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.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

When Someone Causes Trouble (Reflections on Pentecost 14, Year A)

People embracing and gathering in a circle | Free Photo


(This is only a story. Any similarities between actual events or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.) 

Once upon a time there was a tiny Lutheran church with a small praise ensemble. One of the musicians (let’s call him “Bob”) was a very well-meaning but stubborn man. God had given Bob tremendous musical talent. Unfortunately, Bob also had an enormous ego and wanted everything his own way. This caused friction within the praise team and much consternation for the church’s worship committee, the Praise Director (let’s call him “Joe”), and the congregation in general. Many of the Lutherans grumbled about Bob. Some of them complained to the pastor, but none of them confronted him directly about his behavior. 

One day, after a particularly acrimonious verbal run-in with Joe, Bob came to see the pastor. The pastor was a very timid man who was uncomfortable with inter-personal conflict, but he invited Bob to his office to hear him out. Bob sat down in a chair and in his very self-important stentorian voice declared, “Pastor, the trouble with Joe is he just doesn’t listen!” 

The pastor thought about this statement for a moment. He never liked to contradict anyone, and always thought everyone should have their say. He had tried to reason with Bob in the past, and knew this would be difficult. After a pause, and screwing his courage to the sticking-place, the pastor replied, “Joe doesn’t have to listen, Bob. He’s in charge. He talks and you listen.” 

This reply incensed Bob. Realizing he had no ally in the pastor, he stormed out of the church and was never heard from again. Although the praise team found themselves bereft of Bob’s talent, a wave of relief wafted over them and the congregation in general. It was as if the clouds had parted and warm sunshine shone down upon them. 

THE above parable illustrates a point: Even in the church there are people who misbehave and need to be called out on their inappropriate shenanigans. This has always been the case. Even the community for which our evangelist Matthew wrote his Gospel had their own contentious issues. It’s always wise for us to remember that the church is not a country club for saints but a hospital for sinners. If you go into a hospital, don’t be shocked if you run into sick people.

 When a member gets out of line, it’s incumbent on us to see options other than getting all up in their face or passively pretending that nothing is wrong. The first option is always going to breed resentment in the malefactor. The second will just make resentment simmer in everybody else. That’s why Jesus gave us this interventionist plan to follow in our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 14 (Matthew 18:14-20). The one-on-one encounter protects the dignity of the person who has been causing all the fuss. This opens the door for rehabilitation and forgiveness, which is what the church should always be about. If this fails, Jesus tells us to try an intervention with two or three others. Having witnesses prevents a “he said/he said” situation. It also can impress on the offender the impact their behavior is having on the whole community. A complaint before the church council is the last resort, and I consider myself fortunate as a pastor that I have never been in a situation where this has had to occur.

 It’s never pleasant to have to ask someone to leave, but sometimes a little distance is necessary. Jesus, nevertheless, holds out the hand of mercy in verse 17. Gentiles and tax collectors were never beyond the reach of his love. The Syro-Phoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28) and Matthew himself (Matthew 9:9-13) are examples of Jesus’ radical inclusivity. He was always trying to bring outsiders in. The WELCOME mat is always out at the door of the church, and Jesus is always telling us, “You belong here.” 

We have a duty to correct one another. We also have a duty to love and forgive one another. We’ll be on the right track if we do it Jesus’ way. 

God’s peace, my friend. Stay safe. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

"Get Behind Me" (Reflections on Pentecost 13, Year A)


Steve Chapman: Barring church services is not religious persecution |  Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Get behind me…” (Matthew 16:23) 

Sometimes you have to deliver bad news. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that the news lately has been uniformly crappy. As I write this, over 177,000 Americans have died from coronavirus related illness. A massive hurricane is beating the snot out of the Texas-Louisiana gulf coast. California is on fire. Another un-armed black man has been shot by white cops. Riots and protests and vigilantism seem the order of the day. 

Too many examples? Ooops. Forgot the economy is still in the toilet, too. 

