Thursday, April 2, 2020

Hosanna! (Reflections on palm Sunday, 2020)

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I guess I’m at the point where I’m too stinkin’ old to adapt to change. When I was a kid there was no such thing in the Lutheran liturgical year as Sunday of the Passion. The story of Our Lord’s Passion was reserved for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. If you really wanted to experience this powerful week in the history of salvation, you couldn’t just show up on Sunday. You had to journey through the whole magnificent eight days—the waving of the palms and shouts of “Hosanna!” on Sunday, the washing of the feet and the Last Supper on Thursday, and the blackness of the crucifixion as the world went dark on Friday. Then the community would experience the joy of coming to the garden at sunrise on Easter morning to celebrate God’s promise of eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus. It was meant to be a week-long pilgrimage.

You’ll understand, I hope, why I don’t look at the Sunday before Easter as anything other than Palm Sunday—that day when Jesus came to Jerusalem, humble and mounted on a donkey, and was greeted with a carpet of peasants’ ragged clothing, flying pennants taken from the palm trees, and the desperate cry of “Hosanna!”

This word “hosanna” is a word imploring “save” in the sense of “rescue me.” We find the acclamation of the crowd welcoming Jesus in Psalm 118:25-26. The psalmist assumes that the call for God’s saving action will certainly be answered. It’s rather like getting a cramp while swimming and calling on a trained life guard to help you out. You know it’s the guard’s job to pull you out of the water to safety, and that he or she will assuredly do so. Your cry of “save me” is only an acknowledgment of your own distress. A good life guard—just like our Heavenly Father—has already seen your predicament and is swimming towards you before you even began to call out.

Just like us, those peasants who cheered Jesus were in need of saving, and they felt confident God had sent the answer to their prayers in the form of the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. They were right that God had sent salvation, but utterly confused as to the way by which that saving grace would be experienced.

We’re just like them. Today we implore God’s rescue from a deadly world-wide pandemic, but rescue won’t come from a vaccine. It will come, perhaps, from a new sense of gratitude, and, as we see in the love of Jesus, a real, renewed faith in the power of sacrifice. Our salvation will be in living the words of St. Paul from Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.

God bless, my friends. Stay home and stay safe!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Just Keep Breathing (Reflections on Lent 5, Year A)

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“…and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (John 11:26-27)

If you were a Pharisees living in Jesus’ time you’d really hate what happens in our gospel lesson for Lent 5, Year A (John 11:1-45). If you read John 11:45-57 (the rest of the chapter), you’d understand. Just when you think you’ve put this smart-aleck rabbi from Nazareth in his place, he goes and restores life to dead man. “Gosh darn!” you’d say. “I hate it when that happens!” But that’s what makes the story of the raising of Lazarus a Lenten story. There are those who are just more concerned about keeping what’s theirs than they are about God’s desire for abundant life for all. In John’s gospel, this is the tipping point which confirms the desire of the Sadducees and Pharisees to see Jesus impaled on the cross.

I often preach on John 11:21-27 as it is suggested as a funeral text in the Lutheran Occasional Service Book. When a young person dies, or if someone dies by overdose, accident, suicide, or homicide (and I’ve dealt with all of these multiple times in my career), a bereaved relative might act like Mary and Martha do. They want to blame someone, and they tell Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s a pretty understandable reaction. But I always remind folks that, even though the “ifs” come as inevitably as bird poop on your just-washed car, they don’t do any good. They make you angry or they make you feel guilty, but they never bring you peace.

So Jesus gets us away from “if” and asks, “Do you believe?”

This Sunday will be the second Sabbath in a row that we have not been able to worship together as a community because of the city-wide shut-down the governor has ordered to protect us from exposure to covid-19. The “Stay-at-Home” order may be incubating an epidemic of cabin fever almost as deadly as the coronavirus. Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia’s doors are locked during the historically best month for church offerings. Additionally, we have already lost our Lenten observances and will most certainly be closed for Holy Week and Easter. We face losses both financial and spiritual. We’re very much like Mary and Martha who, with the death of their brother Lazarus, have lost both someone they love and their main means of support. But Jesus keeps asking us, “Do you believe?”

So do you?

One of my very favorite passages from the Hebrew Scriptures accompanies this gospel lesson. It’s Ezekiel 37:1-14, “the Valley of Dry Bones.” An old Shakespearean like myself loves to read this passage aloud. It’s so poetic and vivid. A good actor will chomp into this reading like Richard Burton on a fifth of Jack Daniels. Try reading it yourself and see how it makes you feel[i].

The back story is Ezekiel, Judah’s prophet, has been taken captive with the other leaders of the nation when Jerusalem falls to the Babylonians. The army of Israel has been butchered, her royal family executed, the capital city and temple looted and reduced to a pile of broken rocks, and a famine has claimed tons of civilian lives. In short, it’s not been a good time to be a Jew.

