Thursday, March 29, 2012

Glorious Humility (Reflections on Palm Sunday)

A few years ago I started to become a Grumpy Old Religious Guy. The grumpiness was the result of a mid-life crisis. It wasn't so much taking stock of my life, rather it was a matter of my comparing my station in life to others. Younger seminary classmates of mine seemed to be doing so much better in their lives and careers. They were publishing books, going on exciting missionary journeys, taking new calls to larger, more prestigious parishes. Some of my old friends had become professors. All were making a lot more money than I. And I? Stuck in the same working-class parish, year after year.

So I started to rethink. What if I were to take fame and fortune out of the equation? I still have relatively good health for a man of my years. At least I still have all of my hair, greying though it may be, and all of my teeth--give or take four wisdom teeth. I have the use of all of my limbs, I'm not overweight or on medication. I have a family who loves me, shelter from the elements, clothing, food, and access to clean water. This puts me in a state of unimaginable luxury compared to about 75% of the earth's population. On top of all this, I love my work. I have a caring and growing congregation (working-class or not), some wonderful teenagers to teach, and the gift of being able to preach the gospel and write this blog which, at last count, has been read in about thirteen countries across the globe. All-in-all, I'd say I'm a pretty successful guy.

Neither fortune nor fame will keep me from dying. It is, perhaps, better for me to glory in the humbler things of life: loving relationships, a sense of purpose, the ability to be grateful.

The story of Palm Sunday is an exercise in humility. The pageant of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem might seem pretty pathetic to a world impressed by giant spectacle. This little rabbi from Nazareth had no imposing resume or titles, just a loyal following of humble, working-class people. Peasants, really. His entourage consisted of simple fishermen, many of whom--if not all--were illiterate. There was nothing about this group of Galileans to inspire awe or even such respect as might have been afforded learned scribes or Pharisees. The humble Messiah rode into town, not on a galloping war horse, but on a donkey--a peasant's mode of transportation. There were no banners hung in his honor, only the branches of palm trees. And yet, these branches were waved with as much love and affection and hope as had they been the costliest fabric pennants. No red carpet was laid at his feet, only the well-worn garments of those who were putting their hope in him. Having no home of his own, he borrowed a room for the Passover feast. And, having no money or means of his own, at week's end he was laid in a borrowed grave.

It strikes me that no matter how impressive a spectacle we create, there will always be someone who will do us one better. The next pageant for king or hero will be more elaborate, more ornate, more expensive. There will be more bells, more whistles, more dancing girls and acrobats. And yet...we would be very hard pressed to find a parade more humble than the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on that long-ago Sunday.

Jesus rode into the holy city in earthly poverty, but filled  with spiritual wealth. He possessed the riches of the truth, a truth he proclaimed in Herod's temple when he boldly preached that the rulers of the land had placed financial gain and ritual tradition over compassion for the poor.

He possessed the wealth of his love--humbling himself to wash the feet of his friends.

He possessed the wealth of mercy and sacrifice, giving everything--his body, his dignity, his very life--for the sake of others.

How very glorious that was!

+     +     +     +

You'll note that I refer to this liturgical day as "Palm Sunday," rather than as "The Sunday of the Passion." In my parish I prefer not to read the passion story on the Sunday prior to Easter. I think doing so does a disservice to the congregation. I've always held that there is a real spiritul blessing to be gained by the sort of "participatory theatre" of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, we sing Jesus' praise and wave the palm branches. On Holy Thursday, we wash feet, celebrate the meal, and then stand in respectful silence as the church is stripped of ornament in remembrence of Jesus' betrayal, arrest, and beating on that night. We leave the sanctuary in silence, contemplating what he endured for our sake. We gather the next night for the solemn Tenebrae--the service of darkness during which the candles are extinguished as our Lord's crucifixion is recalled, leaving us in blackness to contemplate the senseless evil of this world. I think all of these experiences are good and necessary for us to appreciate the gift that is Easter morning.

May your Holy Week be a blessing to you, my friends. I urge you, if you can, to participate in the holy liturgies of this week. Meditate on our Lord's passion, and know his love for you.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Grain and the Fruit (Reflections on Lent 5)

"Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also."
                                                                                 John 12:24-26

The Reverend Howard A. Kuhnle was a lovely old fellow. I always enjoyed chatting with him in the retirement home where he lived, and I appreciated his sage advice on matters of parish ministry. He had pastored eleven parishes in his career, written countless articles, and preached his final sermon on the morning of his 100th birthday. He died eleven months later, and, for most of those months, he was mentally more alert than I am now (although this is not saying much!).