Sorry. My bad. I should be trying to uplift you, not remind you of all the downers out there. But, truth be told, I’ve been getting bad news for some time now. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Faith Lutheran’s worship space, our Sunday attendance was going south like a flock of geriatric geese. Things are changing, and not in a way we might like. Sunday youth sports, the gig economy, and the need for many Americans to take second and third jobs or deal with unpredictable work schedules has trashed the idea of a Sabbath in this country. The cost of maintaining church buildings keeps going up, but offerings keep going down. I suspect that I’ll live long enough to see American Lutheranism’s “normal” be the house church with part-time or bi-vocational pastors. Maybe the normal will be virtual church—a worshiping community in cyber space. You think..? 

The passage from Jeremiah in the First Lesson assigned for Pentecost 13 in the RCL (Jeremiah 15:15-21) is one of what Bible scholars call the “confessions.” These are poems of ill tidings Jeremiah has to deliver to folks who don’t want to hear them. Jeremiah isn’t too thrilled about having to say what he says. In fact, he’d rather not, but God insists he deliver the bad news. The poor guy suffers because people hate him for what he is commissioned to share with them. It’s the same story, in a way, in our Gospel lesson (Matthew 16:21-28). Peter really doesn’t want to hear that Jesus must be handed over, suffer, and die. He hates the idea of the sacrifice which will be necessary before Jesus is revealed to be the healer of the world. He wants the gain without the pain. I think of that old bumper sticker: “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.” 

Jesus has to tell Peter to get behind him.[i] It’s possible that what he’s actually telling Peter is “back me up and be an obedient follower.” Getting behind Jesus means resisting the temptation to ignore the unpleasant and the difficult. It will mean taking up the cross and embracing some sacrifice and loss. We in the church may have to endure a lot of change and loss before we get to our “newer normal.” I suspect that whenever the pandemic restrictions are lifted we will see fewer people returning to in-person worship.[ii] We may have to look into becoming a “virtual church.” This could mean the purchase of new equipment, the acquisition of a new skill set, greater participation from lay members, and dealing with changes we haven’t even thought about yet. 

The question is whether or not we’re willing to get behind Jesus and make the sacrifices necessary to spread the Gospel in a new context. Are all of us ready to become cyber evangelists? Can we get used to creating community with folks we may only see in person once a month? Are we ready to embrace a smaller worshiping community and fewer resources with a greater commitment to discipleship—prayer, Bible study, generosity, and volunteerism? Are we willing to do whatever it takes to further the Gospel?

 Things change. Sometimes the changes suck. All the same, it seems clear to me that if we hold on to old-fashioned notions of what church “should” be, we may lose everything. But, if we’re willing to lose some things, we may find ourselves anew. 

Stay strong. Stay safe. God bless.

[i] The Greek here is Upage opwhich, literally is a command to stand to the rear of the one who commands you. It can also be translated as “get away from me,” but smart Bible scholars note the contrast between what Jesus tells Peter and what he tells the devil in Matthew 4:10.

[ii]Since the start of the pandemic we at Faith have already lost two members to death, one to retirement living, and six have moved out of the area.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Who Are You? (Reflections on Pentecost 12, Year A)

Peter's Confession | Dan McCoig's Sermons 

“But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15b) 

How do you define yourself? What makes you you? Are you your heritage or just the sum of all of your experiences? Do you define yourself by your job? Your nationality? Ethnicity? Religion? Hobbies? If someone asked you to define yourself, what would you say? Or is it that others define us? Do we rely on the people in our lives to tell us who we are? 

In the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 12, Year A (Matthew 16:13-20), Jesus asks an existential question: Who do people say that I am? He’s really confronting the disciples at this pivotal point in his earthly ministry. Do people get what this is all about? He’s shown them some miracles, performed lots of healings, and fed thousands of people. Now he wants to know if everyone is getting the message. Clearly the Pharisees don’t get it because they still want to see some magic tricks before they’ll commit to recognizing Jesus’ authority (see 16:1-4). But Jesus won’t jump through hoops for them. He wants them to recognize with their own minds what their experience with him means. He wants them to be open to seeing God at work.

 The important question for us, then, is: Who do you say Jesus is? If a stranger asked you to define Jesus based on the impact Jesus has on your life, what would you say?

