Thursday, August 18, 2022

Jesus Heals on the Sabbath (A Repeat Reflection on Pentecost 11, Year C)

 I accidentally deleted the post I had written for Pentecost 11, 2022. The post below was published in 2019. Hope you enjoy it all the same.

So Jesus heals on the Sabbath? Good. That’s what the Sabbath is for, isn’t it? The stuffy leader of the synagogue in the Gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 11, Year C (Luke 13:10-17) seems to have missed the memo. He quotes only part of the Third Commandment as it appears in Exodus: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work (Ex. 20:9),” but he leaves out the whole rationale for the rule in the first place:

“But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:10-11)

Get the point? The Sabbath is for rest. Rest restores and heals. It’s necessary. Ever go without sleep? Ever deal with something that was so relentless you couldn’t catch your breath? Sucks, doesn’t it? We need the rest. Our souls need it as well as our bodies. The Sabbath is God’s gift so we can be healed. Nothing should be more natural in the world than that Jesus should see the woman who is in slavery to her affliction, and—without her even asking for it—he calls her over and makes her whole. That’s what the Sabbath is for.

Granted, over the years we Christians have made Sundays as dreary and burdensome as the synagogue leader who gives Jesus a hard time in our Gospel story. In one of my favorite novels, Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham describes a dreary English Sabbath in which a young boy must suffer through interminable Anglican liturgies in both the morning and evening, interrupted by a monotonous Sunday afternoon in which all activity ceases and an oppressive edict of silence is imposed on the household. It’s shear Purgatory. And it was supposed to be good for the soul.

For me, however, the Sabbaths of my youth were always very pleasant times. I got to see my buddies at church, the folks were friendly, the singing and preaching were joyful, and there was always—even well into my adulthood when my siblings and I had moved out of the family home—family time. We’d gather around the dining table in my parents’ home or at a local restaurant. We’d get caught up. We’d talk about the service we’d just attended or whatever else. After Sunday dinner there was our traditional Sunday snooze. I think the whole clan would hit our bunks and doze off until it was time to watch 60 Minutes. The Sunday afternoon nap was as much a part of Sunday as church and dinner. Even when I went away to graduate school, I pretty much kept up our Griffiths family Sabbath routine.

But today, it’s different for a lot of folks. There’s no rest on the Sabbath. Some people have to hold down more than one job to make ends meet. Sales clerks and waiters don’t get their weekly schedules until the last minute, so they can never commit to weekly worship. The “gig” economy has people working seven days, or so dog tired on a Sunday morning that all they can do is stay in bed. America—once home of the “blue laws” which forbade businesses to be open on Sunday mornings and forbade the sale of alcohol on the Sabbath—has effectively killed the Lord’s Day of Rest.

So, okay. The Sabbath doesn’t have to be a specific day. When I was in seminary I knew a Lutheran pastor from Tanzania who had a seventeen point parish back in his home country. It didn’t matter what the calendar said. Whenever Pastor arrived in the village, that day was Sunday.

Martin Luther interpreted obedience to the Third Commandment as hearing the word of God and learning it. This could be done during a lunch break at Walmart or before a shift at the Taco Bell. I think what’s necessary for the Sabbath is not the liturgy or the trappings of a church building (as much as I love these things), but the quiet moment to come to the Word and know that you are loved and valued. If you can couple that with the fellowship of other believers—with your Christian “family” in whatever form they take—and find a few restful, peaceful, healing moments to do it, so much the better.

A Good Sabbath to you, my friend. Thanks for dropping in.

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Great Divide (Reflections on Pentecost 10, Year C 2022)

 

"Jeremiah" H. Vernet (French 1844)

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” (Luke 12:51) 

One of my favorite Hebrew scriptures prophets is Jeremiah. I really admire his determination to talk sense to powerful people who—alas!—appear have their heads stuck so far up their lower GI track (metaphorically speaking, of course) that they’re incapable  of hearing the wisdom the prophet is sharing. In the first lesson in the RCL for Pentecost 10 Year C (Jeremiah 12:49-56), we hear poor old Jerry railing again against popular preachers of his day who spout wacky, sci-fi-type images of the future but don’t seem to understand the peril of the present. The Joel Osteens of Jeremiah’s day are telling the powerful that everything they’re doing is groovy and God will deliver them from any unpleasantness that may arise. 

