Thursday, July 2, 2020

Prisoners of Hope (Reflections on Pentecost, 5, Year A)

Shoulder yoke | Photo Exhibits
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)

On hot and muggy July day 244 years ago, a colonial officer, Colonel John Nixon, stood in front of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia and, with his booming stentorian voice, read aloud the text of a long document which declared that the American colonists were fed up with the crap they were taking from the British Crown and, since no redress of grievances seemed to be forthcoming, they just weren’t going to take it anymore. When the good colonel had finished his announcement, the bell in the State House was enthusiastically rung, proclaiming to all within earshot—and all the rest of us down through these 244 years—Americans[i] would henceforth be a free and sovereign people.

But what did “freedom” mean? What does it mean for us? Those enthusiastic colonists had to fight a bloody revolution to get free, and, when they’d achieved victory and thrown off the yoke of monarchial tyranny, they had to put the country back together again. The question would be how “free” is free? We still debate this. How much control should a government have? When a yoke is thrown off, what do we put back on? Some will always say government needs to get off our backs. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” they say. “Government is doing too much!” Others will answer, “Government isn’t doing enough! We have a problem here, so why don’t they DO something about it..?!”

Yup. We Americans are typically human. That means we’re a pretty fickle bunch of folks. We’re just like the folks Jesus is dishing it out to in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 5, Year A (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). I guess it’s hard to be a Savior when you’re dealing with folks who don’t seem to know what they want or what’s good for them. The people in Jesus’ day complained John the Baptist was too austere. Then they whined that Jesus was too liberal!

As wise or smart as we think we are, we sure seem to have a real hard time figuring out who we are or who we should be. Just look at our situation today. Every night on the TV news you see people with their shorts bunched up because they don’t want government in their face. They don’t want to be told they must wear a face covering in public. They don’t want government to shut down their business, or keep them from their gym, or tell them they can’t get a drink in a bar. On the other hand, they don’t want to catch or spread a potentially deadly viral infection either. Freedom can be a really puzzling paradox, can’t it?

You know who loved a good paradox? Martin Luther[ii]. In The Freedom of a Christian (1520), Luther wrote:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.”

That is, you are in charge of your own soul. No one can tell you how to worship God or how to believe—not priest, pastor, pope, or prince. You’re not even a slave to the Law, because obedience to the Law did not earn you Christ’s love. Christ gave you that love of his own free will. When you realized this, you were set free from sin, shame, and doubt. Of course, in the very next sentence Luther wrote:

“A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

So what’s up with this? Yeah, your soul is free, but free for what? You are free to choose of your own true and honest will to accept the bondage of the Law which pushes you to love God and love everyone else. If you love them, you will be their servant.

Sometimes this bondage and servitude may seem too heavy to bear. Nevertheless, Jesus promises us in the Gospel that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and, should we choose to take his yoke upon us, he will give us rest. When we are finally released form the bondage of COVID-19, there will be more burdens to bear. Our congregation will be different. We’ll have to do the work of recreating a community that has been through an ordeal. We’ll have to hire a new Music Director and rebuild our worship program. When I look at what will need to be done, it seems exhausting.

The road ahead looks like the challenges faced by our colonial forebears who had set aside one yoke but needed to figure out what the next yoke should be. It’s also like the people of Judah in our Hebrew scripture lesson from Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9-12). They have been freed from bondage in Babylon, but now they have to figure out how to rebuild a nation in ruins. It looks like a tough job, and I have to wonder if they started to ask themselves if freedom was worth it.

But God always offers a word of hope. Zechariah tells them they’re on the road to a new kingdom. In this kingdom, the King won’t come busting in on a chariot or a war horse. He’ll ride humbly on a baby donkey, gently proclaiming peace. “Come,” he says, “all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It’s a word of hope, and it reminds me that, however tough the road ahead looks, a day will come when I’ll look back and say, “You know, that wasn’t really so hard after all.”

I can only ask God to make me that dutiful servant and prisoner. Like the folks in Zechariah’s day, we are politically set free, but we must always be prisoners of hope. Some say we can’t live on hope, but I maintain we can’t live without it.

Hope on, fellow servant, and enjoy the freedom of your bondage to Christ!

PS-For a shortened video version of this sermonette, click here.

[i] That is, Americans who were both white and debt-free. If you didn’t fall into those categories, you were still pretty much screwed.
[ii] Of course you knew that!