But God is still God. God gives Ezekiel this awesome vision of the dead bones joining together and rising again. I think it’s significant that the bones not only rise, but that God commands Ezekiel to “Prophesy to the breath.” Breath and wind, in Hebrew, are the same word for “Spirit.” It’s not just that the bodies come back together again, but the spirit must come with them.

I confess to having serious misgivings about President Trump’s belief that American churches will again be filled this Easter. I don’t see this epidemic being under control by that time. Indeed, like the captives in Babylon to whom Ezekiel prophesied, we are in for one extra-long Lent this year. Our Lenten fast will be our long absence from the Lord’s Table. But we will come together again like the bones to whom the ancient prophet preached.

But will the breath be in us? Will we bring the spirit back to our home? It all depends on what we do now while we are exiled from the world and shut-up in our houses. Can we say, “Yes, Lord, I believe?”

Yes, Lord, I believe that you will keep me and my family safe, and that the measures taken are wise and right. Yes, Lord, I will listen to your command to pray, use my “down time” to read your Word, and find ways to fellowship with my church family. Yes, I will continue to be generous to my church, to look after my elderly neighbors, and to be deeply appreciative of all that you have done for me. Yes, I will give thanks for first responders and for day-to-day heroes like my postal carrier and supermarket employees. Yes, Lord, you have called me and made me your own and made me part of a community which preaches your Word and is an incarnate witness to the hungry, the homeless, and the abandoned. Yes, Lord. The bodies will be joined together again, and the breath will be in them!

God bless, my friends. Stay strong and stay safe.

[i] It’s no wonder this passage is also one of the twelve readings of the “Mighty Acts of God” used for the Great Easter Vigil, the oldest liturgy in Christian tradition.
I have also just finished reading Norman Lock’s marvelous novel American Meteor. There’s an unforgettable passage in this book in which the protagonist, Stephen Moran, views a plain covered with the bleached bones of hundreds of American bison, slaughtered in the US government’s attempt to drive the Native American population to starvation and perpetual incarceration on reservations, if not outright extinction. In the last century, however, the American bison—if not the Native Americans—have made something of a comeback. When we are obedient stewards of God’s creation even that which we thought was lost can be revived.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Cast Yourself in the Story (Reflections on Lent 4, Year A)

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This post is being composed during the “social distancing” required during the Covid-19 outbreak. Churches and just about everything else seem to be shut down, and I think we’re all figuring out that being “socially distanced” really sucks. After all, we humans are social animals and we’re meant to be together. But hang in there, folks. God willing we’ll all be together again soon.

`A propos to our situation is the tale of a man who is really socially distanced. In our gospel lesson for Lent 4, Year A, which takes up the entire ninth chapter of John’s gospel, we read about a man born blind who sits and begs for his daily bread. This is one of John’s best stories, and it fits right in with our Lenten journey to the cross as it shows Jesus once again giving the wet raspberry to the Pharisees—the guys who are going to have him crucified.

I’m an old actor, so when I read these stories I like to look at the cast of characters and see who I might be in the drama and who you—my intended audience member—might be. I’ll give you a hint: None of us will be Jesus.

We might, perhaps, identify with the disciples. These poor guys never seem to be the smartest ties on the rack until after Jesus is raised from the dead. When they encounter the blind man they fall back to their default position of assuming somebody must’ve done something to get God mad or this guy wouldn’t be cursed with blindness. They ask Jesus if this affliction is a punishment on the man or on his poor parents who’d have to raise a blind son. Jesus sets them—and us—straight by telling them that affliction is not a curse but an opportunity for God to be glorified. Besides, has finding blame ever been useful in dealing with a hardship? Sure, finding fault may make us feel better for a time, but it never confronts the necessity of what has to be done in order to turn the rough situation into something meaningful. Life is never about what happens. It has to be about how we embrace it. Stuff happens sometimes just because it does. It’s okay to be blind to its cause.

The Pharisees, perpetually cast as the villains in our gospels, are also pretty myopic. Still, it would do us well to take a look at their script. You have to give these guys credit: Whatever their faults, they’re certainly dedicated to their belief system. It’s easier to negotiate with a terrorist than to try and change the minds of these rigid old geezers. Don’t try to impress upon them that a work of miraculous compassion and Godly love has been accomplished. They don’t care. They want everything to be the way it used to be and the way they’re comfortable with. No work on the Sabbath. If you work on the Sabbath, you’re a sinner. Period. Anybody born blind is cursed by God and should be kept as far away as possible. Those are the rules, and if you don’t like them you can take your butt out of our synagogue. Our way is right and your way is wrong.

Dang. It must be swell to have such great insight. But maybe it would be better if we could all admit to being a little blind at times, to not knowing everything with such certainty, and to making a little room for the Holy Spirit to do her work. How often have I heard a parishioner say to me, “Pastor, I know I shouldn’t feel this way, BUT…” Granted, we can’t always help the way we feel; nevertheless, if you know you shouldn’t feel a certain way—if you can see that it’s wrong—why would you go on nursing that feeling? Jesus warns us that if we see our error and persist in it, our sin remains.

