Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Loving Like an Adult (Reflections on Epiphany 4)

My esteemed colleague Pastor Maggie was pastor of a small parish in a working class section of Philadelphia for many years. This blue collar neighborhood was home to a number of fish canneries and factories back in the nineteenth century. Today the long-closed and rusted factories have become gentrified loft apartments, but the area still retains its working class identification. Recently, Maggie told me of a phenomenon she'd witnessed while ministering in this locality. It seems that many youngsters had  gone off to college only to return home without a diploma. Some girls got pregnant after their freshman year, and never finished the higher education they began with so much promise. Some boys dropped out, returned home, took union jobs like their fathers, married high school girlfriends at the local fire hall, and settled down in row homes a block or two away from their parents' house.

Why? What was it that derailed the academic expectations of these young people? Maggie opined that, although the young students truly desired to be educated and successful, they could not bring themselves to be more educated and successful than their parents had been.

*     *     *

In the Revised Common Lectionary gospel appointed for this Sunday (Luke 4: 21-30), Jesus has returned to his hometown. He is a local boy who has made good out in the world. He's invited to teach in the local synagogue, and everyone is speaking highly of him. One gets the feeling from this text that the good folks of Nazareth were expecting something from Jesus. Would he do for them the sort of miraculous works for which he had become renown? Would his fame cast its glorious light on them? Would they be able to offer him the key to the city and erect a sign on the outskirts of town reading "Welcome to Nazareth: Home of Jesus Son of Joseph?"


Jesus doesn't offer them any special treatment. Perhaps there is an uncomfortable pause after he declares that he has come to preach good news to the poor, let the oppressed go free, and declare the year of the Lord's favor.

"So who are we, chopped liver?" you can hear them ask. "Aren't we poor and oppressed, too?!" Suddenly this local hero doesn't seem quite so heroic.

"What?! No special blessing for us? No shout out? Who does this punk kid think he is, anyway? Why, I knew him when he was just knee high. I remember when he was twelve years old and got lost on his way back from Jerusalem. Look at him now, putting on airs and acting all high and mighty!"

How quickly pride turns to disdain. And how jealous we can be of the success of the familiar. Perhaps such success makes us think of how little we ourselves have accomplished with the gifts God has given us? In the mirror of others' achievements we see only our own fears and foolish mistakes. And we don't care for what we see.

Yes, we want our loved ones to do well. Just not better than we ourselves have done. And as it was in Jesus' time, so it remains in our own. Can we ever celebrate our friends' and neighbors' successes without reflecting on our own merit? Can we ever allow that our adult children are really adults and relate to them as equals rather than as extensions of our own egos? Can we ever learn to love so unselfishly that we forget ourselves?

I rather like the fact that this week's gospel has been paired with St. Paul's great Love Hymn in 1 Corinthians:

"Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth." (1 Corinthians 13:4-6)

Paul is teaching us about a grown-up kind of love. It's the love that understands we have nothing to lose when others are blessed, because our own lives are so filled with the everyday blessings of God. We have heard the good news. We have had our blind eyes opened. We have been set free from the oppression of our own sinful natures, and we have nothing but joy and gratitude to share. Where we are, who we are, what we do, what we have--these are all God's gifts. And if others are envious or demanding of us, we, like Jesus, have enough love, peace, and acceptance to pass through their midst unhurt.

Let me know what you think.

God bless you, my friends, and may you all be VERY successful in what God wants you to do.

Monday, January 14, 2013

A Random Act of Kindess

It was Saturday, January 12th, and I was on my way to officiate the funeral of one of those beautiful saints of the Greatest Generation, a man named John Brown. Mr. Brown's children had sent me--via fax and email--a bonanza of information to use in preaching the memorial homily. Unfortunately, I had been kept busy with other funerals and parochial business and I hadn't had time to finish writing this eulogy. I decided to stop at the local Dunkin Donuts to put the finishing touches on my tribute to Mr. Brown.

I didn't pay much attention to the woman in line in front of me. Truth be told, I don't think I could pick her out of a police line-up. I ordered a Boston Creme and a small cup of coffee, sat down at a table, and pulled out my funeral notes. I still had an extra twenty minutes to finish the eulogy.