 I know what I’d say. The older I get, the less I think of Jesus as the one who suffered and died for me. Rather, I think of him as the one who suffers and dies with me. His frustrations, his losses, his failing body on the cross, his patience with ridicule and misunderstanding—all of this gives my experience meaning. Because the divine Son was willing to share my situation—even to the  point of doing the slave’s job and washing the feet of the disciples—the whole human experience has been made holy. That makes my experience and your experience holy too. And for that I give thanks.

 If we define ourselves by anything, let’s define ourselves by our relationship with Christ. In Christ we have no reason to make comparisons or evaluations. That’s why St. Paul told the church in Rome (Romans 12:1-8) and all of us today to think of ourselves with sober judgment. There’s no scale or measure of worth or importance in the holy life Jesus sanctified. Each of us has a place in it, and that place isn’t to be defined by the world’s standards of success or fame or prestige. We are not conformed to the world, but we are transformed through Christ by the renewing of our minds.

 You can be you because Jesus is Jesus—and he made being you holy.

 Peace be with you!

Thursday, August 13, 2020

A Crumb is Enough (Reflections on Pentecost 11, Year A)

 The Canaanite woman and the Mother of God

I really appreciate the Lutheran pastors (and one Episcopal guest) in my conference Bible study group. Some of them are young enough to be my kids, but I have to say they often seem a lot smarter than me. Still, even with the aid of their magnificent and theologically trained young minds, this week’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 15:22-28) was something of a stumper. You’ve heard the story: Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman with a sick child. He calls her a dog and refuses to heal her little girl. Then, when she gives a pithy comeback to his rather insulting rebuke to her, he changes his mind and heals the child. My young colleagues and I agreed that there were a few things about this passage we found jarring.


First, let’s assume that Jesus intended to heal the foreign woman’s kid all along, but he was using this episode either to test her faith or to teach his followers a lesson about inclusivity. This interpretation might fly in the face of our understanding of grace since the healing seems to depend on the woman giving the right reply to Jesus’ nasty comments about her. Also, the fact that Jesus basically calls her the “b-word” kind of ruffles our image of a loving and compassionate Savior. I mean, this lady is suffering enough with a demonically possessed daughter. Does she need to be insulted, too?


Of course, we could take the opposite tack and assume that Jesus—who was true human as well as true God—was just doing what any rabbi in his culture would do when he denied the request of a gentile. We could conclude that he was won over by the foreign woman’s faith, and so decided to change his mind about the healing. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t square up with our Trinitarian understanding that Jesus is one with the omniscient God. We’re left with two alternatives: Jesus is either omniscient but rude to the point of being cruel, or he’s not omniscient and is figuring it out as he goes just like the rest of us.


Part of me likes the idea of the human Jesus having an epiphany. It’s kind of like the wonderful moment we have when we discover that someone we assumed was a total jerk turns out to be pretty decent after all.[i] All the same, if I had to pick an interpretation, I guess I’d go with the idea that Jesus was teaching us a lesson about loving our neighbor—even if that neighbor is someone with whom we wouldn’t normally associate. Matthew’s Gospel seems to lean in that direction. He starts his story with a genealogy of Jesus which includes foreign women like Rahab and Ruth. He goes on to introduce a bunch of foreign astronomers who hail Jesus as a king. He depicts the Holy Family as refugees in a foreign land, and ends the whole story with Jesus sending his ambassadors out to make disciples of all nations.


So what does this story about inclusion say to us as we’re trying our best to avoid everyone during a pandemic? With which of the characters in this story do you identify? I’ll bet it’s pretty easy to feel sympathy for the disciples who just want this weird, nagging woman to put a sock in her pie hole and leave them alone. With all the misery and conflict in our world right now, do you really have time to listen to someone else’s problems? Can’t you just hear Peter or Andrew or one of the guys saying, “Look, lady. The Lord has enough sick folks to worry about among our own people. We don’t have time for your foreign brat. So beat it!” In a time of stress, don’t we all have to triage our level of concern? But Jesus is still there for everyone. If we’re really serious about being imitators of Christ, we’re going to have to put up with a lot we think we’re too tired to handle.