There are some cameo roles in this drama played by the formerly blind man’s parents. If you ask me, Mom and Dad aren’t exactly Parents of the Year. They just don’t want to get involved in any religious or societal controversy. To them, saying nothing is better than saying the wrong thing and getting folks upset. They’re so afraid of getting kicked out of the synagogue (a pretty real threat in John’s world, by the way), that they’re willing to throw their adult son under the bus. Forget that they have just seen a miraculous sign that God desires mercy over mere religious observance. No. They’re too afraid of the bullies.

Finally, we have the young blind man himself. His is an interesting part because his character development illustrates the journey you might’ve taken to faith. First, there’s an encounter with Jesus that opens his eyes. He sees Jesus as a good man and a healer (v. 11). Later, he’ll tell the Pharisees that Jesus is a prophet—one who speaks for God (v.17). When he’s challenged about this (and we should all be challenged to examine our beliefs from time-to-time), he reasons it out that Jesus must be from God (v.33). Ultimately, he comes to the only conclusion he can make: If Jesus speaks prophetically and his prophecy is truly from God, if he is indeed the truth, then there is no choice but to listen to him and be his follower (v.38). Our hero is not only cured of his physical blindness, but he moves from spiritual blindness into insight. Pretty cool, huh?

Perhaps our current time of physical isolation will give you some time and inspire you to open your Bible and let a little of Christ’s light shine on you.

Stay safe, everyone, and thanks for reading.

Prayer: Prince of Peace, You calmed waves and storms and people wherever You went. May we be carriers of Your peace even when we cannot comprehend the scope of this destructive virus that threatens the lives and livelihoods of many. Help us to spread peace and not fear wherever we find ourselves. Guard our hearts and minds so that our emotions and thoughts are tuned into You instead of the uncertainty that swirls around us. Help us to be overcomers who help others through this crisis rather than those who live in fear and do nothing but help ourselves. We want You to be made famous because of how we represent You, Lord Jesus. 

PS - Here's a quick video link you may enjoy: Pastor's Message

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

What to Do When You're Hanging Out at the Well (Reflections on Lent 3, Year A)

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“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (John 4:34)

If you were a single guy living in Bible times and you wanted to meet girls, there would be no better place to hang out than at the local well. Abraham’s servant found a wife for Isaac there, Jacob put the moves on Rachel there[i], and Moses hit on Zipporah at a well. It was, you see, the girls’ job to fetch water. In many parts of the developing world it still is. That’s why water scarcity or insecurity in developing countries often means women and girls have to walk miles each day carrying water for their families, and many are denied an education because of this time-consuming task.[ii]

In our gospel lesson for Lent 3, Year A (John 4:5-42) we find Jesus in Samaria at a well. This is an interesting fact in itself because many a pious Jew, in traveling from Galilee to Judea, would take a long route through the Decapolis rather than cross into Samaritan territory. Think about that: they’d rather go miles out of their way and encounter total pagans than risk having to talk to folks they felt got the Jewish religion wrong. I guess I can understand that. I mean, I’d sooner kiss a Muslim or a Hindu on the mouth than have a conversation with a Jehovah’s Witness. There’s just something about folks who misinterpret the things we believe in that really gets on our last nerves. For Jews in Jesus’ day, those Samaritans were the ones who got it wrong, and they were considered lower than fish poop.[iii]

Nevertheless, here we find Jesus. He not only converses with a Samaritan woman (bad enough she’s Samaritan, but she’s also a woman. Talking to her without a family member present was another taboo!), but he initiates the conversation. While the disciples go on a lunch run (Q: How many disciples does it take to get lunch? A: Apparently, all of them. But the pre-resurrection disciples always seem to be rather dim bulbs, so I guess it takes all twelve not to screw it up.), Jesus hangs out at the well and gives us all a lesson in evangelism.

First, Jesus isn’t afraid to bring the Word to an undesirable place. He’s also not afraid to speak the Word to people who might very well reject it or argue with him about it. He starts by simply asking for a drink of water. His speaking to a Samaritan woman may be surprising and unconventional, but it’s certainly not threatening. He’s also stationing himself at the well—a place he knows will get some foot traffic. I think of three of my younger clergy colleagues who, on Ash Wednesday, met morning commuters at the Frankford Transit Plaza and asked them if they’d like to receive ashes on their foreheads to commemorate the start of Lent. They may not have made new church members by doing this, but they got people thinking about the cross of Christ. They brought a spiritual presence into that place.

Secondly, Jesus didn’t condemn the woman for misinterpreting doctrine even though it appears from the text that he believed she did (see verse 22), nor does he give her grief about her rather complex personal history. She may have been a gal who “got around,” or she may have had some phenomenally bad luck when it came to the health of her life partners; nevertheless, Jesus doesn’t call her a slut or claim she’s been cursed by God. He simply acknowledges the truth of her situation. Sometimes, I think, that’s all anyone asks of us. We don’t need to comment on anyone else’s journey. We just need to acknowledge them where they are. We really never know how rough someone else has had it.