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Little Ones (Reflections on Pentecost 4, Year A)

Showdown between Prophets – Prophets and Monarchs

“…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

Whenever I’d see my late sister Maryanne’s name come up on my caller ID I’d answer the phone by saying, “Shwmae, Fach!” She’d reply, “Shwmae, Bach!”[i] This salutation roughly translates from the Welsh as “Hello, Little One!”

“Little One?” It’s actually a term of endearment. I call my wife “Little One.” Granted, Marilyn only stands 5’ 1” tall, so, technically, she is pretty little by the standard of our society, but that’s not why I call her that. I call her that out of endearment. Don’t we refer to our kids as “the little ones?” It almost brings a smile to our lips when we think of them like that. Granted, your “Little One” might be 6’4” by now, but he’s always a little one in your heart. The expression implies a sense of delight, but it also makes us feel protective of the one we’re referring to. We cherish our little ones, and so we are always on the lookout for their welfare.

In our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 4 Year A (Matthew 10:40-42), Jesus is referring to us as “the little ones.” That should give you an idea about how he views us. He’s not saying we’re small and weak (although we are!), rather, he’s saying that he cherishes us and he desires we should be kept safe and be loved—just as we desire the same for our “little ones.” He blesses anyone who shows kindness to his little ones, just as we would do to those who act kindly towards the ones we cherish.

So, you may be asking yourself, what’s this got to do with the Hebrew scripture lesson (Jeremiah 28:5-9) which the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary paired with this Gospel? To be honest, I sometimes wonder what these guys were smoking when they yoked these readings together, but—aside from the reference to prophets in verse 41 of the Gospel text—I think I can see a connection.

First, let me set the scene of the reading from Jeremiah. This takes place after Judah has been pretty badly whooped by the Babylonians.[ii] The Babylonians have thrashed them militarily, looted Solomon’s temple, and carried off a number of hostages. Two prophets are in the temple in front of a packed house of priests and others having a debate about what the next course of action should be following this crisis. Do they submit to the Babylonians, or do they resist as they have been doing? Jeremiah, having a flair for the dramatic, shows up wearing a wooden slave’s yoke on his shoulders. He’s trying to demonstrate that Judah is already a vassal to Babylon, and that the best possible course to take is to choke down their pride, suck it up, and surrender before more people get killed and everything turns to crap.

Not to be outdone in the showmanship department, Jeremiah’s adversary, Hananiah, takes the yoke from ol’ Jerry’s shoulders and smashes it, graphically demonstrating his belief that God loves Judah better than God loves Babylon, and that everything is going to be groovy. The crisis is a hoax. God will just fix everything, and there’s no need to change the course the country is already on. Jeremiah responds saying he certainly wishes Hananiah is right, but if he isn’t, Judah is going to be in a world of hurt, more people will die, and God will not be happy. The priests and the rulers—believing the prophecy they want to believe—side with Hananiah. The result is more bloodshed and the total destruction of all of Jerusalem. God strikes Hananiah dead, which, considering how bad things got, was probably doing him a favor.[iii]

So what’s the take-away? We have a responsibility to the little ones. To the young, the aged, the sick, the stranger, the helpless, the oppressed. It might be inconvenient. It might require we face some unpleasant truths, but it is what God asks of us. Right now, we modify our worship, we sacrifice our ritual, we wear masks, we social distance. We don’t like it, but we do it to cherish and protect the little ones. I don’t believe God sends us crises—human beings are good at creating them all by ourselves. Nevertheless, God always uses situations like the present to teach us how to love one another the way God loves us.

Try this: Start by identifying yourself as God’s “Little One.”  Take some time to think God is smiling on you with loving delight and desires you to be loved and protected and cherished and aided by the folks around you. Take some time just to let God love you as you love your own “little ones.” If you can see yourself in this light, perhaps you can say to others, “You are God’s Little One!” Perhaps you’ll view your family members, your friends, strangers, and even the folks who irritate you in a new and gentler way. Perhaps this will guide your heart to a new openness which will allow the love of Christ to come flooding in. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful reward?

God bless you, Little One. Thanks for reading!

[i] Both of these greetings mean the same thing. The mutation of an F to a B is because of grammatical gender in the Welsh language.
[ii] This is around 598-597 BCE for you history buffs.
[iii] I could probably make a comparison with this story to our Administration’s negligent approach to the COVID-19 crisis, global climate change, poverty, the Black Lives Matter movement, etc., but I’ll let you do the math. I wouldn’t want to offend anybody, would I?