Jeremiah is telling them exactly the opposite. He warns them that they’re being idiots and heading into a world of hurt. For his trouble he is ridiculed and imprisoned. The poor guy can’t catch a break. Not only does he get into a mess of trouble for his efforts, but he has the heartbreaking experience of witnessing everything he warned about come to pass when the people who are supposed to be shepherding the nation pursue their own interests and ignore God’s commands. 

Bottom line? God’s word isn’t always welcome—and that’s assuming we really know what we’re proclaiming is God’s word. In the appointed gospel reading (Luke 12:49-56) we hear Jesus give us some of his most disquieting words (and Jesus is good at being disquieting, isn’t he?). The Prince of Peace isn’t always going to bring peace. No. He’s going to cause some trouble and division. Why? Because, just as in Jeremiah’s day, the times call for it. Jesus is going to get the family feuding with itself because it’s no time to just shut up and be nice. 

Families fight. That’s an ugly truth. People who are supposed to love and protect each other can often be split apart. It always hurts. 

Lutherans of all people are aware of how families can bicker. Our whole denomination was formed by a dust-up with our Roman brothers and sisters. Today I see a pretty humongous division over the very definition of what it means to be a Christian in America. I feel a little bit of barf coming up in my mouth at the very mention of the term “Christian Nationalism.” Some of our coreligionists use Christian identity as an excuse to promote intolerance, bigotry, and a reactionary mindset which, to my way of thinking, slanders the name of our Lord and Savior. 

I don’t see how “Christian” it is to outlaw abortion while slashing aid to low-income families. I can’t understand how we solve the gun violence crisis by letting everyone carry a gun. And faith in God’s deliverance is one thing, but ignoring the crisis of climate change is putting the Lord Our God to the test—a test we’re not going to pass. No question about it: there are divisions within our family. 

Whether we’re arguing public policy, church doctrine, or if it’s just a squabble between a parent and a child or a couple of in-laws, each of us thinks we’re arguing from the moral high ground. Our challenge should always be to discern if we’re arguing in obedience to Christ Jesus or from our own pride and stubbornness. Is our indignation born out of faith or a desire to maintain a tribal loyalty? Are we trying to help one another or cling to an ideal which no longer exists or even applies? 

What would Jesus do? Can we find it in ourselves to speak and fight for truth but do it out of love? Can there be controversy without contempt? Can we be unyielding without dehumanizing the person with whom we disagree? And are we willing to accept divisions without being complacent about them? 

Faith in Jesus has never guaranteed perfect harmony among believers. Just check out the New Testament if you don’t believe me—it’s full of family squabbles. But the beautiful thing is that in Christ, our squabbles can still be full of compassion.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

I'm On Vacation! (Here Come the Re-Runs!)

 I'm away from the congregation for the next two weeks, so I thought I'd post a few older reflections on the texts assigned for the Sundays of July 31 and August 7. Below is a reflection I posted in 2019 on Luke 12:13-21.

Rich has been my buddy for almost forty years, even though he lives in Wisconsin and I only get a call from him every now and then. I have to say he has always been a rather frugal individual. He cuts coupons, shops at discount stores, likes “one-price-all-you-can-eat” restaurants, and—at least when he and I hung out together—would pinch a penny so hard Abe Lincoln would beg for mercy. Several years ago he was fortunate to find a young woman brave enough to marry him. I, knowing him as I do, was quite astonished when he announced his plans for a rather luxurious honeymoon. He and his lovely bride would travel to California and from there on to a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Rich described the adventure with great detail, but ended the narrative by plaintively moaning, “But it’s gunna cost me eight thousand dollars, Griff, and…well…you know me and money.”

I reassured him, “Dude, this will be the best eight grand you’ll ever spend.”

Boy howdy, do we ever hate to part with cash! I’m sure your parents always told you to have something put by for a rainy day. Save for your retirement. Save for your children’s college education. Save to buy a house. Save for an emergency. Save to have something for the kids when your time’s up. Save for the grandkids. Save for your funeral. Saving is prudent and wise.

But. Did you ever know anyone who saved all their life and forgot to live their life? Someone who wanted to have their cake but never eat it? That rather defeats the purpose of cake, don’t you think?