Thirdly, Jesus seems to get a lot of satisfaction out of his encounter with this lady. He’s so delighted by having had a decent theological conversation with a person of a different viewpoint that he isn’t even hungry for lunch! Speaking God’s truth in love—and in a loving way—is nourishment for the soul[iv].

Finally, Jesus’ one conversation leads to an invitation to hang out for the next two days and talk with many others in the village. We have to trust that when we model Christ or speak of our faith we may be planting a seed that bears more fruit than we’ll ever realize. One life, like the unnamed Samaritan woman’s, can have a profound effect on so many others. Faith tells us to take advantage of any opportunity to share our relationship with Christ. We don’t preach, we don’t judge, we don’t try to win an argument or make a convert. We just share the Word and let God do the rest.

I hope your Lenten journey has been meaningful so far. Enjoy the coming spring, and thanks for reading my blog this week.

[i] See Genesis 29:9-12. Those kids started making out right away!
[ii] This is why water scarcity issues are also women’s and girls’ rights issues, and why ending water scarcity will empower thousands of women.
[iii] Which is pretty low, if you think about it.
[iv] You should try it if you haven’t already.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

I Know What You're Looking at, But What Are You Seeing? (Reflections on Lent 2, Year A)

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15)

My wife says—and with alarming frequency—that I don’t know her. Considering we’ve been married for twenty years, that sounds a little strange; nevertheless, it might just be the truth. I think sometimes that, however long we might be looking at someone else, we’re really only seeing ourselves. Do you know what I mean?

Here’s another example: I was talking on the phone to my brother-in-law a few years ago just after my sister died of cancer. “I never knew,” he told me, “that she had gone to Julliard.” Now, if you knew my late sis, her Julliard education wasn’t something she was inclined to keep buried as a shameful stain on her reputation. I’m sure she told her husband about her experience at the famous academy many times, but he’d just forgotten she’d mentioned it—as we husbands are wont to do upon occasion.

Isn’t it funny how we can see the same people every day of our lives yet never really see them?

In our all-too-famous gospel lesson assigned for Lent 2, Year A (John 3:1-17) we have this lovely fellow, Nicodemus, sneaking around by night to see the controversial Jesus. He tells him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Clearly, Nick is looking to learn something from this prophet, but maybe he doesn’t know exactly what it is he’s looking for.

Jesus, as Jesus loves to do, starts to mess with Nicodemus’ head a little. He tells him he must be “born from above,” which really gets the old guy confused.[i]  Maybe it’s just Jesus’ way of reminding us that we’re all pretty confused much of the time. There’s no mystery in the fact that we don’t understand heavenly things. Most of the time we don’t understand earthly things either, even though we encounter them every day.

But maybe the way to the heavenly is through the earthly. Maybe the way to the divine is through the human. In John’s gospel, Jesus is just a bit more superhuman than he appears in the synoptics. He’s a little more God-like. I think this is John’s way of telling us that, if we really want to see God, we should first start by looking at the man. This same author (or so it is believed) will also write, “…those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20b). So do you want to see God? Start by looking at the man.

What do we see when we look at Jesus? He himself tells Nicodemus that he must be “lifted up.” I always thought that meant to look at Jesus on the cross. Notice that he compares himself with Moses in the wilderness. Moses lifted up an effigy of a poisonous snake in order to heal the sickness of his impatient and whining people.[ii] God afflicted the Israelites with snakebite because of their bitchy disobedience and ingratitude. God made the punishment fit the crime because the Israelites were acting like snakes—wounding and weakening themselves with poison from their mouths. When one of them looked at the image of the snake on the pole they might recognize their own sin, come to repentance, and be spared. In the same way, when we look at Jesus on the cross, we see just how rotten and depraved humans can be. It’s awful hard to be proud of being part of the human race when you realize we thought up a means of execution as sick and sadistic as crucifixion.

But on the cross we also see a man willing to undergo unspeakable torture out of love for people he has not even physically met. Can anything be more divine than that? We see crosses everywhere, but we might not recognize that we are looking at the darkest sin and the deepest love all in the same place.

If we can see this in Jesus, perhaps we can also see it in each other. Such a vison would certainly make us “born again.”

Thanks again for coming by! I always appreciate your time!

[i] “Born from above” can also be translated “born again.” The word in Greek is gennhqu. It can be translated either way—probably as Jesus intended!
[ii] See Numbers 21:4-9

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Where Were the Angels? (Reflections on Lent 1, Year A)

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Have you ever seen those cartoons where a guy has a little miniature devil sitting on one of his shoulders? The devil is looking wonderfully dastardly—complete with red cape, horns, and pitchfork. You know what I mean? The little stinker is whispering all kinds of temptations in the guy’s ear, while simultaneously there’s this beatific mini angel sitting on the dude’s other shoulder. The tiny angel is telling him not to listen to the devil, and is encouraging him to holiness. You must’ve seen this somewhere. This image is used in cartoons, sit-coms, and TV commercials ad nauseam.