Whenever I visit the sick in our local hospital, I always climb the stairs rather than use the elevator. Such had been Howard's advice to me. "Take the stairs," he'd say. "It  gets your heart going and you'll live longer." Well, if anyone should know about living long, it was certainly Howard.

Although Howard is dead and buried for some years now, his advice lives on in me. I should also hope that some of his good humor does as well. The grain may be in the ground, but it is still bearing fruit. In the above quote from the Gospel lesson assigned for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Jesus knows that his time on earth is short; however, he also knows that, after he is gone, his Holy Spirit will live on in those whose lives he's touched. They, in turn, will touch others. The grain will keep bearing fruit.

Jesus says that they who love their life will lose it, and they who "hate" their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. This passage has always troubled me a bit since I have no intention of hating my life. (In fact, I rather enjoy it!) The problem is one of translation. The author of the Gospel of John most likely spoke Aramaic. The convention of his day, however, was to write in Greek, so I think our word gets lost in transit between the languages. If we understand the word "love" to mean "to care deeply and passionately for someone or something," then the word our evangelist is looking for would be the opposite of love. In English, we'd say "hate," but this isn't really accurate. "Hate" ususally means "to detest intensely." Perhaps neither Greek nor English has a proper word. We're really looking for something meaning "to view with indifference."

In essence, Jesus is telling us not to sweat the small stuff. When we become passionate about the silly things of this world--such as our ego or our bank account--we lose sight of the fruit which God wants us yield. If we are to love anything about this life, we need to love the eternal things which will live on after our own time in the lives of others whom we influence. We need to love the things of Christ.

What are these? I'd say...

Love--genuine, selfless, unconditional, and non-judgmental.

Sacrifice--Give yourself for the welfare of others. And this includes giving your pride, too. Learn to forgive.

Thanksgiving--Recognize that everything is a gift from God. Be grateful, and you'll learn to live in joy.

Suffering--Pain cannot be escaped in this world, but we can suffer with dignity and honor when we refuse to inflict our pain on others. We each must carry our own cross.

Faith--Know that God is still good even when we fail to see the goodness in our own circumstances. Just think: Right at this moment as you are reading these words, somewhere a baby is being born, a young person is falling in love, a new idea is being developed, a child is learning to read, and someone is looking at a mountain with awe, amazement, and tears.

The world is waiting to see Jesus. Let them see Jesus in YOU.

God bless you, my friends.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Cross, the Snake, and Our Salvation (Reflections on Lent 4)

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

Now, you may well ask, "What does the crucifixion of Jesus have to do with a snake on a stick?" Just to refresh your memory, take a look at the wilderness story in Numbers21:4-9, the Hebrew Scripture lesson assigned for this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary.

The story goes like this: The Hebrew people, after having escaped slavery in Egypt through the Red Sea, have been wandering around in the wilderness seeking the Promised Land. They are, alas, too used to being slaves to risk entering and fighting for the land; therefore, on the verge of entering, they retreat, wander around some more, and whine, bitch, and  moan that they are stuck in the wilderness with little water and "miserable" food. God, who, in the Hebrwew Scriptures seems to be easily offended, retaliates against these crybabies by sending poisonous serpents to bite and kill them.

(Have you noticed how testy the Lord gets in the Old Testament?)

The people immediately repent of their complaining and beg their leader, Moses, to talk to God and smooth things over. Moses does so, and God instructs him to make a bronze effigy of a snake and place it on a pole. Whenever a snakebite victim looks at the bronze snake, the victim's life is spared.

If one were of a literal turn of mind, this snakebite cure may seem mere superstition. I, however see it as very good psychology should we interpret the story a bit more symbolically. It's just plain common sense that we can never address an issue which we don't acknowledge having. By looking at the snake, the people are forced to recognize two things:

First: We're all going to die. This loathsome reptile is a representation of fear and death. Facing this reality should inspire us to live more authentic lives. It should bring us to repentance. (Repentance, by the way, comes to us in English via a torturous linguistic journey from roots meaning "to experience suffering again." It is usually the word we use for the Greek New Testament word metanoia, which means "to change the mind." Just thought you might find that interesting.)

Secondly: The people should look at the snake not only as the instrument of death, but as the embodiment of their own wickedness. After all, what is it the snakes are doing? They are killing with poison from their mouths. In seeing the snake, the people see themselves. In divine irony, God has made the punishment fit the crime. The complaining, whining people are spewing poisonous words, fermenting indignation, destroying unity, and breeding despair. It is only through acknowledging their sin that they can amend their lives and community.

