Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Saint Nicholas Prepares Our Way (Reflections on Advent 2, Year B)

 

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3b) 

Advent 2 always shines the spotlight on that most dynamic and eccentric of Biblical figures, John the Baptist. Here he is, eating bugs and yelling in the wilderness for everyone to repent. He’s Jesus’ advance man, the necessary warm-up act to the Savior of the world. God knew that John was necessary because most of us wouldn’t know a good thing if we slipped and fell in it. The love, forgiveness, and sacrifice we see in Jesus Christ probably wouldn’t make any sense to us if we hadn’t first been told to be on the lookout for it.

This year, Advent 2 falls on December 6, historically the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas. Boy. If there ever was a saint for us to look to, this would be the guy. Unfortunately, we just don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the real, historic Saint Nick. Nevertheless, I hypothesize (and I do so love hypothesizing) that he must’ve made a pretty big impression on the folks of the 4th century since they told so many tales and legends about him. He became the Bishop of Myra, a town on the coast of what today is Turkey, just around the time Christianity was becoming a legal and official religion in the Roman Empire. After three hundred years of persecution, it was finally a pretty good time to be a Christian. The downside, alas, was that folks weren’t entirely sure of what being a Christian really meant. 

The legends tell us that Nicholas got the main idea that Christianity was about love and charity. This fellow was known for his humongous generosity. He inherited money from his folks, the legends say, and gave it all away to the poor. There’s a famous story of how he rescued an impoverished nobleman who had no money to dower his three daughters. If daddy couldn’t come up with the cash to marry these girls off, it looked as if they were going to have to learn to pole dance. Nicholas is said to have snuck by the bankrupt father’s house one night and chucked a bag of gold through a window to dower the oldest girl. When daughter #2 came of age, he did the same thing. The father, overwhelmed by these acts of anonymous generosity, stayed awake to watch for his mysterious benefactor when it came time to hitch daughter #3. He caught the bishop in the act, and the legend of Nicholas leaving gifts in the night morphed into the way we celebrate him with our kids and grandkids today. 

But what’s really important about Nicholas the bishop is that he was listed as being one of the bishops present at the Council of Nicaea, the convention which gave us the Nicaean Creed. The basic function of this dogmatic statement is to teach us about the triune nature of God, a doctrine which was in rather hot dispute in Nicholas’ day. The question Christians had was how do we understand God? How do we understand the person of Jesus Christ? The Council gave us the three-fold experience of God, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It’s stood the test of time, and I have to say, it works for me. 

Being a Christian is more than just wearing a cross around your neck and going to church at Christmastime. The living faith is seeing God in Creation, God in the Holy Spirit present in my life and in yours, and God in the loving gift of Jesus Christ—a child born in poverty who came to give himself as a gift on the cross for all of us. 

In our Gospel lesson (Mark 1:1-8) John the Baptist is calling us to prepare a way for Jesus. I’d like to suggest that you start preparing that way this week by looking at the Nicaean Creed and meditating on what the Holy Trinity means to you. It’s really important that we, as Christians, are able to know and articulate what our faith means. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s an awful lot of “us versus them” dialogue going on in American these days. I sometimes wonder if those doing all the shouting actually know what they’re shouting about. They may know what they’re against, but do they know what they’re for? 

Start preparing the way for Christ in your hearts this week. Look at the Creed, and look for the presence of God in your life. I think it will lead you to a place of gratitude and generosity as it did Nicholas. This will be a very different Advent and Christmas season for all of us, but the meaning of it never changes. 

Thanks for reading. Next week I’ll tell you about another popular Yuletide saint, Saint Lucy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Saint Andrew Kept Awake (Reflections on Advent 1, Year B)

 


“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

Awake? We’ve been awake for some time now. Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve been watching for something to happen. We’ve certainly seen signs of change: the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protest movement, wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the Gulf coast, a close and tense presidential election and a president who refuses to believe he has lost it. There have been so many weird signs in 2020 that I think we’re ready for Jesus to come back and rescue us all! 

So the Gospel for Advent 1, Year B (Mark 13: 24-37) tells us to keep our eyes open for something. What that something is, however, we just don’t know. It’s what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to call the “known unknown.” So what are we supposed to do? 

Maybe we should take the example of someone who has been this way before. I’ve noticed that the Sundays in Advent 2020 all fall on (or just before) the commemorative festivals of certain saints. The day after Advent 1, November 30, is the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle. Now here was a guy who kept awake. We have to remember that life back in Andrew’s day was every bit as crazy as life in our own time. Israel was under Roman occupation—which nobody liked. There were all kinds of riots, protests, and attempts at revolution. It wasn’t hard to get yourself crucified, and you couldn’t even trust your religious authorities. Anyone with a good speaking voice was claiming to be a prophet, and you didn’t know who to believe. Andrew, the Gospels tell us, was just a blue collar fisherman, but he must’ve been looking for some kind of truth to get him through life in those turbulent times. John’s Gospel says he attached himself to John the Baptist, a preacher who warned everyone to prepare themselves because God was getting ready to send a Messiah. 