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Time to 'Fess Up (Reflections on Pentecost 3, Year A)

Most Americans support protesters over Trump, shifting opinion ...
“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matthew 10:26)

So have no fear? That’s a tall order, Jesus. ‘Cause I’m scared, and it’s time I ‘fessed up to it. I’m scared of black folks.

No, I’m not afraid of people who are just as human as I am. I’m afraid of my own stupidity. I’m afraid, when I meet a person of color, that I can’t be myself because I know that terrible things have been done to people who look like the one I’ve just met by people who look like me. I am ashamed by the fact that I have enjoyed tremendous privilege which has been denied others just because of the color of their skin. I’m embarrassed my own ignorance—the truth that I can’t possibly understand this society the way an African American or African Caribbean does because my eyes don’t see what they see. I’m nervous about walking through the sacred space of their shared pain in the dirty feet of my preconceptions and hypocrisy.

So I avoid the subject. I don’t talk about race. It’s rather like avoiding the recently bereaved because you don’t know what to say to them, and their sorrow just makes you too uncomfortable.

But then George Floyd is murdered, and we watch his senseless execution on national television. We see it repeated night after night and we can’t avoid the reality that there’s one hell of a problem here in America. Just as Jesus told us in the Gospel appointed for Pentecost 3, Year A (Matthew 10:24-39), that which was whispered is now being shouted. The truth will always come out.

We can’t hide the brokenness of our society any longer, so we might as well confess it. As Christians we have a sacred obligation to love our neighbor and seek healing for all. We are to cast out the demons that make our society so sick. The trouble is, we probably don’t know how to perform such and exorcism.

For a small, mostly white congregation in mostly white Northeast Philly, there may not be much we can do as individuals. Nevertheless, what we can do, we should do. We need to gain knowledge even when it puts us out of our comfort zone. We need to seek healing through our democracy, asking our elected leaders to support fair housing, education, and healthcare reforms as well as reforms in criminal justice and policing. And we need to be able to talk about this as advocates to people whose minds may be closed. No minds can be changed if they are never challenged.

We need to refuse to allow the whispered denigration to pass without correction. We must speak the word of dignity aloud. As a child, I often heard the “N Word” spoken by the parents I loved. As much as I cherish their memory for the good things they taught me, I must now denounce their racism. I will no longer allow that hateful word, that which came so freely to their lips, to be spoken in my presence. I regret I did not have the courage to take such a stand when my folks were living. Jesus warns that those who love father or mother—or just keeping peace in the household—more than they love Jesus and righteousness are not worthy. It’s a stinging rebuke.

Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do in our local context is learn to listen to our African American brothers and sisters and educate ourselves in the world as they see it. I think we at Faith Lutheran have an opportunity to do this because of our relationship with the Beersheba Seventh Day Adventists who share our worship space. We have been together for over three years now, and their generosity contributes over $10,000 annually to our budget. However, we have never gotten to know them. When the quarantine is over, it might be time to break bread with our friends and listen to their experiences. It’s time to know them as people and fellow Christians, not merely as “those people” who use “our” building.

Let’s face it: as Lutherans, because of our German and Scandinavian heritage, we remain the whitest denomination in the United States.[i] I recall a member of my home congregation in California looking at me in incredulity when, during a Christmas break form the Philadelphia seminary, I remarked that Emanuel Lutheran, my field education site, was 90% African American. He was shocked that there actually were African American Lutherans!

Our estrangement from people of backgrounds different from our own needs to end. We need to be educated and learn to love and understand those whom we have misunderstood for too long. To that end, I will recommend to the Worship Committee that we give priority to hiring a person of color when we hire our new Music Director. It’s a small thing, but it’s a start.

God be with you all.

[i] I’ve heard, however, that more Lutherans will worship Jesus Christ this Sunday in Namibia or Tanzania than will worship in Finland or other European countries where Lutheranism was once the state religion.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Priests in the Wilderness (Reflections on Pentecost 2, Year A)

Jesus Sends the Twelve, on a trial run - ROLAND'S GOSPEL COMMENTARY
So, okay, Church. Are you ready? It looks like the covid-19 pandemic infection rate is slowing down here in southeastern Pennsylvania. (Well, that is to say it looks like it’s slowing down. We don’t really know what the effect of mass protests in the streets and knuckleheaded behavior at the Jersey shore will do to the infection rate, but we’re still trying to be optimistic!). This means that the City of Philadelphia has moved into the first stage or re-opening, the “yellow phase.” Churches are now allowed to hold in-person worship with some very strict restrictions. In the liturgical calendar, however, we can say we’re now in the “green phase.” In Ordinary Time after Pentecost we bust out the green paraments and vestments and concentrate on growth and renewal. A lot of the Gospel lessons we get in the Revised Common Lectionary focus on the teaching of Jesus.