In contrast, we might want to identify with the Canaanite woman. It’s not hard. Have you ever felt left out? Have you ever wondered if God was listening to you? Have you ever been made to feel undeserving of God’s grace? Jesus admires this woman for her faith. With a sick child, a hostile crowd trying to get rid of her, and a really belligerent rebuke from the rabbi she’s petitioning for help, she still presses on. What else can she do?


As we start the sixth month of a pandemic shut-down, we watch continued protests in the streets of our cities, and we wait for our government to do something meaningful, we’ll accept any crumb of grace that falls from God’s table, and even a crumb will be enough.


God’s peace, my friend. Take care and thanks for reading this week.


[i] A 1999 made-for-TV movie by Trimark simply called Jesus took the interpretation that Jesus changed his mind when moved by the faith of the Canaanite woman. A church member said she really liked this depiction as it made Jesus seem more relatable.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Take Heart! (Reflections on Pentecost 10, Year A)

Fear Not, It is I by Jorge Cocco | Altus Fine Art

“Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (Matthew 14:27b)


There’s a hard and fast rule for dealing with a crisis: if you panic, you die. During the Great Depression Franklin Roosevelt told us the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. That’s because people do stupid things whenever our sense of the normal becomes unhinged. We’ll run from a wild animal, thereby encouraging said beast to chase us, when we should be backing away slowly. We’ll hit our brakes in a skid when we should be taking our foot off the gas and steering into the skid. We’ll pull money we don’t even use out of our investment portfolio when the market goes south, effectively realizing the loss and incurring tax penalties, rather than waiting patiently for a turnaround.


Fear is a pretty strong tool of the devil. It makes us forget we have an all-powerful God. In the First Lesson in the RCL for Pentecost 10, Year A (1 Kings 19:9-18) even the prophet Elijah—the superstar of prophets who’ll make a special guest appearance on the Mount of the Transfiguration—starts to freak out. This guy has just slain 400 prophets of Baal, but when the evil Queen Jezebel puts a hit out on him he panics and high-tails it for the wilderness. Even after God provides him with food to sustain him for forty days and forty nights, he’s still overstating his case, whining and crying that he’s the only one left who loves the true God. God has to jerk his chain a little. God sends forth a tornado, an earthquake, and a brush fire[i], as if to say, “Now that I’ve got your attention, Elijah, let me give you the facts. This isn’t as bad as you think. There are still 7,000 in Israel who are faithful to me and have not bowed to Baal. You’re not the only one, Buster, so get over yourself.”


We see Peter acting the same way as Elijah in our Gospel Lesson (Matthew 14: 22-33). We‘re told the boat the disciples are in is being “battered by the waves” (v.24). Some Bible scholars see the boat as a metaphor for the church and the water as an ancient symbol of chaos. The interpretation here is that Matthew’s early Christian community is getting the crap knocked out of it by the chaos that surrounds it. This chaos could consist of lots of things in the ancient world, but most probably included a family-sized load of persecution.


Fortunately, the church still has Jesus. Jesus can walk calmly through the storm and angry sea, serenely telling the church, “Don’t freak out! It’s me!”[ii] Of course, ol’ Pete has got to have some reassurance, so he asks Jesus if he can come to him on the water—a pretty unsafe move under the circumstances if you ask me! But Jesus is never one to pass up a good teaching moment. He lets Peter do a pretty dumb thing. Peter looks at the waves, gets scared, and has to beg Jesus for help. Isn’t that just the way? Whenever we try to combat the chaos on our own, we always end up turning back to Jesus.


I’ve heard some people look at the COVID-19 pandemic, the civil unrest in the US, the economic troubles, and the intensity of weather events and conclude that the world is coming to an end. I’d agree that some aspects of our world may be on their way out, but I’m not sure it’s all over. And even if it is the end of civilization or humanity, would that really be so bad? Aren’t we still the children of God promised a home with God forever?