One day, John tells Andrew, “You see that guy Jesus walking past over there? He’s the one we’re waiting and watching for!” So what does Andrew do? He quits John, meets Jesus, and immediately spends the day with him.[i] He then goes to find his brother Simon and tells him, “We have found the Messiah!” 

Andrew is not a particularly spectacular disciple. There’s really not that much said about him in the Gospels and, unlike some of the other apostles, early church history doesn’t attribute any wild and amazing miracle stories to him. All we know is that he was faithful to Jesus and, after the resurrection, went on to spread the Word in foreign lands like the other eleven. And, like ten of the others, he was martyred for his faith somewhere in Greece. Perhaps his most significant contribution was sharing his exciting discovery about Jesus with his brother. Peter gets lots of attention in the Gospels and in Acts as a true champion of the faith in spite of his rather obvious flaws. He wouldn’t have met Jesus, however, if his brother hadn’t told him. Andrew may not have sunk all the winning shots, but he should certainly get credit for the assists. 

I think sometimes that crazy chaotic times are time when we are nearer to God. We start to fill with expectation. If we fear something is ending, we have to believe that something new is starting. I don’t think I’m quite ready to start looking for signs of the End Times, but I’m always looking for signs of God’s time. I hope I’m always alert to the opportunity to do what God has planned. This may not be a spectacular work of mission, but it just might be—as in Andrew’s case—an opportunity equip someone else for some wonderful work for the Kingdom. 

We are told as Advent begins to keep awake. How? One way is to keep ourselves involved with the scriptures. Another way is to keep our prayers sailing strong and regularly. To keep listening to others, to be present with them, to be open to the Holy Spirit giving us the words which just might change a life. Keep believing that the time of turmoil might be a time of opportunity. So keep awake. 

May God’s peace be with you this Advent season!


[i] See the story in John 1:35-42

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Reflection on Good Friday, 2020


Good Friday
When I first began my pastorate at Faith Lutheran, the congregation had no tradition for observing Good Friday. The worship space was left open for prayer for anyone who wished to take advantage of it (which no one did), but there was no formal liturgy. To me, this was a serious omission for the worship life of the congregation.

True, there are those who have said to me that they find the observance of our Lord’s suffering to be “too depressing.” To this I say, “That’s the point.” Good Friday is a day to contemplate our lostness and the suffering we’ve inflicted on others and on ourselves. This year, when covid-19 forbids us from attending a liturgy, we have little choice but to reflect on human sorrow as we hear the numbers of those stricken with this illness and those who have perished from it continue to rise.

I don’t see this pandemic as either a scourge from God or a harbinger of apocalyptic cataclysm. But, like all tragedies, it has its roots in human sin, in our “missing the mark.” The scientists are telling us that this coronavirus is another zoological virus, the inevitable consequence of humanity’s poor stewardship of the earth God entrusted us to maintain. If we indulge our appetites and encroach on areas we don’t naturally require, nature will visit repercussions on us. God does not protect us from the consequences of our own poor judgment. But God does call us constantly to repentance, and God is always provides us with healing. Our current situation is yet another call to heed the words of the prophet Joel: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Joel 2:13)

Our Good Friday story (Matthew 26-27) is also a call to repentance, for in this saga we see just about every sin our self-involved natures commit. We see in the elders and the scribes who condemn Jesus greedily keeping score of wrongs, delighting in iniquity, and longing for a reason to justify their jealous hate. How often have we looked for reasons to stoke the fires of arrogant contempt for those we dislike?

We see also Pontius Pilate and his indifference to injustice. He cares only about his own position. He can let the innocent suffer and simply wash his hands of the problem. How often have we seen the pain of others and said, “It’s not my problem?”

See, too, the riotous crowd with a choice between two men—both accused of the same crime of sedition. One would rule by love, mercy, and high ideals. The other would rule by force and violence. How often have we chosen the way of this world over the things of God?

In the crucifixion itself we see nothing but our capacity for cruelty. As if the desire to kill were not enough, we hear the mocking of the elders, the guards, and even the other condemned prisoners. It is bullying at its worst—condemning the weak for their own weakness, kicking the beaten when they are already down. How often have we blamed the victims for their own misfortune and neglected God’s words of pity and comfort?

Here also are the soldiers at the foot of the cross, shooting craps for the garments of the condemned, profiting from the misery of others. Haven’t we heard of child laborers working for a pittance in third world nations to make us less expensive garments?

Finally, we see the body of Jesus hurriedly placed in a tomb in order to satisfy the religious code which prevents work to be done after sundown on the Sabbath. Those few faithful are given no time to mourn him, their feelings must be locked away as the stone is rolled over the tomb’s entrance. How often have antiquated religious notions locked out the feelings of others, condemning the divorced, the LGBTQ community, or those who have had abortions?

