Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Darn Good Pope

This post is being written on an historic day--the first time in almost six hundred years in which a pope has voluntarily removed himself from his office as head of the Roman Catholic Church. My Lutheran hat is certainly off to Benedict XVI, and I admire the pontiff for recognizing that age--although it brings wisdom--also carries increasing limitations. Pope John Paul II's dedication to his duties in the face of age, illness, and progressive incapacity was certainly heroic. Nevertheless, the sight of this frail gentleman forced by tradition to continue his role on the world stage seemed to be tinged with a bit of cruelty. I kept thinking, "Let the poor old guy retire, for cryin' out loud!" So I'm glad Benedict has made the decision he has, and I hope this precedent will become policy in the future.

I'm just sayin'.

But okay. Here's my real purpose in writing. As a Lutheran cleric, I can't help but notice that it is very likely, barring anything really unpleasant, that Benedict's successor will occupy the Holy See on October 31, 2017--the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. I hope to God that this anniversary will not be marked by a celebration of us against them. I mean, wouldn't it be a really swell thing if that anniversary became an occasion for reconciliation between our two denominations?

Historically speaking, the Lutheran reformers, just as the term reformer suggests, never wanted to split the Christian Church. In fact, the great Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon, author of the seminal doctrine of Lutheranism, the Augsburg Confession, once wrote:

"...concerning the pope I maintain that if he would allow the gospel, we too, may, for the sake of peace and general unity among those Christians who are now under him and might be in the future, grant him his superiority over the bishops which he has by 'human right.'" (Melanchthon appended this to his signature on the Smalcald Articles of 1537)

Granted, things were a bit different in Melanchthon's day than in our own. I take it from the above statement that he'd be perfectly happy to submit to papal authority should such authority be used in accordance with what Melanchthon saw as scriptural authority. With 500 years of water under the bridge, I don't see Lutherans and Roman Catholics reuniting under the new pope. However, I do think that we can present to the world a mutual respect for the differences which each tradition brings to our shared faith in Jesus Christ.

To my way of thinking, the greatest reform a new pope can make will be to invite Lutherans to join with our Roman brothers and sisters at the table of Our Lord. Both denominations teach the Holy Eucharist proclaims Christ's death as sacrifice for human sin.

"While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them saying, 'Drink from it all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'"  (Matthew 26: 26-28)

Okay. We can quibble about transubstantiation vs. consubstantiation and scores of other issues, but they are minor compared with the above statement, to which we all agree.

I would hope that the next pontiff takes a page from the book of a pretty darn good pope who, in my humble opinion, had the most positive effect on world Christianity of any pope in modern history.

Pope John XXIII, like Martin Luther before him, changed the language of the mass to the language of the common people and encouraged Catholic Christians to begin reading the Bible. This was huge. So huge, in fact, that Lutherans actually have a special commemorative date (June 3, the day of his death) in which we honor John XXIII as a Renewer of the Church. This pope also opened the door for dialogue between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. I, myself, have participated in Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues and have greatly enjoyed the experience; however, I have to wonder if, after fifty years of talking, we have made much progress towards reconciliation.
What a tremendous statement of unity it would be for all Christians if Lutherans and Romans came together to share the grace of God in the Lord's Supper. In my parish, I routinely invite all baptized Christians to come to the altar and participate in the meal. It would simply be a sin against hospitality to invite anyone into our house and not feed them.
"There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (Galations 3:28)
So c'mon, Rome! It's been half a millenium. We're willing. What about you?
Thanks for reading, my friends. As always, I invite your comments.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Thoughts on Lent