Uncertainty is no fun. We’ll fear what we don’t understand, and we’ll grow to hate what we fear. We can easily fall victim to frustration, anger, doubt, and—ultimately—despair. The last mentioned is what Luther called a “great and shameful” sin. So let’s remember who we are: children of the Heavenly Creator. Let’s try not to overstate our current situation like Elijah or jump ship like Peter. Even in the midst of the battering waves of chaos we can be imitators of Christ. We can be loving, self-sacrificing, grateful, and evangelical—preaching to others by the way we bear our own hardships and disappointments. Yeah, I’m sure there will be some who fall away and won’t return to the church when this is all over, but I prefer to have faith in the ones who will not bow the knee to disappointment or kiss the idol of bitterness. Remember: we don’t have to suck it up forever—we just have to trust for today and keep tomorrow’s troubles for tomorrow. Personally, I like to pray in the words of that great old gospel hymn:


Precious Lord, take my hand,

Lead me on, help me stand.

I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.

Through the storm, through the night,

Lead me on to the light.

Take my hand, Precious Lord, lead me home.


‘Til next time, may God give you peace and comfort. Thanks for reading.

[i] Just FYI, all of these natural disasters were believed to be caused by Baal, who was a sort of pagan weather god. The Bible says that God was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. See 1 Kings 19:11-12.

[ii] The Greek here is one word Qarseite! (tha-ra-seet-ay) which is variously translated as “have courage,” “take heart,” “be of good courage,” “be of good cheer,” etc. We don’t really have an equivalent word in English, but you get the idea. When Jesus introduces himself, he just says Ego eimi (Ego em-ee) or “I am.” I guess he just had to remind everybody that he is God by using the divine name found in Exodus 3:14.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Blessings Now (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year A)

So have you heard this story before? I’ll bet you have. The feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14: 13-21) is the one miracle of Jesus told in all four of the Gospels, and pretty consistently, too. When we were all kids in Sunday School this was probably just another of those “magic Jesus” tales. You know: Jesus does something really cool and mysterious so people will know he’s the Son of God. As we get older—and we’ve heard this story more times than we’ve had eggs for breakfast!—we have to look for a new meaning in it. I guess some TV preachers might interpret this as “put your faith in Jesus and he’ll turn your meager holdings into an abundance.” I’m sure some of us would like to believe that, but experience and the rest of the Gospel tell us that this just isn’t what Jesus is all about.

What’s making this story difficult for me at the moment is Jesus’ compassion (and don’t forget he’s just learned about the beheading of John the Baptist, so he’s pretty bummed out) is leading him to cut short is boating trip, engage with a crowd, and start curing their sick. With the death count from COVID-19 reaching over 147,000 Americans this week (to say nothing of those who have perished around the world from this disease), I sure wish Jesus would get himself back here and start curing the sick now. We are all part of the great hungry crowd, hungry for security, healing, and hope and desperately wanting a sense of the normal and the familiar.

In the story the disciples come to Jesus with their concern for the crowd. What if all these people go hungry? Shouldn’t the folks be sent away to provide for themselves? But Jesus turns it all back on the disciples. You’re concerned about these folks..? Okay. Cool Then you guys give them something to eat. Ah! They say. But we don’t have enough. So what’s the Messiah to do in a situation like this? He makes all the people sit down on the grass. He takes what has already been provided and blesses it. That’s to say, he says grace. He gives thanks to the Father for what has already been given rather than whine and lament about what is lacking. He prays in the spirit of God’s abundance, not in the spirit of human scarcity.

Well son of a gun! It turns out there was enough for everyone after all. In fact, there was more than enough. The disciples are able to collect twelve baskets of leftovers. Hey! Did you ever wonder where they got the baskets? What if some clever folks actually had the foresight to bring their picnic baskets with them? What if the miracle here was not the multiplication of food but the creation of a caring and sharing community? Suppose some of the families sitting on the grass opened their baskets, and then looked over and noticed their neighbors had nothing. Maybe they invited them to share what they had brought because they realized that all blessings come from God, and in God’s Kingdom we all look out for each other.

In this time of pandemic it’s real easy for us to lament about what we don’t have. We may see church attendance sliding off because people don’t want to social distance, wear face coverings, or not have their familiar sanctuary in which to worship. We’re begging god for a healing, but we already possess the means of killing this virus just by keeping it from spreading. God has already provided. We still have each other, we still have the Gospel, and we still have our God-given imaginations to find ways to make this time of quarantine and uncertainty bearable. We still have Jesus’ command to feed and care for each other—even if caring means standing six feet away.