"Excuse me," the woman said. She was standing over my table. "I have a present for you." She handed me a buff envelope about the size of a thank-you note or a party invitation with the words "For You" and the number four written on it. The envelope was sealed, and as I opened it, the woman vanished out the door.

The envelope contained a small note card. When I opened it, a crisp ten dollar bill fell out onto the table.

The message in the envelope read as follows:

"In Memory of Olivia Engel, Age 6

"In memory of the 26 lives lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, I'm doing 26 Random Acts of Kindness. You  are the recipient of Random Act #4. Please enjoy this small gift and remember to pay it forward. I hope this brings a smile to your heart."

I am deeply touched and inspired that the horror of Newtown should provoke kindness rather than fear and compassion rather than bitterness. The gift to me was not the ten dollars, but the blessing of hope in the umbra of tragedy.

The greatest weapon of mass destruction is the feeling that we are living in a heartless, hopeless world in which sin and death have the last word. This is not so. I truly bless this anonymous woman and all others who have committed themselves to honoring the victims of violence with acts of love and mercy. Because of this, I will never forget the little girl in whose honor this act was done.

I have decided to donate ten dollars to The Brady Campaign, a non-profit organization dedicated to the elimination of gun violence in America. You can do the same by clicking here:

"Lead on, O King eternal, til sin's fierce war shall cease
and holiness shall whisper the sweet amen of peace;
for not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums,
but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes."
                                                               From Lead on, O King Eternal
                                                               E. W. Shurtleff (1862- 1917)

Monday, January 7, 2013


"Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." Matthew 2:2

So the three strangers came bearing gifts.

Okay. So it wasn't exactly gold, frankincense, and myrrh. But they did give me a cheeseburger from the Burger King and several Jolly Ranchers. And they weren't exactly men--at least not quite yet. I'd say they were about eleven or twelve years old. Nor would I use the term wise to describe them. But Austen, Ryan, and Joe did come to Faith Lutheran Church searching. And, whether they knew it or not, they had came seeking Jesus.

Why three young lads were hanging out in an urban church parking lot well after darkness had fallen on a winter's night is quite beyond me. Maybe it was just because our parking lot has always been the place for neighborhood kids to hang, smoke cigarettes (or dope), and do whatever it is that kids do when they don't think responsible adults can see them. Maybe they just needed to use the lavatory so they banged on the church door when they saw the light on inside. I don't know. But they've come to visit me a few times now. And they've asked me questions about Jesus and really seem to be listening to my answers.

Again, I have no idea what they are looking for. But I know that God wants them to find Jesus.

*    *    *

This is the beauty of Epiphany--the festival season which celebrates the revelation of Jesus as God's son. The blessings of Christ are open to everyone. From eastern mystic sages to humble shepherds to three pre-teen boys hanging out in a church parking lot.

The central images of this season are the Wise Men and the star. Maybe the Wise Men described in Matthew's gospel were Persian Zoroastrian astrologers--far removed from the people of Bethlehem in language, religion, customs, and geography. They were about as different from Jesus' people as people at that time could get. And yet, they recognized, through the philosophy of their own culture, that Almighty God was in the process of doing something spectacular for humanity. You see, it's not about our own particular dogma or rituals. God speaks in many voices to as many different people as will listen.

I really love the iconography of this season, too. The early Christian Church depicted the Wise Men as an old man with a grey beard, a middle aged man with a black beard, and as a young, beardless fellow. The image was intended to convey the message that Jesus was meant for all generations and for all time. The Magi were also presented as a European, a Middle Easterner, and a black African--proclaiming the unity of all people in Christ.

The other beautiful image of this season is the star--a symbol of navigation for ancient people. A wonderful thing about stars, I think, is that they can't be seen unless we are surrounded by darkness. Sometimes in our darkest moments we are the most open to God's direction.

I often wonder why King Herod doesn't seem to notice this star. Perhaps he never goes out at night. He might be afraid of the darkness. Or he's terrified by the idea that God might be creating change. But the Wise Men, these astute foreigners, brave the darkness to find God's mystery.

There's a message there, I think. The darkness so often surrounds us, but God has provided light in the person of Jesus Christ. And if we're looking for him, whatever our circumstances, we can always find our way.

So what are you looking for?

Happy New Year, my friends.