Now, I’d be willing to bet that after three months of quarantine a lot of folks have already learned some new lessons. Some of you have learned how to work from home while handling your home-schooled, bored, and disappointed kids. You may have taken a master class in online shopping, complete with an economics course in budgeting both your money and your time so that the monotony didn’t drive you to screaming, homicidal madness. Maybe you learned how to set aside more time for prayer. I’m sure we all learned a little more about the people we live with, and, I trust we’ve all learned about patience. Indeed, in these last few weeks, we’ve learned a lot more about racial injustice in America than white folks are comfortable knowing.

Whatever the last few months have taught us, our Lectionary Gospel for Pentecost 2 (Matthew 9:36-10:8) starts off this green phase with a reminder that our learning is to have a purpose. Here we see Jesus proclaiming that laborers are needed to go out into the harvest and get some work done because people are “harassed and helpless.” (v. 9:37) The Gospel refers to the twelve followers of Jesus as “apostles.” The word in Greek (apostolon for you Greek fans) means messengers or the “sent-out ones.” They’re Jesus’ representatives or ambassadors to the world, and their mission is to proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal everybody’s sickness. “Sickness,” of course, doesn’t mean only physical illness. It can mean a whole lot of ways we’re disconnected from God.

So are you up for doing that? Are you ready to participate in the Kingdom and be a healer for the planet?

Maybe you’re not sure. Don’t feel bad. I don’t think anyone ever undertakes a major project feeling fully prepared. That’s where faith comes in, doesn’t it? I’m sure the first ambassadors didn’t feel all that prepared either.[i] Just look at these guys: There are four blue-collar commercial fisherman, a cosmopolitan guy with a fancy Greek name, a sort of “antifa” dude who wants to tear down the system of oppression, a guy who used to work for the system of oppression, and a guy who is really good with money but can’t be trusted. They’re a mixed bag, but Jesus choose them all for his mission and God used them all—even the betrayer. After all, sometimes it’s the people who hurt us who teach us the most important lessons.

The Lectionary marries this story of the mission of the twelve with a story from Exodus (Ex. 19:2-8c). Here the Hebrews have been brought safely out of bondage in Egypt and through the Red Sea. They’re sort of like us. They’ve been rescued form their own form of “quarantine,” and allowed to worship God again. God calls them a “priestly” people (v.6). Priests, of course, are the folks whose job it is to connect others people with God. Like the twelve apostles, these folks are going to have a mission. Unfortunately, they’re not prepared to embark on this mission just yet, so God has them wander around the Sinai Peninsula for another forty years until they get their act together. God is patient like that.

Martin Luther believed that when we were baptized we were, in a sense, ordained as priests. We too have a mission to connect people with God. We might be wandering around in the wilderness at the moment, but Jesus is expecting us to be proclaimers, healers, and reconcilers.

If a congregation is to thrive, it can’t just be about providing comfort and comradery for its members. We are called to take up our priestly and apostolic identity. Here in Northeast Philly—as in every neighborhood—there are unique opportunities to establish solidarity with our neighbors. We might end up spending a little more time in the wilderness, but that’s just so God can get us prepared to go to work in the harvest.

[i] If you read down to 10:9ff, you’ll see that Jesus wasn’t too concerned about their physical preparations for this work. That must’ve scared those guys a lot. It’s hard to be a control freak when you work for Jesus!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Holy Trinity, 2020

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Greetings in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Since it’s Holy Trinity Sunday I thought I’d begin with a Trinitarian salutation. To be honest, however, I don’t really feel much like discussing the doctrine of the Trinity today, however vital it is to our understanding of the Christian faith. A great Lutheran theologian, John Tietjen, once said that theology is at the service of ministry. One way of understanding this is to say what we understand about God serves to teach us how to live righteously with one another.

I don’t have to tell you we’ve seen some very unpleasant things this past week in America. For me, it’s a case of deja vu. I lived and worked in Los Angeles during the riots of ’92—yet another case of racial injustice which convulsed a city and a nation with the force of a Howitzer shell. I can still smell the stench from the burning buildings. I vividly recall the sight of smoke, smashed store windows, and—something I’d never thought I’d see in the US—National Guard troops with M16s patrolling the streets near the school wear I taught. The tragedy is that after almost three decades nothing seems to have changed.