Ash Wednesday
The sign on Our Lady of Calvary Roman Catholic Church which I pass on my way to Faith Lutheran read, "It's Lent. Pray, Fast, Give Alms." That pretty much sums it up, I thought. These are the classic disciplines of Lent--the forty day period in which Christians enter into the wilderness with Jesus in an attempt to get closer to God and prepare for Easter. The gospel reading which leads us into this holiest of times is Matthew 6:1-6 and 16-21. Here Jesus gives us instructions on praying, fasting, and giving.
"And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
                                                                                                       (Matthew 6: 16-18)
Of course, it always amuses me slightly that our first ritual of Lent is to abandon Jesus' advice and publicly disfigure our faces with ashes. Why? In theory because ashes were the ancient symbol for our grief and our shame. This should lead us to ask, however, just what exactly is the source of this grief and shame? Are we really hurting and contrite, or is this just an empty ritual?
Not too long ago I was watching "The Daily Mass" on EWTN television. (I can't help it--our Roman brothers really do such a wonderful job with their worship and I really love the liturgy.) On this particular night the preacher was a very sweet-natured and soft spoken priest named Father Miguel. He had a lovely pious way about him, and I must say he wasn't a half bad preacher. He was preaching about piety and purity and I was really getting into what he was saying until he made a hard right turn and began denouncing what he considered to be the two great evils of modern American society: same-gender marriage and abortion.
Okay, I thought. The guy is a Roman Catholic priest and he's only doing his job. But I still felt it was awfully facile of Fr. Miguel to locate all societal impiety in these two issues--especially, since he's a celibate male and there's no chance he'll ever commit those acts of which he disapproves so strongly.
For the record--if you haven't guessed by now--I disagree with Fr. Miguel on these two issues. I'm a firm believer that the Church has a duty to embrace and support our same-gender oriented brothers and sisters and see that their rights are respected. As for abortion, I confess to being a bit ambivalent; nevertheless, I will get worked up about the rights of the unborn once I see the rest of society getting worked up over the rights of the post-born. 
But it's not the issues with which I disagree with this good priest that bothered me. Rather, it was his lack of mention of the issues upon which there should be no controversy whatsoever:
Poverty is bad.
Oppression of anyone--racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.--for any reason is evil.
Violence--from war in Syria to gang shoot-outs in North Philly--grieves the heart of God.
We have only one Earth on which to live, and we insult God when we poison God's creation.
There are some who say that the Church has no business entering into political debate on these issues, but I feel that if our faith does not lead us to social action it is as useless and hypocritical as ashes on the forehead which, when washed off at the end of the mass, vanish down the drain and take any regret and guilt we might feel with them.
I want to know that it matters that I am a Christian. I think of Pastor Vernon Johns (whom I referenced in a previous post) who forfeited his congregation and career because he could not preach passively about eternal salvation and forgiveness while his fellow African Americans  were being oppressed under the laws of segregation. I think of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who left the safety of the U.S. to return to his native Germany to oppose Nazi tyranny and helped save the lives of countless Jewish citizens. He was ultimately arrested by the Gestapo and executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp. Bonhoeffer railed against what he called, "cheap grace"--a quiet acquiescence to Church dogma which accepted salvation by grace while ignoring human need and suffering. He wanted his response to Christ to be one which was truly sacrificial and loving.
I know that we are not all like Johns or Bonhoeffer, but as we journey through these forty days, we can make contact with our grief for our brothers and sisters and attempt to expunge our shame through determined actions. Anyone can be an advocate in our democracy. For those who don't believe in governmental solutions, there are always places to volunteer. And should you lack the energy for volunteerism, you can always donate your financial resources.
It's Lent. Let's be called into prayer--a prayer to discern those things about which we care dearly. Pray to discover our own mission as ambassadors for Christ. Let's be called into fasting and abstinence which will permit us to see how abundantly God has provided, and how much surplus wealth we all have to share with those in want. And let's be called to the the giving of alms. Jesus has taught us,
"For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." (Matthew 6:21)
Lent asks us to learn how to give our hearts, to learn how to love.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Saint of the Month: Vernon Johns

As the last All Saints Day approached, I got this idea in my head that I would share with my readers some of my favorite Christian saints. You must recognize, of course, that when I use the word "saint," I'm not limiting it to those who have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church. Rather, I'm using the term as Saint Paul employed it--to refer to ANY sinner saved by God's grace. I'm not too particular about whether the saint is living or deceased either. Some of my saints may seem a bit wacky or obscure to you, but I find them to be inspiring by the very fact of their obscurity.

This month (in honor of Black History Month) I'd like to introduce The Reverend Vernon Johns, a man who is considered to be the father of the American civil rights movement even though very few folks (even some African Americans I've spoken to) recognize his name.

I learned about Pastor Johns by reading Taylor Branch's excellent history of the civil rights movement, Parting the Waters. Pr. Johns preceded Martin Luther King, Jr. as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. As a pastor and preacher, I can't help but admire this guy.

As a preacher, Pr. Johns was erudite (he was a self-taught grandson of slaves who worked his way through Oberlin College and the University of Chicago School of Theology), dynamic, and completely unconventional. He encouraged black capitalism by offering his own garden produce and catfish for sale from the pulpit. The proper black elite deacons of his congregation were scandalized by Johns' often outlandish castigations of his congregants, fearing that the pastor was encouraging civil disobedience. