archibald MacLeish's J.B., a poetic interpretation of the biblical story of Job.

I wish I could have met this guy as I'm quite certain we'd get along. Unfortunately, he died when I was still a little kid watching him as Sherlock Holmes on TV (And, for MY money, he will always be the best darn Sherlock Holmes of all time!). Nevertheless, I salute him for being an honest and searching Anglican Christian, a dedicated worker for charity, and an actor known in Hollywood for being both a devoted husband and father and a really, really nice guy—traits unusual in a profession and a town not known for niceness.

Why don't we all challenge accepted interpretations a bit and ask our Roman Catholic friends to share communion with us? Sign my petition here.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Thoughts on Reforamtion Sunday

You know what I loved as a kid growing up in the sixties?

Classic Film and TV Cafe: The 5 Best Episodes of the Original

Star Trek.

No. I'm not a geeky “Trekkie” (my sincere apologies to you geeky Trekkies out there), I just liked the idea of a future filled with really cool stuff. I mean, there was space travel, for cryin' out loud! And little tiny boxes with flip-up lids that served as communicators. They had computers that could both talk and listen to you, whole libraries of information you could hold in the palm of your hand, and two-way video communication.

What's more, the future depicted in Star Trek was a world at peace. Russians and Americans worked together. Women and men were equal (okay, except for the miniskirts the women crew members wore—that was still a little sexist, wasn't it?), and racism seemed non-existent. They even got along with people from other planets. How cool was that?

In the almost half-century since the premier of Star Trek, lots of progress has been made down here on good ol' Planet Earth. We have the fancy computers and communicators prophetically suggested by that classic TV show. We've traveled to the moon and put a working probe on Mars. We've even made a little progress towards gender and racial equality (although we still have lots of room for improvement on those scores). The Cold War has ended, and we've made some progress towards welcoming people who once seemed very different from the mainstream. No space aliens yet, but if you've ever taught teens in Confirmation, you might think you've made extra-terrestrial contact.

But with all of this cool technology, we still live on a planet threatened by pollution and climate change. One in every eight people on this globe survive in the most degrading of poverty—living on about one US dollar per day. An almost equal number lack access to clean drinking water, and a person in the developing world is more likely to have a cellular phone than access to proper sewage sanitation. Malaria and HIV are still raging, as is human trafficking. 300,000 to 500,000 Americans are still homeless. Wars, revolution, and violence still fill the nightly news.

This planet still needs a reformation.

So what do we Lutherans have to celebrate on Reformation Day? For one thing,we celebrate that once a brave little monk had the courage to tell the truth. When Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on that October day in 1517, he was proclaiming the teaching of John 8:32:

...and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

And what was that truth? We are all slaves to sin—to our selfish, greedy, inconsiderate, angry, stubborn natures. But God still—in spite of everything—loves us enough to die for us. And we are set free by the love of the Son, not by the edicts of the Church. Luther's audience was freed from the tyranny of an institution which sought to obtain obedience through the terror of conscience, and one which gave tacit approval to oppression, subjugation, and poverty. Luther taught his people that the gift of baptism:

...brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it...” (Small Catechism, 1528)

This promise changed the course of Western history.

I wonder, however, what Luther would do with the Church of today? To what are we still slaves? I'd say it's to institutional survival. Either that, or to a preoccupation with individual salvation, a concern about our own spiritual comfort and a discomfort with anything which might be controversial.

But Luther saw a church which was constantly in the act of reforming, a church where all the people were priests doing the work of God. After almost 500 years, we still have a lot of work to do before God's law is written on all of our hearts and we all—from the least to the greatest—know and act on the transforming power of God's love.

I keep praying for an ongoing Reformation, and a Church with a constantly changing heart and mission to the poor and helpless of this world—a priesthood of all believers moving forward in the faith of a loving and mighty God. We can do this, people! We have the power to change things, to invent and imagine. Christ sets us free from our doubts, preoccupations and preconceptions about what is and is not possible. If we can break free from earth's gravity, we can break free from global poverty. With Christ's passion in our hearts, there is no limit to what the people of God can accomplish.

Thanks for dropping in, fellow priest.

PS-Here's a radical idea: In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation coming up in 2015, let's ask Pope Francis (he seems like a pretty cool guy) to invite Lutherans back to the table of Holy Communion. Let's show the world that what we Christians—Protestants and Catholics—have in common is more important than our tiny differences. Interested? Click on my petition here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"I Will Not Let You Go Unless You Bless Me" (Reflections on Pentecost 22)

We were having Sunday mass at Faith Lutheran Church and I was distributing the sacrament. The Praise Team was singing the communion anthem behind me. They were a little off rhythm because most of them hadn't been to rehearsal that week. Not that it mattered. They were so uncertain of the new hymn that they all kept their mouths far enough away from their microphones so no one could hear them anyway. Which was also just as well because the sound system was out of balance and giving us feedback.

David, a sweet but mentally challenged young man from the neighborhood, was walking in and out of the worship space. This would be a little distracting, but the neighborhood kids playing ball right outside the church windows were creating enough of a distraction to keep most of the worshipers' minds off of prayer or the sacrament. Although, I really don't mind the ball-players that much since they create less of a ruckus than the property committee when they decides to run the lawn tractor during worship time.

Of course, scores of little kids were fidgeting, giggling, and squirming during the distribution of the mass, but this was not really as much of an issue for me on this particular Sunday as Jack, one of the neighborhood guys, had stumbled into worship that morning. Jack—God love him—is out of work and suffers from health problems and emotional issues caused by childhood traumas and combat experiences. He comes by every once in a while to ask me for a few bucks or to attend an AA meeting. I handed him the wafer as he knelt at the altar rail.

Hey, Father. Can I speak to you for a minute?” Jack asked. He reeked of alcohol.

I was standing at the altar, cyborium in had, right in the middle of public worship. “Uh, I'm a little busy at the moment, Jack. Can it wait 'til after church?”

Jack started to cry.

Okay,” I said. “What is it?”

Just pray for my friend. He died last night.”

I will,” I said. Jack walked back up the aisle and left the church. A kneeling communicant smiled at me and shrugged her shoulders.

I looked around at our make-shift worship space. It's a 1950's style “first unit.” That is, it's a collection of cinder blocks intended to be only temporary, but it has turned out to be the permanent church for this community for over fifty years. It's not aesthetically pleasing nor is it particularly functional as an architectural space. It is merciless to the handicapped and inadequate for a large Sunday School. Things in this building tend to break down or clog up with startling regularity. But we make it work.

I thought to myself, “This is the REAL church.” It's imperfect and full of problems—spiritual, financial, personnel, and otherwise—but it's where the people of God are and where I am.

I've been pastor here for almost fifteen years and I've learned to see this as a holy place. I've learned to love the people, to rejoice and mourn with them. I could certainly wish for a fancier, more pious, and more financially secure congregation, but after hanging on here as long as I have, I realize that I am blessed. Just like Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok (Genesis 32).

It may be easy to see God as the unjust judge Jesus describes in Luke 18, deaf to our needs, our cries, and our prayers. But Jesus counsels us to be persistent. Our circumstances may not change, but our hearts will.

Thanks for dropping by.



Hey..! I really do believe in being persistent. Let's ask Pope Francis to open the communion table and worship with us Lutherans once again. Sign my petition by clicking here.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Do You Believe In Angels?


This Sunday, September 29th, is the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. I guess if I'm honest I've never really given much thought to angels. I mean, they're supposed to be messengers from God, but I've never personally encountered one with shining wings and a halo and all that. This is not to say, however, that I don't believe in them. Many world religions speak of spirit beings or guides who are intermediaries between God and humankind. I'm now too old NOT to believe in the unseen. What does Hamlet say? “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Traditionally, the Western Church has celebrated this feast as Michaelmas. It is considered to be the time of the harvest and the beginning of autumn—the time when the books get balanced. As the leaves begin to fall and the world begins to get colder and thoughts of the departed and my own mortality fill my mind, I like to think that there might be a heavenly spirit hovering over me, giving me benign guidance or, at the very least, keeping me from screwing up too badly. Maybe it's been the presence of angels which has brought me safely to this point in life after all. Who knows?

For me, though, the only angels I know are the flesh and blood messengers who speak divine wisdom to me when I most need to hear it. God has been very good to a poor dufus like me—a habitually lazy, unsuccessful actor with a tendency towards excess. How could it be that I came to be this beloved Lutheran pastor with a beautiful wife, comfortable home, and a real sense of meaning in my life? There must have been some guidance from beyond.

At different times, God has placed people in my life who have given me wisdom, comfort, and sometime financial support when I most needed it. I have angels in my parish and among my circle of friends. At times my wife can be an angel. I even consider my shih tzu dog an angel! (She really DOES remind me of God's love all the time!)