I think, too, about Martin Luther and the Peasants’ War of 1524. Luther sympathized with the circumstances of the peasantry and argued for their rights against their oppressors. Nevertheless, he decried their use of violence in their attempts to gain their freedoms. He encouraged the brutality with which the German princes suppressed the revolt—a military action which resulted in the massacre of nearly 100,000 human beings. This episode is an ugly stain on the history of our denomination and its founder. Mass violence is not an option for a Christian.

But neither is despair.

It is certainly natural that we should all feel somewhat violated by the recent events in Philadelphia and across the nation. Seeing massive destruction on the streets of a city we love is like seeing our child, parent, or sibling viciously attacked and maimed by a mugger. It wounds us. It’s possible we may question God at times like these when the suffocation of a pandemic is compounded with injustice, thuggery, and mayhem. In the assigned Gospel lesson for Holy Trinity (Matt. 28: 16-20) we see that even Jesus’ disciples had their doubts in the very midst of worshiping him (v.17). Why should any of us be any different?

All the same, the promise of Jesus, “I am with you always,” stands sure. Evil can make us fear, but it cannot make us hate. It can begin a cycle of violence, but it cannot sustain that cycle. It can steal or destroy our precious possessions and damage our memories, but it cannot rob us of hope. It can shut us up in our homes for a time, but it cannot invalidate our baptism or snatch away our identity as the redeemed children of the Creator God. There are things evil just doesn’t have the power to do unless we are willing to give it that power.

Sometimes it’s hard to see God at work. Sometimes we see no progress, but then we forget that it took almost 300 years for an oppressed, vilified Christianity to become a recognized and accepted religion. God’s time is not our time, and God’s vantage point is not ours either. We may be stuck on the ground unable to see past the present chaos, but from God’s viewpoint, the boundaries of our tribulations have already been set. We are here to strengthen our souls by choosing faith over fear, hope over despair, and love over anger. 

May God’s peace be with you all.

PS-For a video version of this post, click here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Happy Pentecost!

Vigil of the Pentecost & Whitsunday
“…and no one can say "Jesus is Lord" except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3b)

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the Christian Church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian Church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins—mine and those of all believers. On the last day the Holy Spirit will raise me and all the dead and will give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.” (Luther’s Small Catechism; explanation to Article III of the Apostles’ Creed)

Happy Pentecost, everybody!

I hope it’s happy in any event. If there were ever a day for rejoicing—besides the Resurrection of Our Lord—it would certainly be the Day of Pentecost. If we take Saint Paul’s words to the Corinthian congregation to heart, we see we don’t need to be speaking in tongues in order to know we’ve received the Holy Spirit. The gift of the Spirit is faith in Jesus Christ.

But don’t kid yourself. This isn’t just about assent to a doctrine. To have the Holy Spirit is to embrace the powerful presence of God in our lives. In the quote from the Small Catechism above, Luther enumerates all the blessings of the Spirit. Forgiveness of sins and eternal life are pretty cool gifts, but so is the knowledge that we’re blessed by God with various abilities and the wonderful news that we are tied through the Spirit to one another.

In the midst of the social distancing requirements of the coronavirus pandemic, I find it tremendously comforting to know that we still have community in Christ. Indeed, I’m feeling the Holy Spirit at work when I hear parishioners speak of how they long to gather once more, of how they miss one another’s company. This is the Spirit present with us.

Of course, God didn’t give us the gift of the Spirit just to have companionship. When we look at the lesson appointed for the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, and John 20:19-23), a few things stand out. First, the miraculous gift of tongues in the First Lesson isn’t just about personal ecstatic experience (funky and delightful as that may be to those who are gifted with it!). The gift of tongues was given that all people would know about Jesus. Similarly, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples and tells them they have the power to forgive or retain sins. According to Matt Skinner, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, the office of forgiving and retaining isn’t about deciding which things are naughty or nice. “Sin” in John’s Gospel is the lack of accepting the power of God in Jesus. If we, as disciples, “forgive” or “release” someone from sin in this context, we’re actually bestowing on them the message that God loves them, Jesus loves them enough to die for them, their past shame is wiped out, and they are an important part of the body of Christ in the world. To “retain” their sin would be to neglect this proclamation.