So where is Jesus in all of this? Someone such as the 12th Century theologian Peter Abelard (1079-1142) might see this reference in John's gospel as an example of the "moral influence" theory of atonement. In seeing Christ suffering on the cross we see the most disgustingly brutal example of cruelty human beings have been capable of devising. The cross is a first-rate example of our desire to control through fear and intimidation. The passion story is an illustration of our tendancy towards betrayal, mockery, and lack of compassion. In the suffering Christ is the suffering of all the weak, the poor, the powerless. In beholding what we human beings are capable of doing we confront our own hypocrisy and apathy.

But we also see much more than that. In the cross of Christ we behold a love so powerful that it overwhelms us. Jesus elected to go to the cross for the sake of a suffering people. In Jesus we see the gretest example of love--sacrifice for others.

For me, the cross must always be central. In it I see the intersection of my selfish faults and Jesus' selfless love. And somewhere, in this intersection of both horror and heroic rapture, lies my healing.

May God bless you all during this holy season. Thanks so much for dropping by. Please come again next week!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Happy Saint David's Day!

The saintly gentlemen pictured above is Saint David, the sixth century bishop and patron saint of Wales. My great gandfather emigrated from Wales to the United States at the end of the 19th century, and, even though I am now several generations removed from that land, I still feel a strong spiritual tie to the culture of my ancestral people. Subsequently, every March 1st is, for me, a day of rejoicing.

I love Saint David. Granted, the many miracles attributed to him can, in charity, be described as apocryphal; nevertheless the historic facts about this saint are still, to my mind, quite inspirational. Let me point out just three:

First, Saint David was a champion of animal rights. Almost eight centuries before Francis of Assisi came upon the scene, Dewi Sant (as he is known in Welsh) instructed the monks of his order to respect animals by pulling the plows which tilled their land themselves--thereby saving horses or oxen the labor. Additionally, he and his monks were strict vegetarians. A little-known fact about David is that he is also the patron saint of vegetarians.

Second, this saint was a champion of education, founding monestaries for the perpetuation of learning all over Wales. The monks were encouraged not only to read and study, but to be writers as well. Subsequently, David is considered patron saint of poets.

Thirdly, David's contribution to the theological development of Christianity in the British Isles was his faithful preaching against the heresy of Pelagianism. This was a doctrine which taught that human beings are perfectly capable of finding their way to God without any divine intervention, thank you very much. Basically, Pelagians denounced the concept of Original Sin in favor of a doctrine of self-reliance.

Granted, Pelagian ideas seem very much in vogue in today's culture of vanity, selfishness, and pride of achievement. One may well ask, "Who needs God or the Church? I have my own spark of divine fire, and I can chart my own spiritual path." But what if you can't find your own way to spiritual peace and enlightenment? Does this mean that you are a reject?

St. David--and, indeed, all of historic Christain orthodoxy--has argued that true enlightenment comes when we learn to surrender our arrogant desire to prove our own worth. Proving ourselves is an impossible task, anyway. How would we know we had done enough? And by whose standard? There will always be someone more intelligent, wealthy, attractive, accomplished, and, yes, spiritually enlightened than we are. Let's just admit it, shall we? We are born into a dysfunctional world, and we are the natural heirs of its dysfunction. It's like this: if you're born on the beach, you're going to get sandy.

The Good News is really an admission of our own helplessness. This is something that the Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve-Step programs have always known. We don't really control much of anything ourselves. We did not choose to be born, and we don't choose for God to love us--God just does. It's not about us. When we can surrender our egos to God's grace, we can truly find peace.

EVERYTHING--life, the world, our relationships, our very selves--is a gift from God. None of us chose the sacrificial, self-emptying love shown to us by Christ on the cross. It is all a gift. When we can accept life as gift, we can be grateful for it. If we can be grateful, we can be joyful.

This is what David preached, and it is this sense of joy and faith which, I believe, has characterized my ancestral people throughout the centuries. Wales is a tiny nation, for generations vassel to the English throne. It is not mighty in economics or military strength, but it is rich in a spirit of joy--a spirit which its people call hwyl. It is hwyl which gives the Welsh people our most prominent characteristic--the desire to sing our guts out whenever we have the chance.

So Diolch, Dewi Sant. Thanks, Saint David, for your witness. And may you all have a blessed St. David's Day. Be Thankful, be joyful, and sing a little, won't you?