Do you know where it’s not used? It’s not used in the gospel lesson assigned for Lent 1, Year A in the revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 4:1-11). Yeah, there’s a devil and angels in this story, but they don’t show up simultaneously. Jesus is left to deal with the devil all by his lonesome. The angels don’t show up until the ordeal is over. If I were Jesus, I might be tempted to tell the angels, “Thanks a lot, you guys! Fat lot of good you turned out to be! Where the freak were you when I needed you, huh?”

Personally, I don’t blame the angels for not showing up. I’m much more relieved that Jesus was left out in the desert to struggle alone. I mean, that’s how I feel a lot of the time. I’m not sure I want to worship a Messiah who hasn’t felt alone in the wilderness or who got extra miraculous help to deal with all the stuff a world drowning in sin can throw at you. I just have to give Jesus props for going it alone.

When I look at this story, I notice that Jesus is on pretty shaky ground from the start. First off, he’s just been praised by John the Baptist, baptized, and called the Beloved by Almighty God. That makes him a target for the Tempter right there. Second, he’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness—a deserted place, mind you—for a substantial length of time. I don’t advise anyone to spend too much time alone. That’s when your head really gets messed with. Finally, of course, he’s really, really hungry. If you’ve ever done without or wondered how you were going to pay for a meal, you’ll know you aren’t in the most spiritual of places. Hunger, fear, and desperation hang out a “Welcome” sign for the devil.

Twelve-step programs like to warn newcomers about temptation. The basic message is, “Stay out of the wilderness.” That is, of course, metaphorical. It’s not that your AA group doesn’t want you to go hiking in the Poconos, it’s that they want you to steer clear of those places and situations that are going to make it easy for you to screw up your life and the lives of the ones around you. As a recovering person myself, I never had to worry about hunger or loneliness. If, in my youth, a girlfriend dumped me and I felt abandoned, I always had a good book or my own company to enjoy. If I were out of work, I’d gird my loins both professionally and financially and set about getting back on track. It was when I was on my feet—when I felt successful and had the world by the Fruit of the Looms—that was when my self –destructive tendencies blossomed into giant, man-eating plants. I totally get why the Spirit would drive Jesus out into the wilderness just as Jesus is being proclaimed the new hot thing. It’s because that’s the moment when the temptation to self-reliance and arrogance is the strongest. That’s the moment when our eyes look inward at ourselves and away from God.

What makes the Tempter in this gospel lesson so freaky is the fact that he’s dealing with Jesus. When he says, “If you are the Son of God…” given the Greek grammar, he might as well be saying “Since you are the Son of God…” The grammatical construction suggests that Jesus already has the power to do that which the Tempter suggests. Now, if you just wish you could do something evil but you don’t have the guts or the opportunity to actually try to get away with it, you’re not really being tempted. BUT: if you’re honestly weighing the possibility of harming yourself or another, of getting wasted, of committing an act of betrayal, of completely giving in to despair, of indulging in the cream-filled lies we like to tell ourselves to make our own greed and selfishness seem okay, or of imagining how great life would be if we just didn’t have to give a crap about anyone else—if that’s where you are—than you’re in the same place Jesus was.

And Jesus has been where you are.

It sucks being in the wilderness. But once you’ve made it out, you might just discover that the angels have been with you all along. It’s only when the struggle is over that you can appreciate their presence.

Thanks for reading. A blessed Lent to you, my friend.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Visible Truth (Reflections on Ash Wednesday)

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“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6: 16-18)

So Jesus tells us not to disfigure our faces when we begin a fast? Gosh. It always amuses me slightly as we begin the holy season of Lent that this verse is read every year—just as we are doing exactly the opposite of what it indicates. In the Ash Wednesday mass we purposely disfigure our faces! All day long on this solemn holy day people are walking around with black smudges on their foreheads, proudly displaying to God and everyone that they are nothing but dust and are journeying on their way to the grave. We conspicuously broadcast this ancient symbol of both contrition and sorrow.

I guess we could be like the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 24: 15-27) who obeys God’s command to refrain from signs of mourning. God tells the old boy to look sharp and not advertise the grief he feels over the death of his wife. He has to suck it up and not ask for comfort as an example to all the people of Israel. They are expected to do the same, even though their holy city is destroyed and they are carried off as exiles to a foreign land. They don’t get to weep or show signs of bereavement. This is their punishment for unfaithfulness and apostasy.

But I guess it doesn’t matter whether they rip their garments or put ashes on their heads. The pain is still going to be there. The regret, the guilt, the isolation—none of that goes away. The ashes are always present even if they are invisible. Yet, all the same, on this sacred day we wear the ashes, the symbol of that most terrifying truth—we are helpless.

