Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Fire of the Reformation Still Burns

"Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, 'If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.'"
                                                                                                John 8:31-2

"When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, 'Repent,' (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance."
                                                                                               Martin Luther
                                                                                               The 95 Theses (1517)


Can any of us really imagine how exciting it must have been on that first Reformation Day, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther had the audacious gonads to challenge the Pope and the authority of the Roman Church? With the posting of the 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany (posting on the church door was kind of the facebook of the sixteenth century), Luther drove a nail into the coffin of the Middle Ages. From that point on, Christians in Europe would be free to read and interpret the scriptures on their own. They would be free from the social and economic tyranny of the Church hierarchy, and free from the stultifying fear of their own sinfulness. I mean, how cool was that?
Luther let out the secret:
"For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law."
                                                                                                Romans 3:28
No longer did a Christian feel the guilty need to earn God's love. This love is free, a gift, manifest in the crucified Savior, Jesus Christ. We can't even begin to guess what this revelation must have meant to those who heard it for the first time.
But sometimes, I wonder where the fire of the Reformation went. After a few centuries of state-sponsored Lutheranism in Europe the coals might not be glowing quite so brightly as they did back in 1517. Even here in the US it seems freedom from sin means freedom from religious observance of any kind. Or, we have swapped one set of dogma for another. We feel we have arrived at the correct theology, the correct liturgy, found our favorite hymns, sit in our favorite pews, and--once we get that youngest child through Confirmation class--we will be free to spend our Sunday mornings with our newspaper and coffee. After all, we are justified by our faith, not by our works.
Sometimes I think that if Luther could see how well the Reformation has succeeded, he'd spit up.
But John's gospel teaches us that we are to continue (ie: abide, pitch our tents with) Jesus' word. Luther taught that our whole lives should be constantly changing, growing, learning, and evolving as followers of the Way. It's not a destination where once we've agreed on the right doctrine we can quit searching. It's a journey of faith: constantly changing as the world changes and as we ourselves grow and mature.
Where is the fire of the Reformation? Check out a few of these very innovative churches:

As Luther himself migh've said (because he was a smart guy and he knew Latin), "Ecclesia semper reformanda est!" The Church is always reforming. And that's a blessed thought.
Keep the fire burning, my friends. Thanks for stopping by.



Monday, October 22, 2012

America the Servant (Reflections on Pentecost 21)

"So Jesus called them and said to them, 'You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their leaders lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.'"
                                                                                   Mark 10:42-45


Funny, but of all the words that have been thrown around during this American election season, "service" isn't one I've heard that frequently. I mean, whatever happened to "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?" In all three of the candidate debates so far there has been much mention of the middle class, jobs, and taxes. That's all well and good, but I'm waiting to be inspired. I'm waiting to be told that, recession or no recession, it's time for me to get off my self-pitying middle class butt and extend a hand of mercy to the poor and helpless.

I'm a pastor in Philadelphia. I look at North Philly and near-by Camden and I see acre after acre, block after block of desolate, wasted slumlands. I see a wide, polluted ocean of poverty, filth, neglect, and drugs. Just once I'd like to hear a government leader raise a prophetic voice and scream, "This condition is an abomination unto the Lord! It is an affront to the very notion of mercy and charity! It is unworthy of a nation with a Christian majority and unworthy of America on general principle! It is our duty to pool our talents and resources and abolish these deplorable circumstances!"

In short, it is our responsibility to be servants to each other.

How can we help? Perhaps the first step would be to embrace a vision of improved society. To serve our neighborhoods, we first have to make them safe. This means that we will need more men and women willing to serve as safeguards, and more citizens willing to bear the tax burden for police, firefighters, paramedics, etc. We will need buildings which are safe and fit for human habitation, streetlights that work, streets without potholes, and sidewalks free of garbage and hazards to those with mobility challenges. We will need servants willing to do this work.

We will need to be better servants to our children. We will need local schools which are safe, clean, and spacious. We will need to recognize the duty to serve all of our children, not just the ones who win the charter school lotteries or whose parents can afford nonpublic education. I would love it if the term "school choice" meant that we, the public, chose to make every school effective and are willing to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to bring this about. We need more young people willing to serve in the classroom, and more retired folks willing to volunteer as mentors and classroom aids.