Face it, a lot of folks are like the man in the parable Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel appointed for Pentecost 8 in the RCL (Luke 12:13-21). We think if we build bigger barns and store up more wealth we’ll be able to live in comfort and security—as if comfort and security are the purposes of our lives.

Too often, I suspect, we as individuals and as the Church aim for comfort and security but miss out on our real purpose. That purpose is to learn and grow and be the healing presence of Christ in a hurting world. We do this both as individuals and as part of the Christian community. We’re called to trust that God, who has given us this opportunity, will provide us with resources both spiritual and physical. Money is nothing but a tool to accomplish our purpose. It’s not the purpose in and of itself.

It seems, however, that we never believe that our resources are enough. What I’ve seen in congregations (and I’ve seen three parishes in my conference go face down in the dust within the last nine months!) is a greater belief in scarcity than a trust in God’s abundance. They’ve circled the wagons, cut the costs, and figured out how long they can survive on dwindling savings and income. Now, call me reckless, but I just can’t see spending down endowment funds or savings just to put off an inevitable death of a community that wasn’t producing fruit for the Kingdom in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather go out in a blaze of glory than wither away whimpering.

God provides us with abundance to use for God’s glory. As families of faith we’re called to invest in meaningful and vibrant worship and in compassionate care and love for our communities. We are to be alive while we are alive, not sit quietly waiting for death. The challenge is first to realize that reliance on our own resources is an insult to God. Why? Because it denies God’s willingness to bless us.  Second, we should recognize that our wealth is not just in bucks in the plate or butts in the pews. God may have gifted us in ways of which we are not aware: talented people, visions for ministry, ability to serve children, space for community needs, or neighbors who would welcome a partnership. Additionally, we have to remember that we are called to be givers and not hoarders. If our fists are closed, nothing else can come into them.

I’m not suggesting that you or your congregation should go out and start spending hell bent for leather, but I would ask you to consider: What are you saving for? What kind of abundance do you already possess? To what purpose are you called? How are you investing in the things of God? By living in faith? By believing in God’s providence? By your generosity to others?

Rich and his wife had a great time on their honeymoon, and began their life together with a shared adventure which drew them even closer than they’d been before. I’m sure my friend has long forgotten the cost of his trip, but he’ll never forget having taken it.

Enjoy God’s abundance today, my friend, and thanks for looking in this week.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

The Best Dad (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year C 2022)

 

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13) 

I loved Sunday mornings in my 10 X 20-foot efficiency apartment in Madison. I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin, and this tiny space (complete with a bathroom I shared with the girl in the next flat and a makeshift kitchenette I shared with the cockroaches) was my first bachelor home. Sunday mornings involved a quick shower and shave, dressing for church, and a run to the Howard Johnson’s across the street for the Sunday paper which I read with my coffee and doughnuts while I waited for the invariable phone call. 

“Hello, My Son,” the voice on the other end would say. “Hello, My Father,” I’d reply. My dad called me every Sunday morning at the same time from the family home in California. He never missed. We’d chat about how my studies and my teaching job were going or what play I was rehearsing or performing. He shared very little, but always seemed interested in my activities. Every call would end with his asking, “You need anything?” Most of the time I was proud to answer that I was doing okay. He’d then ask, “You going to church?” I’d tell him I was, and he’d say, “Well, you better get going then.” 

Sometimes—alas!—I’d have to confess to my venerable parent that my small teaching salary, the few extra bucks I’d sometimes make doing voice-overs on the NPR affiliate, or the $10 I’d get each week from selling my blood plasma didn’t quite cover my reckless expenditures. But if I told him I could use an extra $20 to see me through ‘til payday, I might get a letter in that week’s mail with $30 or $40 in it. My dad was not perfect, but I can say he did what a dad was supposed to do. He provided for me, and he supported and encouraged me—even when I came up short. 

In this week’s gospel lesson in the RCL (Luke 11:1-13), Jesus teaches his disciples to pray by encouraging them to think of God as their father. I’ll grant that this image isn’t exactly a jolly one for a lot of folks. I can say that my dad provided and encouraged, but there are a lot of biological male parents out there who have abandoned, criticized, belittled, or abused the ones they sired and should have committed themselves to loving and nurturing. 