I recently read Elaine Pagles’ touching memoir, Why Religion?[i] In this poignant book the Princeton University professor of religious history tells of how her son, Mark, was diagnosed with a rare and invariably fatal pulmonary disorder. She walks the reader through the excruciating knowledge that her little boy will never live to see adulthood, and later through the stages of grief when Mark died at the age of six. As if the loss of a child were not enough sorrow, Pagels’ husband was killed in a hiking accident 15 months after their son’s death. Like Job, Pagels found herself sitting in her own spiritual ash pit asking why? Her double tragedy convinced her that she would rather feel guilt than helplessness; nevertheless, she came to the conclusion that it is pointless to look for meaning in the face of such pain. We must ultimately create meaning out of it.

On this day we wear our grief and shame and solitude on the outside. Ash Wednesday is the day for truth-telling, for acknowledging that we are all confused, all wounded, all filled with regret. But we also put our pain in the shape of a cross, the reminder that our Father who sees in secret has sent his Son to live that pain with us. We take meaning from the thought that Jesus on the cross knew and felt and understood and acknowledged everything we are going through. And we can look to the crosses on the foreheads of our neighbors and realize that we are not really alone at all, and that in the spirit of humility and compassion, Jesus has come to sit beside us.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Put the Time In (Reflections on Transfiguration, Year A)

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The wonderful and mostly retired gentlemen who assist funeral directors in Northeast Philly are always very respectful to me, but they’re often a little uncertain as to how I should be addressed. “Do I call you ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend?’” one such gentleman inquired of me recently. “What title do you prefer?”

I thought about this for a second and replied, “I think I prefer ‘Monsignor.’”

It took the old fellow a second to realize that I was having him on, and then we both had a chuckle. Now, I wouldn’t want to make too big a deal out of this, but it’s recently occurred to me that there are only three ELCA pastors in the city of Philadelphia who have served in their current calls longer than I’ve served in mine. I am the longest-serving pastor in my parish’s history, and I’m the oldest man in my conference pericope group. I’m actually rather shocked to find myself in the role of elder statesman—mostly because I’m not at all sure I’ve gained any wisdom whatsoever in my time in the pulpit. Yes, I’ve done hundreds of masses, hundreds of funerals, sat at hundreds of sick beds, read tons of religious books, watched kids I’ve baptized grow to young adulthood, and seen fellow clerics come and go. Still, I think I remain spiritually just the same as everyone else—patiently among the ranks of the perpetually perplexed.

But, even if God never speaks to me in a whirlwind or a burning bush, I’m glad I’ve put the time in. Conventional wisdom says that a long-term pastorate will not guarantee the success of a congregation, but a series of short-terms will pretty much guarantee its failure. 

I find in the First Lesson for Transfiguration, Year A (Exodus 24:12-18) there’s value in being a guy who is willing to wait. Dear Moses goes up the mountain to find God, but God takes his sweet time with Moses. Forty days and forty nights the old boy has to wait before he can come down and get back to the job of leading the children of Israel. Fortunately, he’s arranged for some good coverage while he’s away (v. 14), but taking off for over a month might’ve seemed a bit excessive to the folks left behind. While God spends the next six chapters of Exodus giving Moses an excruciatingly detailed lesson in liturgics, the gang down at the foot of the mountain starts to panic.

The children of Israel don’t seem to have much patience. They don’t get that building relationships—be they with each other or with Almighty God—will be time-consuming. Nope. Moses doesn’t come back in time to suit their short attention spans, so they go and start worshiping a Golden Calf[i]. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

God, of course, is not real happy with this turn of events, and it’s just one more reason why the Lord teaches this bunch patience by having them wait another forty years before they can reclaim the land promised to their ancestor, Abraham.[ii]

I think it speaks well for Moses that he’s willing to put the time in up on that mountain. He really wants to get to know what God wants of him. He’s different from Peter in the gospel lesson (Matthew 17:1-9). Pete’s an impulsive dude. He gets a little glimpse of the glory of God, and he starts shooting his mouth off. God has to tell him to shut up and listen. Moses is willing to be quiet, listen, and be taught by God. When he gets what God wants, it’s written in stone.

I don’t think we ever learn anything instantly. We have to put time in and learn slowly in order to have anything that looks like mastery. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do—hit a baseball, shoot a free-throw, write a novel, repair a carburetor, replace a heart valve, or fall meaningfully in love. It all takes time. So does learning to be a Christian.

If you’re reading this, I’m probably preaching to the already converted. But maybe not. If you’ve come seeking a transfiguration experience of God’s glory and promise, you may just have to wait a while. We’re on God’s time, not our own. The best we can do is be patient, faithful, and disciplined. That’s kind of what Lent is about: a return to discipline.