The other great thing about the Holy Spirit is that she gives us abilities to grow and enrich the body of Christ. I dig the way Luther says we’re “enlightened” with these gifts. All of us are blessed with some natural abilities. The light really comes on in our hearts, however, when we figure out that A) We didn’t choose to be good at what we’re good at. God gave us these abilities as a gift of grace, and B) God gave us these gifts to be used for God’s glory. It’s rather a weird thing, but acknowledging our abilities as both gift and responsibility makes us both humble and proud at the same time (Don’t you just love a good religious paradox?). But the pride is a good pride—the satisfaction of knowing we’re doing what God has intended us to do.

As we continue to wait patiently through this pandemic, I urge you to consider how the Spirit has blessed your life. You may not find yourself miraculously praising God in Swahili (unless, of course, you actually speak Swahili), but you have been released from the grave sins of doubt and despair, you are connected to the Church of Christ, and you have been given marvelous gifts. What should you do but rejoice?

Thanks for reading, my friend. Stay safe.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Good Time to Pray (Reflections on Easter 7, Year A)

4 Earnest Prayers for Disciple Makers | Living the D-Life
“All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer…” (Acts 1:14a)

Believe it or not, we’re all the way to Easter 7. My how time flies when you’re locked-down during a pandemic! The First lesson in the RCL for this Sunday (Acts 1:6-14) comes from Acts 1. Jesus is ascending to sit at the right hand of the Father, and the disciples are standing around looking at the clouds with their mouths hanging open (wouldn’t you?). Nevertheless, before Jesus splits, the disciples have to ask him one more time if this is the time when God will restore Israel to her former glory (They just can’t seem to get this earthly kingdom thing out of their heads!). His answer is basically, “Gosh, guys. I dunno. That’s up to my Dad. But you guys need to wait here in Jerusalem because something really cool is about to happen.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d find that a rather disappointing answer. It’s so vague. It’s like asking Governor Wolf when southeastern Pennsylvania will be open for business again. When can we come back to church? Nobody knows the answer. We’re just told to wait.

So what do you do while you’re waiting? Verse 14 tells us they devoted themselves to prayer. Now, I’ll bet many of us have a lot more time for prayer these days now that there’s no place for us to go during a pandemic. Still, worry about the unknown, boredom, frustration, and members of your family doing the rumba on your last nerves don’t exactly create an environment conducive to prayer. But pray anyway.

Okay, Pastor, you say, what shall we pray for? In the gospel lesson (John 17:1-11[i]) Jesus is just finishing his prayer. He asks his Father to protect the saints, to keep them strong in the Word, and to keep them unified. He might’ve been praying for us in our current situation. He rather pointedly is not praying for the world (v. 9). When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. Why? Because the world will never get better unless the saints of God are willing to make it better.

Perhaps our prayers at this time should not be to change our circumstances but, rather, to change ourselves. Scientists, doctors, and government authorities will do battle with the coronavirus. Our responsibility is to use this opportunity to enter into a deeper relationship with God and with each other. Our job may well be to cultivate empathy, gratitude, and a sense of purpose so we can really know the joy Jesus prays for us to receive (v. 13).

What will happen to our congregation when this pandemic finally subsides? Will we have one big “Welcome Back” mass and then go back to business as usual? Or will this time be used to God’s glory? Will we discover within ourselves a new sense of commitment as God’s people in mission to the world? It’s something we should pray about, don’t you think?

May God bless you and keep us safe, secure in the Word, and in contact with one another.

PS- For a video of this sermonette, click here.

[i] To really get this you might want to read all of John 17.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Never Orphaned (Reflections on Easter 6, Year A)

Famous Artwork: The Last Supper -
If you knew you were going to die—or if you were going on a long journey and knew you’d never have the chance to see someone you cared for again, what would you say to them? Wouldn’t you want to give them something that would cause them to remember you? Something that would stay with them and live with them after you were gone?

In the gospel lesson appointed for Ester 6 in the Revised Common Lectionary (John 14:15-21), that’s where we find Jesus. Here he’s giving something of a “farewell speech.” It’s the night of the Last Supper. He’s already washed the feet of the disciples, and Judas has already left to go rat him out to the authorities. He doesn’t have a whole lot of time left to be with these guys. So what does he do?

He promises them an advocate or helper will come to be among them when he’s gone. Of course, we know he won’t be gone too long this time. He’ll be put to death the next day, but by Sunday God will have him up and around again. He’ll hang out for the next forty days, popping up here and there—just long enough for these followers to get used to the idea that life in him is eternal—and then, on the fortieth day (the day we’ll celebrate this Thursday, May 21st, The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord) he’ll be gone once more. They won’t see him in the flesh again this side of the Pearly Gates.