A toxic relationship with a parent is toxic, I believe, because something in us tells us it’s not supposed to be this way. I like to think there’s something in our DNA which instinctively knows what a real dad is supposed to be. Our souls rather naturally long for the presence of a man we can admire, love and—most of all—trust with our well-being and protection. None of us have a perfect dad, but God often provides us with surrogates—teachers, coaches, uncles, neighbors, friends’ dads, etc.—who fill in the blanks and give us a glimpse of that perfect Father in whom Jesus teaches us to trust. 

I had nicknames for my dad. I used to call him “Da,” which is a common Celtic nickname for the male parent (and also the Welsh word for “good”), or my tongue-in-cheek formal address of “My Father.” My esteemed friend Pastor Kay Braun reminds me in her wonderful meditation on the Lord’s Prayer called On Earth as in Heaven[i] how crucial it is that we follow the gospel of Matthew’s lead and address God as Our Father. When I pray ‘Our Father,” I’ve started my prayer by saying, in effect, “This ain’t all about me. There are other people on this rock, and they have troubles and need God just as much as I do.” The very first word of the prayer takes me out of myself, shoots my self-importance in the butt, and teaches me a respectable humility towards God and the rest of humanity.

 The second word I pray should direct me towards an image of a dad who really has my best interest at heart—even when I don’t deserve his beneficence. 

The prayer Jesus teaches, smart Bible scholars tell us, isn’t too different from a standard Jewish prayer called the Amidah, which means “standing.’ (I guess you’re supposed to stand up when you pray it, which seems pretty respectful if you ask me.) It was to be prayed three times daily. It included some of the same petitions we pray: a request that God’s name would be holy to us and an injunction to forgive others. Standard stuff. 

I’ve been meditating a lot more these days on that “thy kingdom come” part. Jesus asks us to pray for the rule of the Father who is 100% righteous and 100% in control. Jesus and John the Baptist taught that the faithful should always expect a great turnaround, that God would upend the current order of things which is, to say the least, less than satisfactory. Maybe when we pray this petition, we should be asking ourselves what our part is in bringing in this kingdom which our loving, heavenly Dad intended for us but which we keep screwing up.

 There’s another way to look at this petition. In the Greco-Roman world, your dad was in total control of your life. He decided what work you did and who you should marry. He also had power of life or death over his children. Martin Luther always looked at this part of the prayer as a request that we get right with the way God thinks things should be. It’s like saying, “Okay God. You’re the boss. If you answer my other prayers with ‘no,’ help me to be okay with that. I don’t like change and I want my own way, but if this is how you want it, help me see the new possibilities.” 

I also really dig the part about “daily bread.” As I said, my dad used to send me more than I asked for. I think it was because he knew I wasn’t trying to shake him down for cash. I was only asking for what I needed to get by. He was, by nature, a generous guy, but he grew up during the Depression, and I knew if I asked him for something I wanted instead of for something I needed my request wouldn’t get a friendly reception. God knows what we need, and it’s a sign of our trust and relationship that we feel easy about asking for it. An old Jewish proverb tells us true wealth comes from being satisfied with what we have. 

Finally, just in case we didn’t get the point, a first or early second century Christian document called The Didache tacked a doxology onto this prayer. The “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory” part doesn’t appear in Luke’s gospel or in the earliest extant versions of Matthew’s gospel (Probably why our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters don’t include it). The Didache was an early moral treatise, catechism, and liturgical guide, and it taught that Christians should finish the prayer with this little reminder that God is God and we aren’t. 12-Step groups like to close their meetings with the Lord’s Prayer as a reminder to be humble, accepting, and obedient. Some people might get their noses out of joint by this servile attitude, but personally, I just like knowing that my Dad is in charge, and I can call him anytime. 

God’s peace to you, my friend. Thanks for spending time with me.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

What IS the Better Part? (Reflections on Pentecost 5, Year C 2022)

She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” (Luke 10:29) 

Did you ever sit at anyone’s feet? I’ve always understood the expression to mean being a pupil of the one whose feet you’re sitting at.[i] It’s a metaphor. I mean, unless you’re on a rug in a kindergarten class, I don’t think any student literally sits at the feet of a teacher. Although, I once had occasion to sit literally at the feet of a mentor of mine just as I imagine Mary did in the gospel lesson assigned for Pentecost 6, Year C in the RCL (Luke 10:28-42). 