We need to look at this gospel on Good Friday. We need to feel the pain of it. We need to see ourselves in this dark mirror and pray for the grace to be penitent. We need to pray for God’s mercy on ourselves and on the whole world. Perhaps this time of enforced isolation will be good for our souls, and our Lord, who has given us and the earth we live on the tremendous power of healing, will make us better citizens, and more worthy of our membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

PS.
For a short video version of this message, click Good Friday

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Oil Shortage or Just Mean Chicks? (Reflections on Pentecost 23, Year A)

 


Did you ever see the movie Bridesmaids? It’s a comedy about two girls who compete with each other over who can make the glitzier, more elegant, and more fabulous contribution to their girlfriend’s wedding experience The competition gets pretty fierce (and funny, too!) at times, and there’s a not-too-subtle streak of catty meanness running through the story line.

If you were to take a literal reading of the parable  Jesus tells in the appointed Gospel for Pentecost 23, Year A (Matthew 25:1-13), some of these bridesmaids[i] seem pretty mean-spirited. We can certainly applaud the prudence of the five young ladies who were clever enough to bring some extra oil for their lamps just in case the bridegroom’s arrival was delayed. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. In all the weddings I’ve conducted in over twenty years, not one of them has ever started on time. We can also look down our noses at the five dumb chicks who didn’t have the foresight to think the groom might be late. These last have to make a late-night dash to the local Walmart, and they end up getting locked out of the party because the other girls won’t share with them. Can’t you just hear one of the smart girls saying, “Sorry, honey. It’s not my fault you forgot your oil. This is for my lamp. Better go buy some…and don’t be late.” Then the five smarty-pants girls giggle gleefully when the door gets locked and the others are shut out—rather like on The Bachelor when the girls still in competition share a champagne toast when their rivals are sent home in tears. There’s something cruel about this parable which I find unsettling.

In trying to break this story down and take some of the nastiness out of it, I’m aware of two things (besides the fact that young girls can be selfish where others are concerned!). The first thing is that time is limited. The second thing is resources aren’t evenly distributed. Nobody in this story knows exactly when the bridegroom is going to show. He could be hanging out with his buds having one more beer before he ties the knot. Nevertheless, when the party finally starts, the banquet hall doors get shut and those outside have to stay outside. Nothing in the story says the five prudent young ladies were 100% certain they were going to need the extra oil they brought. It’s possible they could’ve shared some with the other girls if they’d wanted to. Still, when the groom finally gets his lazy butt to the wedding, the opportunity to be generous is over. Perhaps we’ve struggled ourselves over the use of our resources, asking, “If I give, will I have enough for my own needs?” Perhaps, too, the door is already swinging closed on the ones who need our help. If we delay, it will be too late.

Of course, we could also look at the nature of the oil and what it might represent. In this story, there’s only so much oil to go around. Some have suggested that the oil represents righteousness, and personal righteousness can’t be shared. That is, you can’t give someone else your relationship with God. You can only be responsible for your own. You can only carry enough faith for yourself.

Another thing to consider is that the bridesmaids don’t choose to lock the door. The bridegroom is the only one who can decide who’s in and who’s out.

This is a tough parable in some ways, but Jesus might be being tough on us for our own good. None of us knows when the bridegroom will come. Like the girls in the story, we all fall asleep while waiting. None of us knows when to expect a life-altering event, so we’d better have our oil—our faith, our knowledge of the Word of God, our humility and acceptance, our self-knowledge and honest contrition, our willingness to forgive others, and our hope for eternity—with us at all times. We can’t share these things with our fellow “bridesmaids,” but we can encourage them to acquire some for themselves. Indeed, we are enjoined by the Gospel to do just that. And we can’t waste opportunities to be generous and compassionate to one another and the world in which we live, nor can we afford to be sloppy with our resources. We don’t know when the banquet hall doors will shut.

May God bless you today and always. I’m glad you stopped by. Please come again!



[i] If you want to get technical (and why wouldn’t you?), the Bible literally refers to these girls as “virgins,” or parqenois (parthenois). The fact that they’re going to a wedding and are performing the function of greeting the groom suggests that they’re bridesmaids. “Maid” or “maiden” always suggests an unmarried young woman, just as “virgin” does.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Blessed Are the Obscure (Reflections on All Saints, 2020)

 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

If ever a phrase contradicted our culture it would be the above phrase from Matthew’s Gospel. Meekness and humility just don’t float the boat of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Thank God for social media, right? It’s given us all the chance to show off our own accomplishments, brag about the places we’ve been, the meals we’ve eaten, and the pounds we’ve lost. I’ve heard it said that facebook has kept Americans perpetually in high school—we’re all still trying to convince ourselves we’re the cool kids who can make everyone else jealous.

Now along comes Jesus in our Gospel for All Saints (Matthew 5:1-12) and proclaims that the poor, the mourning, and the meek are the blessed ones. He tells us the favored are the ones who want to do right but keep seeing wrong. He claims that God loves the ones who give up, make peace, step aside, and don’t get any credit. He might as well have said, “Blessed are the obscure.” 