I guess they moped around for the next ten days (and you could hardly blame them), but then—BAM! On the fiftieth day, the Day of Pentecost, they found Jesus was right back with them. He was in them, with them, and among them as their helper and advocate. In fact, they came to understand that he had never left them at all.

When we’re kids, our parents are supposed to teach us and guide us. They say things like, “You’ll understand this when you’re older!” Then, suddenly, we are older. We go off to college or to the military, we get married, we move away. Eventually, our parents leave us for their home in Heaven. But we find—for better or worse—that they never really leave us. All the things they’ve said or done or given us or demonstrated have become, in some way, a part of us. We might even find that we call on them in time of need. We ask ourselves, “What would Mom say about this if she were here?” or “What would Dad do in this situation?” And we find, sometimes to our surprise, that we really do understand now that we’re older.

This is Jesus’ promise to us—to be with us in the Spirit of Truth. As Saint Paul says in our First Lesson, we don’t worship a God who lives in shrines made by human hands (Acts 17:24). We can’t even worship in our shrine made by human hands now because of the coronavirus epidemic! Praise be to God that the Spirit of Christ lives in and among us, granting us wisdom and courage to face the current hour.

May the Spirit of Our Lord, who dwells in the Father, also dwell in us!

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Can I Get a Witness? (Reflections on Easter 5, Year A)

The Stoning of Saint Stephen - Wikipedia
Nobody said being a Christian was going to be easy.  In the First Lesson for Easter 5, Year A (Acts 7:55-60) we see Stephen paying a pretty hefty price for his faithfulness to God. This poor guy gets stoned to death just for doing the right thing. But, hey! Righteousness, we’re told, is its own reward. If you think you can escape the problems of this world through your obedience to God, you’re kidding yourself and you’re turning God’s favor into some kind of transaction. The problems of this world will always find you. Those problems, however, will take on a different and less frightening look when they’re encountered with a clear conscience and the knowledge that you’ve done what God has called you to do.

Stephen, our hero this week, is described as being full of the Holy Spirit. He’s tasked with helping to create the loving community. He’s one of the first deacons, and his job is to make sure the widows and orphans of the community are taken care of and that the charity done for them is done without partiality. He’s pretty good at this job, and most folks like and respect him. He really knows his scriptures, and when he get5s into theological debates with non-Christians, he speaks logically and intelligently. Unfortunately, some bad guys get jealous of his popularity and accuse him of blasphemy. He defends himself with great verbal skill and speaks God’s truth to the powerful priests—even when he knows this won’t go down well with them. Righteous to the end, he even forgives the guys who are throwing rocks at him!

In the old Lutheran Book of Worship collect series, the Prayer of the Day for Easter 5 asks God to help us love what God commands and desire what God promises. God has called us to create the loving community—a pretty tricky ask when we’re all sheltering in place during a quarantine. Nevertheless, like Stephen, folks at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia are finding ways to connect and be the body of Christ with and for one another. Some who read this message do so because a church member has copied it out and mailed it to members without internet access. Some of our members are doing the grocery shopping for elderly homebound members. Some are planting a garden of vegetables to donate to our Lutheran food bank. Some are gathering as a family, reading the weekly lessons, and watching the sermonette video, creating their own mini-church. Some are doing Bible study on Zoom. Some will soon gather—properly masked, of course—to make meals for neighborhood shut-ins. In these ways and more—and in spite of the pandemic—God’s people are doing their best to make Christ known.

During this crisis many people are willing to put themselves out for love of their neighbors. You don’t have to be a martyr like Stephen, but I think it’s important to remember that the word “martyr” literally means a witness. So keep looking for ways in which you can be part of the loving community. We’re all called to witness so the world can see the unconquerable love of Jesus Christ.

God’s peace and blessings to you all—and stay safe!

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Only One Way In (Reflections of Easter 4, Year A)

Jesus Christ "the Good Shepherd" Orthodox Icon | Legacy Icons
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (John 10:1)

Boy. I bet Bernie Sanders would really dig the description of the early Christian church we find in the first lesson appointed for Easter 4, Year A (Acts 2:42-47). If you read verses 44-45, it looks pretty much like these guys were socialists. Look: they had no private property, they all contributed as they could to the common purse, and they took what they needed from it. Sounds great—even Utopian, right?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for this system described in chapter 2 to fall apart. By chapter 6 some favoritism started to creep in, and the disciples had to create a sort of ecclesiastic bureaucracy to address it. I don’t consider myself an expert on world economics, but it seems to me that a totally socialistic system—one where the government controls the means of production and the distribution of wealth—will always, in this sinful world, become corrupt. By the same token, a totally free market system—in which everyone looks after their own interest and the only law is supply and demand—will quickly turn into a giant game of Monopoly in which a few will win and everyone else will lose.