Gosh. I think it must’ve been about 35 years ago (that long? Really?). It was a Sunday morning at St. Luke’s Lutheran in Long Beach, California, and I had some reason—I can’t remember what it was—to ask my pastor, Roger Magnuson, for something before church. Pastor Roger’s door was always open, so I came in without knocking and found Roger sitting in the chair visitors to his office usually sat in. The office was darker than usual as the shades were drawn and only a small desk lamb shown. He was listening thoughtfully to some classical music played on a small portable stereo. Roger was a big, robust man, but this morning he looked uncharacteristically quiet and small.

 The only other chair in the room was Roger’s desk chair. I couldn’t bring myself to sit in it. Sitting there seemed somehow disrespectful, like usurping a monarch’s throne. So, I sat down on the floor at Roger’s feet. The pastor began to share with me some trouble he was having with his youngest son. It was a serious matter and clearly grieved his heart. I have no idea why he chose to divulge this to me, a twenty-seven-year-old, unmarried community college teacher with no children of my own, but I guess he felt safe sharing and needed to express his feelings to someone. 

Over the years I heard Roger preach hundreds of sermons. He accompanied my high school youth group on a cross-country trip, and he flew to Philadelphia after his retirement to present me for ordination. Still, I never felt more present with the man than that Sunday morning sitting at his feet. 

In our gospel lesson for Pentecost 6, we find Mary of Bethany doing an outrageous thing—sitting at the feet of Jesus. In the world of our text, this really isn’t something a nice Jewish girl should be doing. Two reasons: First, listening to the rabbi and discussing theology was considered to be something reserved for the men. The guys didn’t consider the ladies were smart enough to participate. Second, the ladies were expected to be in the kitchen getting the food ready. If you’re a feminist, you could be pretty proud of Mary (and Jesus, too!) for breaking the gender stereotypes. On the other hand, if you’ve ever been abandoned to do all the work yourself while someone who should be helping you sits around on her butt, you can pretty clearly see why Marth has her knickers in a twist. Can you blame her? 

Jesus tells the—justifiably—irate hostess, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (v.42) I’m not sure what the Lord means by saying this. I think this is one of those times when the Bible has us stumped and is elbowing us (or me, at least) into one of those “chicken-and-the-egg” mental debates. Yeah, Mary is learning from Jesus. That’s pretty important. But: feeding folks and showing good hospitality like Martha is doing[ii] is pretty important, too. I mean, come on. People have to eat, right?

So here’s the question: Does knowing the Word of God lead us to servanthood, or does servanthood lead us to knowing the Word of God? Does sitting at the feet of Jesus lead us to be present in the world, or does being present in the world lead us to the feet of Jesus? St. Paul says faith comes from what is heard[iii], but might it not also come from what is done? Which of these sisters from Bethany is really choosing the better part? 

When was I most present with the Lord? Was it when I was in seminary learning all kinds of cool stuff about God and the Bible? Is it when I’m leading worship? Or was it when I handed a bleeding homeless man a sandwich at 2am on a street in Manhattan? Or when I was still trying to teach a fourteen-year-old gang member how to do long division? Or when I shared a bucket of KFC with our Interfaith Hospitality Network guests? Or when I sat with the parents of two murdered sisters to discuss the slain girls’ funeral? 

What really is the better part? 

I think back on that Sunday morning with Pastor Roger. For all the good lessons I learned from the man, did I learn the most important one sitting at his feet? Surely Mary felt the need to be present with Jesus and hear his message. But I wonder: did Jesus—who was fully human as well as fully divine—also have the need to know that his Word was reaching someone? Was that more important at that moment than lunch? Was Mary being a servant at the feet of Jesus, those feet she’d later anoint with costly perfume before they were pierced and nailed to his cross?


[i] St. Paul uses the expression in this way in Acts 22:3.

[ii] Also like Abraham does in our First Lesson, Genesis 18:1-10a.

[iii] Romans 10:17

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

What Part do You Play? (Reflections on Pentecost 5, Year C, 2022)

 


“But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (Luke 10:29) 

So just what the heck can I say about his gospel lesson for Pentecost 5, year C (Luke 10:25-37)? I mean, c’mon! Everybody knows the parable of “The Good Samaritan.” It’s certainly one of Jesus’ Top Ten Parables, right up there with the “Prodigal Son” and “The Pharisee and the Tax Collector.” Writing or preaching about it leaves your Old Religious Guy in something of a quandary. I’ve looked at some of the sermon/commentaries I’ve posted about this passage before, and I feel like it's my duty to come up with something I haven’t said yet. 