We will need to serve our elderly by insuring there is dignity in their declining years.

In the fifty-third chapter of the book of Isaiah, the author draws a vivid picture of a servant who suffers because of the wrongdoings of others. The early church always associated this portrait with Jesus, but it is possible that the original intention was to create an image of Israel as a servant nation. Israel, whose glory had been lost to Assyria, Babylon, and a host of other client states, was still blessed by God to be a blessing to the nations. I wonder if this is an image we could cultivate in America?

What if "American Exceptionalism" referred to our willingness to offer disaster relief wherever it is needed in the world? What if we exported education and encouraged cultural exchange? What if our military might was used to protect innocent victims of oppression or natural disaster? What if our foreign policy was the alleviation of hunger and disease? What if the developing world knew Americans more through the Peace Corp than through Hollywood? What if we gave up the desire to be the biggest badass in the world and decided that our greatness would lie in servanthood rather than intimidation?

Am I asking for too much? Let me know, and thanks for reading.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Jesus and Divorce (Reflections on 19 Pentecost)

"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
                                                                                           (Mark 10: 11-12)

Well that sucks, doesn't it?

The biblical injunction against divorce is a pretty tough law. And, speaking as a divorced and remarried guy myself, it makes a lot of Christians feel uncomfortable--as well it should. Divorce is a messy business. If there are kids involved in a marriage, it does a number on their emotions. If lawyers get involved, it can get really costly and complicated. Divorce not only splits up families, but it splits up communities of friends. I mean, you have to ask yourself: to which member of a divorced couple will I remain loyal? And then there's the question of who gets the church in the settlement. In my experience, when a couple in the congregation splits, both partners disappear from the pews. Understandable, I guess, if you don't want to deal with those overly sympathetic stares or run the risk of being the source of coffee hour gossip.

Worst of all is the overwhelming sense of failure. There's a crushing sense of self-defeat when you look back over the wreckage of a relationship and see something which started out so beautifully and ended up so toxic.

Face it, marriage is hard, too. It's not for kids. It requires a daily effort of self-examination and confession, an endless capacity for forgiveness, and a genuine desire to understand another human being and his or her needs. I grant that you can love another person without really understanding them (Do any of us really understand or know our own parents?), but how glorious it is when you know you have truly been understood and appreciated for who you really are!

So what does Jesus say in the 10th chapter of Mark's gospel concerning divorce? I think it's key to understand that Jesus is being tested by the legal-minded Pharisees. These guys tend to be pictured as the bad guys in scripture who are trying to get Jesus jammed up at every turn. But, in fairness, let's remember that the Pharisees were really intent on being observant to God's law, a law with which they were in constant dialogue, always trying to discern which course of action was the most righteous. You can't really hate them for that. You can only get annoyed with their overbearing sense of legalism which so often became obsessed with detail at the expense of human compassion.

Jesus directs them back to their own law books. In this case, Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which indicates that a husband had the right to divorce his wife if he presented his reasons for disliking her in written form. Unfortunately, Deuteronomy does not enumerate what reasons would be construed good reasons. Remember, too, that a woman in biblical times only had identity in relationship to a man. She was either her husband's wife or her father's daughter. If she lived long enough, she might be her son's mother. Nevertheless, a single woman who was no longer a virgin faced a very difficult life in the ancient Near East. If there was no household to take her in, she became a beggar. It may have been perfectly legal for a man to cast a woman out of his house, but we have to ask if such an action was really moral.

Jesus makes his appeal not to the law book of Deuteronomy, but to the creation story of Genesis:

"But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." (Mark 10:6-9)

It is not God's will that we be alone (Gen. 2:18). We are created to exist with and for each other. If we sin against one another, we have sinned against God and ourselves. Because a thing is legal it is not necessarily right if it breeds harm or enmity. And the fair and just decision of a judge cannot erase heartache. Our failures need to be acknowledged and mourned. And such human failures can take so many forms.

I had an uncle,now, alas deceased, who would have made an excellent Pharisee. He was a staunch member of the Lutheran Layman's League and a faithful husband to my aunt for over fifty years. Unfortunately, for many of those fifty years he couldn't stand the woman. In the end, they slept in separate bedrooms and avoided each other as much as possible. But they didn't get a divorce. I wonder how much pain thy could have avoided had they been determined to do the moral thing for each other, and not just the legal thing.