Gosh. If we could only see with the eyes of God. Scripture tells us that God made the world and called all that was created “good.” Every individual life has an epic importance to the One who brought it into being. Why would any of us want to be a superstar in the eyes of the world when we’re already superstars in the eyes of God? I like the way C.S. Lewis explained God’s appraisal: 

“…the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…”[i] 

I guess there’s something perverse in my nature that makes me look forward to those necrologies that are part of every entertainment award show on TV or every year-end news wrap-up. I confess to getting nostalgic over the loss of favorite actors, musicians, or other public figures. I try to be appreciative and inspired by the talents God has given others and by the contributions they have made. Nevertheless, I know that, in the eyes of God, the famous are no more celebrated than the dull, the average, the unambitious, and the forgotten. Sainthood is not a title conferred only on the most pious, spiritual, do-gooders among us. When Saint Paul used the term “saint,” he meant it to describe all of us who are made holy by the blood of Jesus—even if we don’t exactly look like angels and our resumes don’t land us on Wikipedia.[ii] 

Lutherans haven’t always been big on canonized saints. The Augsburg Confession explains it like this: 

“…our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith…However, it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture that a person should call upon the saints or seek help from them, ‘For there is only one single reconciler and mediator set up between God and humanity, Jesus Christ.’ (1 Timothy 2:5).”[iii] 

Now, as the autumn drops over us, we traditionally reach our thoughts back to the ones who aren’t with us any longer. On All Saints Day it’s only right that we strengthen our faith by the examples of saints who are dear to us—however meek or obscure they may be in the eyes of the world. Here are some we remember with love.

Bill and Cass Laigaie were faithful members of our congregation ever since they called on me to solemnize their wedding in 2001. Life doesn’t always give us second chances, but here were two older Americans who found love the second time around. I confess that it was hard to get to know Cass as she was, by nature, a very quiet and private person. Most of us now might think of her only as “that lady with Alzheimer’s” who sat next to her husband in the chancel while he sang with the Praise Team. I can tell you, however, that she was always meek, cheerful, and smiling before and after dementia robber her of her faculties. She radiated a natural kindness which so touched her husband’s heart. I have always been proud of how our congregation embraced her, inappropriate as she could be at times because of her condition. Having her around was a reminder of God’s grace. 

Bill, in his own right, was the most devoted spouse anyone could’ve asked for. He took “for better or worse” with the utmost seriousness. Although he’d often been advised to find a care facility for Cass as her memory began to slip, he refused to be separated from her, always insisting that he was called to be her chief caregiver. When she was finally confined to the Immaculate Mary Home, he visited her every day. He died within two months of her passing, and I imagine he just couldn’t live without her. 

Kathy “Bunny” Berry, a devout Roman Catholic, came to Faith Lutheran when we welcomed her son Jason and his partner, Doug. As sweet as a Tastycake and as tough as an overcooked steak, Bunny loved worshiping with us. Her life hadn’t exactly been a day at the beach—she’d lost a husband to ALS and a son to drugs—but her faith in God never abated. I loved our visits when she went on the homebound list. In spite of her cancer she could always make me laugh, and her courage was inspiring. 

Pastor Scott Nessel was a devoted single dad and a servant of the Gospel. We were students together in seminary, and I always found him to be one of the wittiest people I’ve known with a gift for an irreverent turn of phrase. I’m sorry I lost touch with him after seminary, but I’d heard through the grapevine about some of his domestic struggles (one of his children has special needs), and of his battles with recalcitrant congregations. Discipleship isn’t easy or fair, but blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Scott had served his most recent parish, Immanuel in Amherst, MA, only a short while before COVID-19 shut its doors. He died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 49. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t have us light a candle for Jim “Coffee Pot” Walsh. Although he was not a member of our parish, I’ve probably had more interaction with Jim in the last 22 years than I’ve had with some of our rostered members. Jim was the faithful coffee steward of the Auctus AA group. He’d sometimes come and put the coffee on at three o’clock in the afternoon for a 7:30pm meeting. Then he’d just hang around. I don’t know why Jim was the way he was—his sentences were full of non-sequiturs and often quite bizarre. I suspect he must’ve had some kind of brain trauma, but I never knew what caused it. As eccentrics go, he was high in the standings of odd characters who have frequented this church over the years. All the same, he was the most guileless individual, always seemingly happy, always willing to help, always offering me a cup of the particularly burnt and nasty coffee he’d brewed for his AA family. If his mind was somewhat scrambled, his heart was always on track. He will be missed. 

For the redeemed in Christ, there is so much beauty in ordinary lives. When we reflect on the lives of the saints—even these obscure saints—we are really reflecting on our own lives. God has given us wonderful companions on our walk to eternity. Some challenge us, some make our journey the more joyful. To see the beauty in these lives is to know that in Christ there is beauty, purpose, example, and mission in our own lives. To look to others is to see the love God has for us.

 Bless you, my saintly friend. Thanks for visiting.

[i] This is from a sermon called “The Weight of Glory.” I quote it from A Chorus of Witnesses (Eerdman’s Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, 1994) I don’t know when Lewis delivered this homily.

[ii] See 1 Cor. 1:2, Philippians 1:1, or Colossians 1:2 for example.