When young folks tell me they’re “spiritual but not religious,” I always ask them what their spiritual disciplines are. They generally look at me as if I were speaking Mandarin. But faith and understanding come with practice. Scripture takes on new and deeper meaning the more we expose ourselves to it. Prayer gets richer the more we pray. Generosity gets easier once we realize how generous God is. Worship is more of a blessing when praise of God becomes part of who we are. The “C & E” faith will certainly get you to heaven, but it may be a very dry and unsatisfying wilderness in this world.

Put the time in. It’s worth it. 

[i] I always figured that the Golden Calf was a symbol for money in the bank. After all, nomadic folk looked on livestock as a sign of wealth. If you’ve spent any amount of time around bovines, you’d be hard pressed to find anything else majestic or god-like in their personalities.
[ii] 40 is a real big number in the Bible in case you’ve noticed. In Hebrew numerology, 4 is the number of earthly completeness. If you intensify it by adding a zero, it means you’re more than complete. If you’re wandering in the wilderness 40 years, you’ve certainly been there long enough to get your act together. Possibly, you’ve been there long enough for all the whiners and weenies to die off and pass the leadership to young people accustomed to rugged living.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Right and Wrong (Reflections on Epiphany 6, Year A)

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“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)

I’m not in any hurry to go to heaven, but when I finally reach the golden streets, I really hope there’s a golden Starbuck’s where I can find a comfy leather chair, enjoy a grande dark roast, and have long conversations with interesting dead people. One of the guys I really want to meet in the Great Hereafter is C.S. Lewis. I think he was one of the best Christian apologists of all time. He had a wonderful gift for explaining our shared faith in eloquent, erudite, but delightfully understandable ways.

It seems that Lewis had considered himself an atheist when young, and service in the trenches of the Great War didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to change his views. Fortunately for the rest of us the Holy Spirit began to work on him. By the age of 31 “Jack” Lewis, after many years of contemplation, accepted faith in God and Jesus Christ. If you read his wonderful apologetic Mere Christianity, you’ll discover that a lot of his thinking starts with the notion of right and wrong.

Lewis begins the book with the thesis that we all have some idea of right and wrong. If we start bickering with one another over something, we invariably argue that our point of view has some kind of moral superiority to that of our antagonist. The other party will then counter that we’re wrong, and that they’re actually representing a higher moral code, or, at the least, they have a very valid reason for violating our moral expectations. But inherent in all of this is the idea—and we all have it—that other people recognize certain things as being morally uplifting, decent, proper, and just plain right. These values are right, not because they’re in the Bible or because your momma told you, but because they are empirically right. The world works better when we love one another, respect each other’s feelings, show compassion and generosity, don’t take what isn’t ours, value truth, keep our word, honor interpersonal relationships, and refrain at all times from inflicting intentional injury on others. Different cultures may have different norms, Lewis points out, but you’d be real hard pressed to find a culture that considers cowardice, treachery, deceit, wanton lust, bullying, and unbridled greed to be virtues.[i]

I like the way Lewis puts things:

(There) are two main points I’d like to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Second, they do not in fact behave in that way.[ii]

I think, in looking at the passage from the Sermon on the Mount assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Epiphany 6, Year A (Matt. 5: 21-37), Jesus is making the same point Lewis will make, but in a much deeper way. Jesus doesn’t pitch the Ten Commandments in the dumpster, instead he interprets them in such a way as to let us all know what kind of outlaws we really are at heart.

You think you’re righteous because you haven’t murdered anyone today? Guess again, dude! Your anger and arrogant disdain for your fellow human is still with you, and it’s just as destructive as if you’d blown someone away with a Smith & Wesson. The devaluing of others is what permits us to go to war. It's the sin that starts well before the violent act occurs but which makes the violence "acceptable" to us.

You think you’re pure because you haven’t tried to get it on with someone? Not so fast! When you’ve seen nothing but the object of your sexual wants in someone, you’ve dehumanized that person. And don’t blame her for being pretty—blame yourself for thinking that’s all she is.

Our Roman brethren have made, I think, something of a fetish out of the passage on divorce (vv.31-32), but divorce and remarriage aren’t the whole issue here. The sin Jesus warns us about in these two verses is a “what-the-hell” attitude towards breaking promises. In Jesus’ day, if a man divorced his wife, she could be left without resources. Not only did the man sin by neglecting an obligation, but he could very likely cause the woman to compromise herself because of her situation.[iii]

Jesus’ words in vv.33-37 assume that the righteous will be truthful without any need to ornament their testimony with oaths to the sacred. Such swearing is disrespectful and demeans the holiness of the object invoked. Honesty should always bring us to a place of humility, because if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit our helplessness.

Jesus’ interpretation of the law is not about mere behavior, but about the motivation which drives our behavior. Jesus calls us to a greater understanding of our sinful nature, our petty impulses, and our bondage to those feelings which are ultimately destructive if left unchecked. Martin Luther understood this to mean that the law, although it is always convicting us of our sin, is always drawing us back to our need for grace.