So what's the bottom line? We are called into relationship. We are sinful, so we mess it up. So we ask for forgiveness, and we try to do better.

Thanks for visiting, my friends. God bless you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Getting Out of Our Own Way (Reflections on Pentecost 18)

September 30th is the Feast of Saint Jerome, so I thought I'd give a shout-out to the old boy and publish his picture with this post. We'll get back to him in a little bit.

The gospel text in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 18 is Mark 9:38-50. In this pericope, the Apostle John, doubtless feeling very proud of himself, tells Jesus that he and his buddies have caught some guy casting out demons in Jesus' name, and they have stopped this enterprising exorcist because he wasn't a member of their group.

Can't you just picture Jesus receiving this news? I imagine him slamming a palm against his own forehead in frustration and letting out a Homer Simpson-esque "DOH!"

He looks at John and says (not in so many words), "Dude. The guy was casting out demons! That's actually a good thing, don't you think? Why do you go and stop him? If he's using my name, he's got to have at least some kind of faith in me and my mission. Don't you think we should be encouraging that sort of thing?"

John turns a little red in the face. Being one of the chosen twelve disciples, he kind of liked feeling special. He looks down at his feet. "Oops. Sorry, Boss. My bad."

Jesus just shakes his head and sighs.

From the very first, it seems, the Christian Church has had a special talent for screwing things up. We have the most beautiful message to give to the world, and yet we keep putting stumbling blocks in our own way. Once upon a time, in my parish, a very pious lady--president of the congregational council no less--took me to task for allowing a catechism student to serve as communion assistant and pronounce the words, "The blood of Christ is shed for you." She told me she didn't think a child should be doing that. As if a twelve-year-old is somehow not qualified to proclaim the sacrifice of Christ!

And yet, through the centuries we have caused so many "little ones" to stumble. We've told so many that they are not good enough:

"You're too poorly dressed for this church." "You're a different race and you're not from around here." " You're gay." "You're a lesbian." "You're divorced." "You're married to a divorced person." "You've had an abortion." "Your worship style is too ritualistic and formal--it's obvious you don't have the Holy Spirit." "Your worship style is too frenetic and free-wheeling--it's obvious you have no piety." "You're covered in tattoos and body piercings--ya freak!" "You're homeless." "You have illegitimate babies." "You're overweight and your momma dresses you funny." " Your mentally challenged." "You're mentally ill." "You're an addict." "You're a jail-bird." "You're just TOO YOUNG!"

And sometimes, those of us who are "good enough" are stumbling blocks:

We've molested children. We've covered up for those who have molested children. We've cheated on our spouses. We've stolen from the church. We've preached rigid intolerance. We've shown our bad tempers. We've had our mental breakdowns. We've taken scripture out of context and preached our own agenda. We've been too human.

And sometimes, we trip over our own policy. We make "personal salvation" our only goal and never discuss things that matter like divorce, abortion, poverty, homelessness, war, bullying, substance abuse, mental illness, sexual abuse, or immigration.

But in the end, our job is to proclaim Jesus--in all his love and forgiveness--any way we can. And if something gets in the way of that proclamation, we need to throw it out. I love my high church liturgy, but if it becomes too arcane for someone new to the teachings of Christ, then I have to be prepared to get rid of it. No stumbling blocks to wholeness in Christ. If all I do is try to save my idea of Christianity, then I'm working for myself and not for Christ.

When the majority of Christians in the Roman Empire spoke Latin rather than Greek, dear old St. Jerome translated the Bible into their language--their common, every day language so they could understand it. When Latin was a dead tongue, Martin Luther translated scripture into the vernacular and urged others to do the same. When classical organ music ceased to move a new generation, God was praised in folk tunes and in rock 'n' roll. If need be, we'll go to hip-hop if that will reach people with the message.

As ambassadors for Christ, we sometimes need to learn how to get out of our own way. We better throw out our prejudices and preconceptions, or we'll drown trying to save them.

So what's keeping YOU from being who God wants you to be? A grudge? A prejudice? An addiction? Your guilt? Your comfort zone? A dysfunctional relationship? Your ego?

Think about it. And be at peace with yourself.

Thanks for reading.