[iii] Augsburg Confession Article XXI.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Free Slaves (Reflections on Reformation Sunday, 2020)

An early printed edition of "A Mighty Fortress" in German

“…and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

 I’m always amused by the response Jesus’ Judean followers give to the above quote. These guys must’ve looked at Jesus with their mouths open. “Whaddya mean ‘made free?!’ We’re the descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves.” You don’t even have to know too much Bible history to know they’re kidding themselves here. Remember Moses and that Red Sea thing? The descendants of Abraham were slaves in Egypt, right? They were also slaves to Babylon, then to Persia, Greece and a whole bunch of little crappy kingdoms. By the time of Jesus they were a vassal of the Romans.  Freedom wasn’t their long suit.

 But, in a sense they were right. To them, “free” meant they were the rightful heirs of God’s promise to Abraham. No matter who was actually calling the political shots, the children of Abraham had full personhood in God’s eyes. They weren’t adopted in nor were they “property.” If their self-determination as a nation was taken away, they still had their heritage as legitimate heirs to the title of “Chosen People.”

 Unfortunately for their pride, Jesus had to remind them they were still slaves to sin—something they had a real hard time recognizing. Let’s face it: the truth hurts some times. If you’ve ever tried to live in denial, or defensiveness, or behind some excuse, or in just plain wishful thinking, you know how much it sucks. You want to keep up the pretense that everything is just groovy. Well, it isn’t. It’s the old saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” Perhaps the worst form of bondage is refusing to admit the truth to ourselves.

 We’re all salves in some way, I guess. These days I’d have to say that many of us are slaves to fear. We fear COVID-19. We fear economic catastrophe. We fear civil unrest. Most of all, we probably fear change and loss—especially the loss of things we’ve been comfortable with and counted on. Like the church.

 But the truth is, church attendance in America was declining before the pandemic. We’re becoming a more secular society. Young working people don’t have Sunday mornings free anymore. Youth sports, multiple jobs, and the gig economy have killed the Sabbath. I also fear that, as far as public proclamation goes, the more strident voices of fundamentalism outshout the voices of Christ’s mercy and inclusivity in the public media.

 I ask myself on this Reformation Sunday, “What would Luther do?” I wonder what our tradition and heritage as Lutherans give us to get us through this time of transition and worry? How would Martin speak to our fears?

 First, I think the brutally blunt reformer would want us to be honest with ourselves. As a church and as individuals we’ve made plenty of mistakes. Without confession there can be no absolution. We remember that we are slaves to sin, but we are also heirs to God’s promise of love and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. Simul Justus et peccator is the Latin phrase Luther was so fond of. It means simultaneously justified and sinner. The phrase calls us to remember that in these fearful times we’ve all been doubtful, we’ve probably been self-righteous, and our opinions have been less than charitable about people who hold views with which we differ. The good news is that whatever kind of jerks we’ve been, we’re still loved and forgiven by God’s grace. Like the Judeans Jesus addresses in our Gospel lesson, we’re both slaves and free people because we are the legitimate heirs—through no effort of our own—to God’s promise. We should remember that.

 Secondly, I think Luther would remind us ecclesia semper reformanda est. That is, the church is always reforming. Our comfortable little congregations may be going the way of the 8 track, but that doesn’t mean that something new isn’t rising in their place. “God’s word forever shall abide” Luther reminds us in that great anthem we Lutherans love to sing (quietly and through our COVID masks this time!). 

Thirdly, Luther might advise us to take every advantage we can of new media technology. The world didn’t come to learn of the 95 Theses just because they were posted on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. No. Before nailing them to the door, Luther had his theses printed on the new-fangled machine called the printing press and mailed out copies to a whole bunch of interested—and some really ticked-off—parties. In our information age, we have the advantage to bypass the Sabbath and put church online. If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else, it has forced us to use the new means available to this generation for spreading the Gospel.

 Finally, I hope Luther would remind us as Christians to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Church people, Luther taught, have a duty to civic engagement. Yes, he believed that church leaders should not run countries or cities and secular leaders should not dictate theology. That doesn’t mean, however, that the church should remain unconcerned about the affairs of the world. I think it’s time we were all a little edgier (kind of like Pope Francis was this week!) Our faith in Jesus can’t just be for Sunday morning. Love of neighbor needs to be put into practice.

 So take heart, church. As our Reformation hymn reminds us, “The kingdom’s ours forever.” That’s pretty good news.

God's peace be with you. For a shorter video version of this post, click here.


 God bless. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

What Are You Wearing to the Banquet? (Reflections on Pentecost 19, Year A)



Everybody loves a wedding. In the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel appointed for Pentecost 19, Year A (Matthew 22:1-14) a king throws a big wedding bash for his son. He invites all the nobles in his realm, but they—for whatever reason—refuse to come. So, the king does what any good absolute monarch would do in such a situation. He has them all massacred. Then, he sends his slaves out to invite everyone else to the wedding banquet. This is a completely indiscriminate invitation. Everyone is welcome—the good and the bad alike (see v. 10). Unfortunately, one guy shows up being a little cavalier about the dress code (he’s not wearing a wedding robe), and the king has him chucked out. 