Whenever I feel like I’m getting stuck for ideas with a Bible story, the old actor in me kicks in and I start to think about characters in this little drama. Actors always look at a script and think “What part would I like to play?” Lovers of the gospel, on the other hand, might look at a Bible story and ask,” What part do I play? Which character resonates with who I am and where I am in my life?” 

(I’ll give you a hint: None of us are Jesus) 

Personally, with everything that’s been going on in the news these past few weeks, I have no desire to identify with the lawyer who wants to test Jesus and justify himself. I’ve had pretty much all I can take of legal experts—especially six I can think of who sit on the US Supreme Court. I’d like to ask these august teachers of the Law to show me how they think denying the rights of women to govern their own bodies will make America more moral. Tell me how making access to firearms easier will make America safer. I want it explained how limiting the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency will make America a healthier, cleaner nation. But I guess lawyers can justify anything these days. 

Of course, I don’t want to identify with the robbers who rob, strip, beat, and abandon the traveler. Who would want to identify with characters who wound someone for their own gain? Would anyone be willing to say, “Yeah, I’m just like those guys. I’ve taken advantage of someone, hurt them deeply, and then ran away leaving them like they’re trash by the side of the road.” No. No one wants to be the robbers—even if they can claim desperate poverty or some other reason to justify their behavior. 

So do we want to identify with the victim? Possibly. Have you ever been a victim of crime? I have. Once upon a time I had my home burglarized and, I have to tell you, I felt pretty violated and not at all as secure as I’d felt before the s.o.b. or s.o.b.’s unknown smashed my kitchen door, ripped off my stereo (among other things) and scared the living bejeezus out of my cat. One minute you’ve got the world by the Fruit-of-the-Looms, and the next you find yourself unable to sleep as you lie contemplating the bowel-emptying, brain-ripping reality that you’re really pretty helpless, uncertain, and fragile. And if you’ve ever found yourself stranded by the side of the road in unfamiliar territory, you know you likely wouldn’t question the stranger who stops to help you about his position on Roe v. Wade or gun control. 

(Or, perhaps, you would. Jesus never tells us how this Jew felt about getting help from a Samaritan. Maybe there are some folks like Inspector Javert in Les Misérables who’d rather commit suicide than accept help from an enemy.[i] People are funny like that.) 

I don’t think anyone wants to see themselves as the priest or the Levi either. They’re not particularly attractive characters. Rather hypocritical, don’t you think? They’re supposed to be holy folks who know better. They know the Law of Moses about loving neighbor. They know, like it says in the First Lesson assigned for Pentecost 5, Year C in the RCL (Deuteronomy 30:9-14), that God’s Law is “not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.” It just seems to be too inconvenient. 

That leaves us with the Samaritan, that semi-foreign heretic whose people aren’t pure and whose religion is corrupt. He’s a guy who is willing to help someone who may not want or appreciate his help. And, when you put it that way, he may not be all that attractive a character to some people either. There are probably those who wouldn’t sully their dignity by lifting a finger for the ungrateful. Still, you have to admire this fellow who doesn’t see nationality, religion, race, or anything else which makes this traveler less of a human being. What he sees are the wounds. He looks at the pain, and that cuts through all the superfluous distinctions we love to make between ourselves. All he knows is there is a human need which must be met. There is something which must be done. 

Faith is not believing something is true. It is acting as if it is true. 

So who are you in this story? Jesus is a clever teller of tales. He gets the lawyer to answer his own question about who a neighbor is. Who we are turns on how we answer the question of who Jesus is to us. 

Thanks again for reading. Safe travels.


[i] Never seen or read Les Misérables? Sorry for the spoiler. If you can see a good production of the opera, you really should. Javert’s suicide has some crazy good stage effects!

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

At Your Service (Reflections on Pentecost 4, Year c 2022)

 

“Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20) 

Yipee! 