I've only had one really mysterious encounter. I was walking in Center City Philadelphia one night many years ago just before I was to begin duties at my present parish. I'd had a bad fall from a horse while riding in Fairmount Park the week before, and I'd really sprained a groin muscle. I was in pain and had a terrible limp. As I hobbled down the sidewalk, I saw a heavy-set African American woman wrapped in an old overcoat leaning against the wall of a storefront and talking gaily to the passers-by. I assumed this woman to be a street person, one of the many homeless pan-handlers one sees in downtown Philly. I reached into my pocket for a dollar bill, certain I was about to be accosted for a donation. The woman smiled at me and said, “Look! You're Jacob, and the Lord has put your hip out of joint to make you new!” I smiled and said something like, “I guess He did.” After all, I was about to begin a new life as the pastor of my church. The woman never asked me for money. I limped on a few more steps and thought about how God had made a transformation in my life, of how I had been wounded but blessed, of how the last few years—which had included the death of my unborn child, the death of a dear friend, the death of my mother, and a divorce—had made me ready to take on the responsibilities of shepherding a congregation.

I turned around. The woman had vanished.
 
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PS- If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, help celebrate the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by making this plea for Christian unity. Ask Pope Francis to let Lutherans and Catholics share the Holy Supper once again. Just click here.



Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thieves and Robbers (Reflections on Pentecost 18)

Woody Guthrie 2.jpg                               PrettyBoyFloyd01.jpg

God bless Woody Guthrie! Did you ever hear his “Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd?” It's a romanticized telling of the legend of the Depression Era bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Although Floyd was a known robber and murderer, he reportedly captured the hearts and imaginations of Dust Bowl farmers through gallant acts of charity. It was said of this desperado that, after holding up a bank, he would destroy mortgage records in order to prevent the banks from foreclosing on poor families. Guthrie sang,

But many a starvin' farmer
The same old story told
How the outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little homes.

Another verse recounts a reported act of Floyd's gallantry:

It was in Oklahoma City,
It was on a Christmas Day,
There was a whole carload of groceries
Come with a note to say:
Well you say that I'm an outlaw,
You say that I'm a thief.
Here's a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.”
True accounts of Floyd's exploits are impossible to find, and fact has congealed into legend in the case of this outlaw. Nevertheless, dear old Woody Guthrie's ballad reminds us that a man who breaks the law may not be completely without redeeming qualities. We are, all of us, at the same time saint and sinner. Simul Justus et Peccator.

That's the lesson I take away from this week's gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 16:1-13). Unfortunately, the hero of Jesus' parable of the dishonest steward is nowhere near as romantic as the machine-gun wielding Charlie Floyd. He's actually something of a pencil-neck geek, too wimpy to do real labor and too stuck up to ask for a handout. He's a sneak who covers his thieving butt by cooking the books. Oh well. It takes all kinds. As Guthrie sang,

Yes, as through the world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

So, you may ask, why does Jesus seem to be holding this guy up as a good example?

Perhaps because the dishonest steward of the parable is just like us—and Jesus wants to strip our outlaw nature of any of the romanticism with which we cloak our own thievery.

If we take an honest look at ourselves, we're all dishonest stewards, squandering the goods which have been entrusted to us. All that we have is “dishonest wealth,” as the parable says. None of it belongs to us. All is a blessing form God. It doesn't matter how much or how little has been entrusted to our care. What matters is how we choose to use it. And how we relate to this wealth has to have roots in the knowledge that we will one day be dismissed from its stewardship.

Like Pretty Boy Floyd, the white collar crook of the parable aids the poor by easing their debt. In so doing, he creates (as Lois Malcolm explains in Working Preacher) a more lateral, reciprocal relationship. A lateral, reciprocal relationship where wealth is concerned was once known as sharing.

And didn't our mothers always tell us that sharing is a good thing?

Yup. Even outlaws can do generous things from time to time, but I think it takes real courage to cultivate a spirit of honest generosity. I didn't preach tithing when I started my ministry because I was too scared to tithe myself. Gradually, however, I learned to let loose a little more of my “dishonest wealth.” In so doing, I learned two things:
First, Luther was right when he taught that “God daily and abundantly provides...all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life (Explanation to First Article of the Apostles' Creed in The Small Catechism).” Once my offering is in the plate, I never miss it. I can trust in God and I haven't starved or been left homeless.

Second, there is satisfaction in knowing that I have been part of something that has mattered. My poor financial gift has participated in some tiny way in educating children, healing addicts, comforting the aged, aiding the displaced, and feeding the hungry. I may not be Mother Teresa, but I know I did something. I'd rather have my tombstone read, “He did what he could,” than “He got all he wanted.” Wouldn't you?
Do some good with your "dishonest wealth" this week, won't you? And thanks for reading, fellow outlaw.
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Again, I'm asking all my Lutheran and Roman Catholic friends to ask Pope Francis to invite Lutherans back to the communion table. He seems like a pretty cool guy, and it can't hurt to ask. Just click here.