I don’t know about you, but I have to confess I really love performing wedding ceremonies, and I’ve been asked to marry couples in some pretty swanky and elegant venues all around Philadelphia. I’ve been part of some gorgeous weddings. Granted, as a steward of God’s blessings, I have to admit that some of these affairs may have been a trifle excessive. In fact, most couples could make a pretty decent down payment on a house for what they blow on a fancy wedding. Yeah, I’ll admit there’s often some rather worldly and conspicuous consumption involved in American weddings. All the same, I love these affairs because a wedding is the one time in our culture when people really try to bring their best selves. Everyone dresses up for a wedding. Face it: most of the time we Americans are a nation of slobs. I’ve even seen people dress in shorts and a T-shirt for a funeral! But weddings are different. 

 And why not? I’ve been told that when one gets an invitation, one dresses to honor the host. When we come to a wedding we’re being invited to share in someone’s love and joy. We’ll probably get a pretty good meal out of it, too—to say nothing of an open bar and a chance to party and dance the night away while we celebrate the possibility of “happily ever after,” a new family being formed, and a new hope for the future. That’s certainly an occasion to bring out our best selves, don’t you think? 

 When I read this Gospel parable, I think Jesus is reminding us that we’ve all been invited to our King’s wedding banquet. All of us, the good, the bad, the indifferent. As the appointed psalm for Pentecost 19 proclaims, God has prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies. Even in the presence of enemies like COVID-19, racial injustice, civil unrest, floods and fires. We are still invited to celebrate the miracle of God’s creation, the beauty of the earth, and all the beautiful people God has put in our lives. We are served a sumptuous feast of our faith, complete with the promise of the Gospel, the assurance of the sacraments, the comforting beauty of the music, and the support of Christian fellowship. Decency dictates that we show up, even in times such as these in which we live, wearing our best selves—whether this be at home, at work, at church, or even in the car line at the Burger King take-out window. As Christians, we’re called to be decked out in gratitude, faith, hope, and love. The wedding garment Jesus refers to in verse 11 is a representation of a new self and a reminder that every day we are drowned to sin by the promise of our baptism and made new through the grace of God in Christ. 

Our spiritual life will never be about what happens to us, only about how we embrace it. Pain comes to the good and the bad alike, but so does the invitation to God’s celebration. You have been asked to be a guest at the party. Show up wearing your best self. (Just make sure your outfit includes your facemask!). 

May God’s peace be with you.

For a video version of this post, click here.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Produce the Produce (Reflections on Pentecost 18, Year A)

"The Wicked Tenants" Martin Van Valckenborch (Flemish, 16/17th cent.)


“Therefore I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” (Matthew 21: 43) 

Don’t you just love a good Biblical allegory? It’s pretty clear to me the story Jesus is telling in the assigned Gospel lesson for Pentecost 18, Year A (Matthew 21:33-46) is meant as an allegory. I wouldn’t go and take it too literally. If you do, you have to admit that the landowner in the story is one criminally stupid dufus. This guy ought to be prosecuted for reckless endangerment for sending his servants and his own son out to confront a colony of murderous lawbreakers. I mean, how dumb is this guy..? Didn’t he realize he was dealing with cutthroats when he sent out the first group of rent collectors?

But I digress. 

Verse 45 clearly tells us that Jesus is telling a symbolic tale. We usually interpret this story as meaning the Jewish leaders have failed to listen to the prophets and to Jesus, so God is taking the kingdom away from them and giving it to more deserving tenants—namely, us.

 The problem with this interpretation, however, is that it tends to make us feel all warm and special but doesn’t teach us anything. I think we in the Church would be wise to cast ourselves in the role of the wicked tenants and see this parable as a warning against our own tendency towrds complacency. When we hear this parable, we might want to ask ourselves what we in the Church are here to do. What is our “produce” supposed to be? Are we yielding good grapes or “wild grapes” as the prophet Isaiah describes in the First Lesson for this Sunday (Isaiah 5:1-7). 

Recently my wife showed me a video on facebook of a group of Christians protesting on the main street of our suburban South Jersey town. One guy wore a T-shirt which proclaimed “CORONAVIRUS IS GOD’S PUNISHMENT FOR FEMINISM.”[i] After I threw up a little in my mouth, I thought to myself, “Really, dude..?? With a dangerously changing climate, racial injustice, and economic catastrophe, this is where you’re going? For all God has given you, is this the produce—the rotten fruit of judgmental narrow-mindedness—that you’re giving back? If this is the fruit of your faith in God, no one wants to eat it.” 

Personally, I’ve always been pretty proud of the produce of our little urban congregation in Northeast Philly. Some of it is literally produce—veggies grown on our church lawn to feed the hungry. Some of it is shelter for the homeless. Some of it is a meal and companionship for the elderly homebound. Some of it is Christmastime encouragement for orphaned children. And a lot of it is community space so addicts and their families can get healed, seniors can fellowship together, and an immigrant community can worship in their own way. Pride, however, can easily morph into complacency. We’d do well to remember that it is only in looking outward—in producing a good crop for others—that we’ve survived as long as we have. 