I rejoice and give praise to God for the NBC streaming service Peacock. Why? Because it has allowed me to binge watch all fifty marvelous, beautifully shot, elegantly acted, and sumptuously costumed hours of Downton Abby. I missed most of Downton when it was on PBS, so now I get to see the whole series from the beginning. I am, perhaps, betraying both my American democratic patriotism as well as my ancestral Welsh sensibilities when I derive so much pleasure from watching the fictional goings-on of an English earl’s palatial estate, but this sojourn into a genteel past offers me a bit of respite from the lousy present we’re all enduring. Can you blame me?

 As much as I enjoy Downton’s aristocratic family drama, I’m equally fascinated by the stories of the “below stairs” staff—the butler, housekeeper, maids, footmen, and valets who so precisely keep the house running. As a class, the servants take their work extremely seriously, and they find “service” to be a noble and honorable profession. They are loyal and dedicated, and often provide a quiet but comforting presence to the lord and ladies they serve. We may look down our noses today at the kid who asks us, “Do you want fries with that?” but, if COVID has taught us anything, we should consider that those who do the “menial” tasks might not be as menial as we previously thought. There’s something to be said for those who take service seriously. Take Jesus, for example, who said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”[i] He didn’t have any issues with getting down on all fours to do the servant’s job of washing the feet of the disciples. 

There is a heroic humility in the alternate First Lesson assigned for Pentecost 4, Year C (2 Kings 5:1-14). In this taie, the servants are the heroes. The Bible always seems to favor the underdogs. Naaman, the great general and leader of Aram’s armed forces, has no power over the disease which afflicts him, and no notion of how to get relief. It’s his wife’s slave who comes up with the solution. To me, it speaks powerfully that this young girl, captured in a raid and forced into servitude, has so much compassion for the suffering of her captor that she directs him to a cure. She’d be perfectly within her rights—don’t you think?—to let her oppressor suffer, but the oppression of her servitude to Mrs. Naaman doesn’t outweigh her servitude to God. Even as a slave she is an instrument of healing. 

So Naaman has his king write a letter to the king of Israel, which, as happens at top bureaucratic levels, screws things up and almost starts a war. The prophet Elisha is certainly willing to do some healing of Naaman’s skin disease, but even he messes up by showing an indifference to protocol. The prophet, who you would think knew better, rather rudely fails to meet the foreign dignitary himself. Instead, he sends a lackey out to give the Aramean general the prescription for a cure, which, as you can imagine, incenses Naaman who rides off in a fury. 

Fortunately, Naaman has some servants who have cooler heads than he. They reason with their boss and get him to calm down and try the cure. It works, and Naaman rides back, meets Elisha, and offers thanks. In this tale, the ones who take servanthood seriously expand its definition to include speaking truth to those they serve—even when this means risking the master’s wrath. 

In our gospel lesson (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), Jesus instructs 70 of his followers in the right way to be servants of the gospel. They’re asked to go out into the world and be a healing presence, proclaiming the nearness of God to those who need to feel that nearness. They are told to be present with people, stay in their homes, and eat of their food. Essentially, Jesus is teaching them to get to know the people so the people can feel that they’ve been seen and acknowledged. The 70 are instructed to be bringers of peace and healers of the sick. If they are treated rudely, they are not to respond in kind, but simply to move on, trusting that their peace will be restored to them—just as any good waiter or store clerk who valued professionalism would do. 

Christianity is a service industry. We are called to be here for one another, to be a healing presence in the world. In his 1520 treatise The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” He taught that any good work we do must be a work of service for our neighbor. We don’t do anything for God. After all, God doesn’t need our help. We are called, rather, to be in community and to consider how our work or our daily actions bring the Kingdom of God closer to those around us. As a church, we should always be asking how our neighborhood benefits from our presence. As individuals, we should always consider how our labor, words, or presence has been a form of service. Whether you work behind a wheel or behind a computer terminal, in a convenience store or a machine shop, doing what you do enables someone else to keep doing what they do.

We don’t get to wear the fancy livery, the white tie and tails of a butler in Downton Abby, when we perform our duties; nevertheless, a humble, loving attitude about what we do clothes us in righteousness. Our challenge is to see ourselves as if we were among the 70 Jesus sent out. How have we been a healing presence? How have we born the burden of others? How have we brought the Kingdom near? 

God’s peace, my friend.


[i] See Matthew 20:28, Mark 10:45, and John 13:1-17