Perhaps it sounds hackneyed and trite, but our ability to count the blessings of God is one of the strongest weapons we have.

May God bless you and keep you safe!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Kingdom's Like What..? (Reflections on Pentecost 8, Year A)

I guess the folks who lived in Jesus’ day weren’t all that different from folks today. A lot of them would put on their “Make Israel Great Again” ball caps in hope that this Jesus guy would turn out to be the kind of Messiah who would restore their idea of what the Kingdom of God should be—a mighty Utopia made up of people just like them. No Romans or other gentiles. It would be feared for its military might by other nations, and have a booming stock market.

Jesus had to set them straight about this. That’s what the parables were all about.

In the selection from Matthew’s gospel assigned in the RCL for Pentecost 8, Year A (Matthew: 13: 31-33, 44-52) Jesus gives us five similes for what God’s Kingdom is really like. Each of these examples has a slightly different flavor, and I’ll bet that Jesus used them on different occasions to illustrate different lessons. Our evangelist Matthew, however, has lumped them all together in one discourse. If I were to parse each of them you’d probably fall asleep before you finished reading this post, so I’m just going to pick two and save the other three for some other time. Are you okay with that? Good. I will say first off that all five parables have something in common: Unlike the other parables we’ve been reading during this Pentecost season, these five don’t come with a spiffy explanation. It looks like Jesus is making us work to figure out their meaning. So here’s my take on the mustard seed and the fish net.

The mustard seed is—duh!—something small which turns into something bigger. But how much bigger? Jesus says it grows into the “greatest of shrubs.” (v. 32) [i] Greatest of shrubs? That’s like saying the tallest of midgets. Wouldn’t Jesus make a stronger point if he referenced an acorn growing into a mighty cedar of Lebanon? Perhaps, but size doesn’t matter here. Quantity is a human value. God doesn’t give a rip about it because God is bigger than anything we can imagine. You can’t impress God with magnitude. God is magnitude. To God, the tallest and most majestic tree in the forest is no more precious than the bush which produces a great condiment for your hotdog and provides shelter for some of God’s creatures.

Our congregation in Northeast Philly operates on pretty paltry resources—just faith the size of a mustard seed. We’re not a 3,000 seat mega-church with a TV station and world-wide ministry. But we are no less a manifestation of God’s Kingdom. In our “branches” is shelter for all kinds of “birds”—alcoholics seeking to recover, Haitian immigrants who can’t afford a worship space of their own, LGBTQ people, and the otherwise homeless birds who find a temporary nest in our facility through our partnership with Interfaith Hospitality Network. We may not be producing mustard, but with all of the tomatoes harvested each summer in the organic garden we grow for our food pantry we could make one boatload of ketchup! We know that God’s glory can be seen in what the world sees as insignificant.

Now, about that fishnet (v.47). God’s kingdom is full of lots of stuff—some good, some not so good. Dragging a fishnet along the bottom of the lake can get you lots of things. You can get fish to sell or fry up yourself. You can also collect gross stuff like slimy eels and gooey mollusks and old Styrofoam cups, beer cans, hubcaps, and used disposable diapers. There will be some crap in that net which will be just down right unpleasant and smelly. But the net holds all of it. There’s good and bad in God’s Kingdom. There’s virtue and sin, joy and suffering, fulfillment and emptiness—but it’s all still God’s net. Eventually, the useless, rotten stuff will get sorted out (like this COVID-19 pandemic!). For now, though, we live with it all, secure in the knowledge that God is wrapped around us, holding everything together.

We really miss the point if we think God only shows up in the glorious, the successful, or the “feel-good” moments.  God surrounds us in the smelly garbage moments, too. God is present in our small and humble efforts. God’s Kingdom doesn’t require awe-inspiring deeds on our behalf, just simple deeds done consistently in faith and trust. Luther reminded us that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and pray “Thy Kingdom come,” we’re really asking for God’s Kingdom to come and reveal itself so we can see it and be strengthened by it, for it surely comes whether we pray for it or not. God’s Kingdom is eternal. That means we’re living in it now.