Sunday, October 4th is the feast of Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Italian monk who saw the Church getting sleepy and just going through the motions of Christianity. God called Francis to wake Christians up, to focus God’s people on care for the world God created and all the creatures in it, and to take up their responsibility to the poor and the infirm in their midst. I’ll admit it’s pretty hard to be socially active during a pandemic, but this virus can’t plague us forever. If any community of faith survives, the people of that community must know what they are surviving for. We are all called, like Saint Francis, to be renewers of the Church. God’s will will be done through us or in spite of us. If we are not zealous in our mission, the vineyard will be given to others. 

God bless, my friend. Keep safe.


[i] Seriously. He did. You can’t make this stuff up. You can read about the heretic idiot in the T-shirt by clicking here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

By What Authority? (Reflections on Pentecost 17, Year A)

 

"By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23)

 Fake news. For my money, this is one of the most insidious expressions of our time. We already have COVID-19, but do we really need a second pandemic? A pandemic of lies, social media propaganda, gossip, disinformation, and an a concentrated effort by some to urinate in the swimming pool of public information and cause us all to question what to believe and who to trust? Are climate change and the coronavirus real, or did “science” get it wrong? Is there expertise or only opinion? Who can speak with true authority?

 In the Gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 17 Year A in the RCL (Matthew 21: 23-32), the official “authorities” are questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ authority. This story comes right on the heels of the Palm Sunday story. Jesus has ridden his donkey into Jerusalem, boldly accused the leaders of the people of ripping off the poor, and has set up shop and begun to teach right in the holy temple itself. You can imagine how p.o.’ed  this has made the priests and the elders. They demand to know by what authority Jesus can do and say these things.

 This doesn’t upset Jesus. He asks them a sneaky question of his own about authority. Where did the authority of John the Baptist come from? The priests and elders can’t answer this question. If they admit that John was a prophet sent by God, they’ll reveal their own hypocrisy by their refusal to repent when he called for repentance, compassion and equity[i]. If they denounce John, they’ll anger the crowds and reveal that they don’t really represent the people at all. All they really care about is their own prestige and power. So..? They give a mealy-mouthed, non-committal answer which gives Jesus the opportunity to tell a little parable which says, in effect, actions speak louder than words. These guys may have all the “correct” doctrine, but what they have done has ultimately been self-serving and oppressive.

 What gives Jesus authority? It’s not just his words but his deeds. Yes, he’s taught powerful lessons, but the people have also seen the sick healed, the children blessed, the outsiders welcomed, and the sinners given a second chance. They have seen the hungry fed. They have seen the righteous sit at table with the outcasts, and they will soon see the Son of God hang on the cross.

 Have you ever asked yourself why you are a Christian? I’d be willing to bet it’s because someone with Christ’s authority represented the Gospel to you. Maybe it was your mom or your grandmother or some other relative, but somewhere along the line you met a person whose walk with God in kindness, gentleness, and heroic faith was all the authority you needed. Righteousness is its own authority. So is love. So is compassion.

 If you’ve believed in this authority, you’re also called to be this authority. We are all called to go to work in the vineyard, to be faithful and generous and kind and forgiving and non-judgmental and honest so that faith may be restored. We are called to care for one another so that others may believe. We are called to be restorers of confidence.

 May the peace of God which passes our understanding keep your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.



[i] See Luke 3:7-14

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Infuriating Generosity (Reflections on Pentecost 16, Year A)

Salomon Koninck "Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard" (Dutch, 17th Cent.)

“So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16)

 Man! Don’t you just hate this parable (Matthew 20:1-16)?! I mean, where does Jesus get off saying the Kingdom of Heaven is like this whopper of a tall tale he’s telling us? For lots of folks this story is nothing short of infuriating. It violates our sense of justice to see undeserving people get something they haven’t earned. You might say that Jesus is preaching downright socialism, by God! How dare he?!! Doesn’t he know that here in America good, decent people work for a living and earn their rewards? It’s all the others—lazy welfare cheats and illegal aliens—who expect something for nothing. And, while we’re on the subject, what’s up with student loan forgiveness? We had to pay back our debts, and these kids should too, dang it! The same with universal healthcare. If they want it, let ‘em go out and work for it!

 Isn’t this the way we feel sometimes? We’d be more comfortable with deserving folks being deprived than we are with someone we think is undeserving getting blessed. If we’ve struggled or suffered, we look down on those who haven’t. I’ll admit there’s something to be said for suffering. At best, it has the power to ennoble us. But: it can also make us self-absorbed, mean, and petty. The first-hired laborers in our Gospel story feel entitled. “We have born the burden of the day and the scorching heat,” they say. But perhaps they have not considered the struggle and the suffering of the late arrivals. The landowner asks those in the marketplace at the shank of the day, “Why are you standing here idle all day?” Their mournful reply is, “Because no one has hired us.” They’re unemployed, and no work means no food for themselves or their families.

 When I was about ten years old my dad was laid off from his job. He was a middle-aged engineer, the victim of an industry-wide slow-down. He was out of work for the next fourteen months and had to apply for government assistance—a necessity which was murderous to the pride of a man who believed that good people went to work and only bums went on the dole. He worked off and on for the next fourteen years until he was able to take his Social Security and pension. He went from one company to another, following the fortunes of government contracts and the shaky economy, never again feeling that he would have the job security the American Dream had promised. I learned early in life that unemployment brings its own special kind of suffering.