But it’s not the system that’s important, is it? What matters is our motivation for supporting a system. When we enter into a social relationship, we’d better be sure we’re entering by the right gate. And that gate can only be Jesus Christ (John 10:9).

In times of crisis we look for leadership, but as Christians we’ve already found our leader. He’s the one hanging on the cross. In him we see the greatest depth of love for all people. We see sacrifice and forgiveness and hope beyond our present alienation. We see how deeply we each are loved in spite of all our mistakes and shortcomings. And we hear the command to love others as He has loved us—in humility, generosity, and forbearance.

Any theory or institution we put our trust in is mere idolatry unless it is born of the law of God and the gracious love of Christ fervently embraced in our hearts. There is only one gate to enter, the gate which acknowledges Christ’s love of all people—even those with values and cultures different from our own. Any other system is empty hubris or greed and will ultimately wound and destroy. Jesus told us to strive first for the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and then all will be added to us (Matthew 6:33). If we look to him, no one will hunger. He’s the Good Shepherd. All the others are poor copies or impostors. We know what he’d have us do and who he’d have us be. It’s up to us to do and be it.

God’s peace to you. Thanks for coming by this week.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Stranger on the Road (Reflections on Easter 3, Year A)

Thanks for essential workers, road-worker, social worker, doctor and nurse for their service amid corona virus outbreak
Oh, Jesus. He shows up in the darndest places, doesn’t he? Of course, like those sad disciples trudging their despondent way back to Emmaus in the gospel lesson appointed for Easter 3, Year A (Luke 24:13-35), we don’t always recognize him. Maybe he’s been disguising himself as a healthcare worker or a supermarket employee or a delivery driver or an online teacher or even a friendly neighbor—any number of folks who, during this covid-19 pandemic, have been sacrificially putting themselves at risk out of a loving regard for the rest of us. Maybe our eyes have been kept from seeing him, but make no mistake, he is certainly present. I always feel that my job as a Christian is to see Jesus in others and to be Jesus for others. If I can’t see him, I won’t be able to be him.

What I’ve always liked about this gospel story in Luke is that it takes place in the midst of a journey. That’s a pretty sweet metaphor, don’t you think? Jesus meets us while we’re on the road, while we’re not yet settled or at rest. He just loves that liminal time when we’re not quite comfortable. I imagine Cleopas and that other disciple were pretty bummed out when they made that post-Passover trip back to their home in Emmaus. They must’ve been filled with both grief for Jesus and great disappointment. When the thing you’ve hoped for turns to crap, you find yourself wandering around wondering what to do next. Do you start over? Do you look for something new? Do you get mad, say "screw it!” and assume there’s no point in hoping for anything ever again?

Then along comes a stranger who makes you see something in a new light. He might ask, “Was it not necessary that he Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” After all, all of the prophets suffered. The children of Israel suffered as slaves in Egypt, captives in Babylon, and vassals of a host of conquerors. Could anybody in Israel ever really relate to a Messiah who didn’t know what suffering was about? Suffering sucks, but it also leads to wisdom. And it leads to compassion and empathy and the comfort of knowing that you’ve been understood. God couldn’t give us a Messiah who couldn’t look us in the eye and say, “Yeah. Dude. I’ve been there.”

When Cleopas and his buddy get back to Emmaus, they do a pretty cool thing. The strange guy they’ve met on the road seems to have a longer journey to make, but the two disciples realize that it’s getting on for dinner time, and this guy must be hungry and tired. They welcome the stranger just as if they were welcoming the Lord. After all, didn’t Jesus say that when you have done it for one of the least of these, you have done it for him?[i] So they open their home and their hearts and—by golly!—there was Jesus right in the midst of them after all.

You have to give these two guys credit. Not only were they—in the time of their sorrow, disappointment, and confusion—able to see Jesus in someone else, they also practiced being Jesus. They were loving, welcoming, and generous. In seeking to live out Christ within themselves, they had their faith and their joy restored.

That’s kind of the point. We’re all on the same road, we’re all unsettled pilgrims unsure of our destination. The safest rule of the road will be to keep our eyes open for Jesus. You never know when he’ll show up.

God’s peace. My friend. Thanks again for reading!

[i] Matthew 25:40

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