Peace and joy be with you this week. Thanks again for stopping by!

[i] If you want to get fancy about this the Greek calls it the greatest of lacanon (pronounced lachanon) which literally translates as “herb.” Jesus says it grows into a “tree,” but the word we’re translating as “tree” in Greek is dendron (dendron), which can mean a tree but can also mean a bush like a rose bush. Face it. Mustard just doesn’t grow that big.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Those Darn Weeds (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year A)

Image result for weeds
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic I’m spending a lot more time in my garden these days. Gardening is not exactly my thing, but there’s not a lot else to do, so why not? Every day I patrol my flower beds for weeds. Every day I pull weeds. Every day there seem to be more friggin’ weeds! They never stop. In the parable for the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 7 (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), Jesus uses weeds as a metaphor for “children of the evil one” (v. 38).  It seems that the devil’s spawn are always popping up side-by-side with the children of the Kingdom. You just can’t get away from the weeds. Ever.

I read this tale Jesus tells as a reminder that we won’t be able to get away from the causes of sin while we’re hanging out on this side of eternity. Sin is with us like weeds. That’s why, if you’ve ever wondered, Lutherans baptize babies. You might think that an adorable three-month-old couldn’t possibly need to be washed of her/his sins; nevertheless, anyone born on this rock is going to need a good dose of God’s Weed Be Gone. That kiddo may look innocent, but just wait ‘til she/he hits age thirteen..! It’s like this: if you’re born on the beach, you’re going to get sandy. If you’re born on planet earth, you’re going to be sinful. There’s no getting around it.

The problem I have with this parable is it’s too easy to read it as an us versus them kind of thing. Yeah, we know we’re the children of the Kingdom. We go to church, we have “correct doctrine,” and we haven’t been jailed for any felonies lately. That makes us good folks, right? Those other people, however, are rotten, law-breaking, atheist dirtballs, and God’s going to see that they roast like Thanksgiving turkeys in eternal flames at the end of time. The question, of course, is how can we really tell them from us?

I mean, I know a whole bunch of people with whom I rather violently disagree. I think their politics or their ideas about Jesus are totally wrong-headed, and they get me just spitting mad whenever I even think about them. I hear on the news about atrocities committed by criminals or by acts of war, or even by police officers, and I want to call down the fires of damnation on the perpetrators of such acts. Unfortunately, I don’t get the luxury of condemning them to everlasting perdition. Truth be told, I don’t even know the whole story. When I think about it, some of the biggest jerks I know, once I got past initial disgust, turned out to be pretty okay people in many aspects of their lives. I’m pretty sure they probably thought exactly the same way about me.

So. What if “children of the Kingdom” or “children of the evil one” isn’t referring to individual people? In verse 41 Jesus says that at the end of the age the causes of sin will be collected and burned. What if these “children” are causes or spirits? Something to think about, maybe. Luther believed that everyone is made up of both “wheat” and “weeds.”[i] We can’t seem to separate the two natures. The weeds of sin grow up inextricably entwined with our desire for virtue.

The parable of the wheat and weeds urges us to forbearance and proclaims God’s patient mercy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty darn glad God has been so patient with me. C.S. Lewis opined that everyone loves at least one person whose sins are utterly disturbing. That person is yourself. You know the weeds are growing inside you. You know that you’ve done or said things which you now deeply regret. But you also know that your heart is really in the right place, and you really want to do what is right and pleasing to God. Maybe if you can find love for a sinner like yourself, you can find it for other sinners, too.

I think there’s real good news here. It’s not just that bad folks get punished and good folks get rewarded. Forget that noise, because we don’t get to decide who is good or who is bad. The good news is that, at the close of the age, God will remove from us all causes of sin. All our weeds will be uprooted and we will be the good seed God intended us to be. Living in that hope and expectation can change our hearts, fill us with awe and gratitude, heal our relationships, an bring us peace in this world and the one to come.

God bless you, you perfectly imperfect one-day-to-be spotless garden of a saint! Please drop by again!

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

[i] Simul justus et peccator is the Latin phrase most associated with Martin Luther. It means “at the same time justified and sinner.”

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?