 The behavior of the landowner in our parable is as disturbing as the grumbling of the “entitled” early hires. He tells his foreman to gather the workers and pay the most recent hires first. This violates a rather common sense rule of business: Don’t let an employee know what other employees are paid. Doing this can only incite comparison, envy, and discontent. Nevertheless, this landowner acts like a show-off and parades his largess to the late hires in front of the whole workforce. Predictably, the griping ensues.

 Personally, I don’t have a problem with what the landowner has done, even though prudence would dictate that he follow the advice about almsgiving Jesus gave us in the Sermon on the Mount.[i] His show of generosity, you see, forces all the workers to confront the issue. Do they value their sense of justice and pride over the welfare of others? Are they choosing to weaponize their own struggles in order to prove their entitlement? What do they value more—compassion for fellow human beings or their sense of personal superiority? And how, do you think, would Jesus want them to answer these questions? How would you?

 God’s way often makes us unsettled, and forces us to ask questions of ourselves which we might be embarrassed to answer. We all have a little bit of Jonah in us, don’t we?[ii] It galls us to see the “undeserving” spared.

 I love that the book of Jonah ends with a question and not an answer. In this stressful, precarious moment in history it might be best that we let ourselves be challenged by the scriptures.

 God be with you.



[i] See Matthew 6:2-4.

[ii] See Jonah 3:10-4:11, our First Lesson for Pentecost 16.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Debtors' Prison (Reflections on Pentecost 15, Year A)

 

Claude Vignon (French, 17th Cent.) "The Unmerciful Servant"

“And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” (Matthew 18:34) 

The above verse from our appointed Gospel for Pentecost 15, Year A (Matthew 18: 21-35) is a pretty nasty verse, don’t you think? A man is condemned to torture in a debtors’ prison for the crime of un-forgiveness. But, if you think about it, the lack of forgiveness, the gripping on to grievances and wounds, is a type of torture. God may not condemn us to it. Rather, we condemn ourselves to it.

 Come on. Be honest. Haven’t you ever enjoyed the luxury of holding a grudge? Haven’t you relished the thought that there was another human being whose character was more despicable than your own? Have you ever made the mental list of all the things you did for that person and all the times they showed callous ingratitude? Of all the rude things they’ve said? Of all the times thy have neglected your dignity? You may have just luxuriated in your indignation as you became exactly the sort of bitter complaining person you can’t stand to be around.

 Face it: we love to keep score. Peter has this thing all figured out. He’s going to count seven times before he gets to designate someone irredeemable. Seven’s a good number, right? In Hebrew numerology it combines four (the number of earthly completeness) with three (the number of God’s completeness). Seven screw-ups and it’s complete—you can now hate that person with impunity.

 In a way, Peter has a point. I mean, just how much of someone else’s toxicity are we supposed to take? In last week’s Gospel Jesus counseled us to treat an unrepentant offender like a gentile or a tax collector, which is another way of saying that the offender is outside of the society (Mt. 18:17). Yeah, sometimes you have to draw the line. But to forgive does not mean to excuse. There still may be consequences for someone’s actions, but how we regard that person in our own hearts is a different matter.

Jesus isn’t into keeping score. Jesus demands forgiveness that goes beyond our ability to count up wrongs. The slave in the parable has racked up a debt so high no one could repay it. It’s actually an exaggerated amount almost equivalent to the national debt of a small country. Jesus likes to use a little hyperbole for effect at times, but the point is this guy is unable to make things right. Fortunately, he serves a gracious lord who takes pity on him.

 Here’s the problem: the guy doesn’t appreciate the magnitude of what has been done for him. I figure he’s like some degenerate gambler who keeps getting deeper and deeper into the hole while he blames everybody else for the poor choices he’s made. He has no introspection, and, therefore, no repentance. To fear the consequences of your wrong-doing is not the same as being contrite for having done wrong. He just doesn’t seem to get the concept of his master’s grace.

 And that’s a problem. You see, I don’t believe that there can be forgiveness without repentance. By this I don’t mean to say that you have to know the one who has wronged you is sorry for their action before you can forgive them. I mean that each of us has to repent before we can forgive another from our hearts. We have to come to an understanding of who we are and who God is.

 Some wrongs—racial injustice, child abuse, genocide, you name it—are just too enormous for score-keeping. If we took the “eye-for-an-eye” attitude the whole world would be blind! There are times when we lack the ability to get past our wounds. But God never lacks that ability. When we can’t let go of hurt we can still lean on the knowledge of God’s grace.

 I love the story of Joseph in Genesis that’s used as the First Lesson companion for this Gospel (Genesis 50:15-21). Joseph has every good reason to hate his brothers and seek revenge, but God has spoken to him in his suffering and changed his heart. That’s why he’s able to forgive. He’s come to a new understanding of the magnitude of God’s unconditional goodness and love.

 Sometimes we have to know ourselves as forgiven before we can offer forgiveness to others. The choice is up to us: live in grace or in a debtors’ prison of our own making.

  May the peace of God which passes our understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.