Our lived experience proves that Luther and C.S. Lewis were right—we’re never in full compliance with the law. It’s a mistake to confuse “right and wrong” with mere “do’s and don’ts.” We have to go deeper. We have to go to our hearts to seek the core of righteousness: the true, humble desire to love God and love everyone else.

God bless you, my friend. Glad you looked in this week!

[i] Except, perhaps, in the Trump White House.
[ii] From Mere Christianity (1943)
[iii] You’ll want to note that Matthew’s version of this saying gives a man the option of divorcing a woman for “unchastity.” The King James Bible translated this as “fornication,” but the word in Greek is actually porneias (porneias) from which our word “pornography” comes. It can mean unfaithfulness, but it can also be used for any kind of sexual immorality. There’s a belief that this condition for divorce may have come when Christianity was spread to Egypt where there was a tradition of incest.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Salt of the Earth (Reflections on Epiphany 5, Year A)

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“Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5: 17)

Do you ever try to imagine what it must’ve been like to hear Jesus preach? The gospel lesson from the Revised Common lectionary for Epiphany 5 (Matthew 5:13-20) is part of the “Sermon on the Mount,” and there’s some really cool and pertinent stuff in it. Now, granted, if Jesus gave this sermon in my homiletics course in seminary, the professor would probably give him a D- grade and say that it was too random and lacked focus. Don’t let that throw you. Old Matthew probably, the Bible experts tell us, glued together a bunch of Jesus sayings and stuck them in the middle of his narrative. How Jesus actually preached remains a mystery to us. An equal mystery might be what it felt like to hear him.

The gospels tell us that Jesus attracted huge crowds. He was a rock star in his day, so he must’ve been saying stuff that no one had thought about before—stuff that really touched peoples’ hearts and imaginations. Here he’s saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” I’ll bet those Galilean peasants never heard anyone tell them that before! Salt in the ancient world could be used as currency. Jesus is telling these poor folks that they are something of value. This, I’m sure, may have made them feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but Jesus goes on to remind them that things of value have a purpose.

Normally, of course, we consider things to be valuable because they have a purpose. I don’t just admire my computer or my car because they are nicely designed. I value them because I can use them. It’s the use that creates the value. But God’s grace works a little differently than that. We aren’t valuable to God because we’re useful. We’re useful because God has valued us.

The confirmation class I teach is studying the Hebrew Scriptures, and I’m trying to get the kids to understand the idea of a covenant. God strikes a bunch of bargains with folks in the OT, but they’re always somewhat one-sided. That is, God ends up doing the heavy lifting, and God’s people get the benefit. The covenant at Sinai—the Law—is a great example. God has already promised never to destroy humankind[i], and God has promised to bless the descendants of Abraham only in exchange for Abraham’s faith that God will do this. By the time we get to Sinai, God has already freed God’s people from famine and slavery and delivered them safely out of Egypt. God’s already done God’s part before God asks anything of the beneficiaries. The Law is not a condition for God’s blessing. It’s supposed to be our response to it. God isn’t into quid pro quo.

God’s also not looking just for ritual piety. The scribes and the Pharisees might’ve been into that stuff, but, as far as Jesus seems to be concerned, they’re like salt that’s lost its flavor. Jesus is always calling to our hearts. He’s not like some evangelical TV preacher who’ll tell you that you’re holy as long as you aren’t gay and don’t have an abortion. A response to the Law of God calls for a radical repentance, a willingness to see God in others, a transcendent love. That’s the difference between real religion and superstition. We become hidden lamps and tasteless salt when we think all we need to do is get our kids baptized and confirmed so we can satisfy ourselves that we’ve paid our dues. Jesus wants us to experience that which goes beyond ritual observance—a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The lectionary pairs this passage from Matthew with a reading from Isaiah 58. Here the prophet lays out what righteousness means in terms of love of neighbor:

Is this not the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and to bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Our response to being God’s light and salt is to feed and shelter and heal and end oppression. It’s to restore relationships.

I have to say, I’m pretty proud of my little congregation for being involved in sheltering the homeless (we partner with Interfaith Hospitality Network), and for helping to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (we partner with Feast of Justice and support their clothing and food cupboards). If God has blessed us at all, it is certainly that we may continue to be a blessing. Nevertheless, I get a sneaking hunch that Jesus is calling us to even more. When I imagine hearing Jesus talk about righteousness, I imagine he’s firing me up to a more radical sense of mercy that goes beyond what’s done in church.

When I listen to the news these days or talk to folks I get a feeling that we’re confusing righteousness with “fairness.” We’d rather see needy people neglected than have “unworthy” people get something to which they’re not entitled by our way of thinking. But, if we are the salt of the earth, aren’t we called to something more?

[i] Please note, there’s nothing in the covenant with Noah that says God will prevent us from destroying ourselves. That’s all on us. If you think God will magically reverse climate change after we’ve put so much crap into the atmosphere, you’d better think again!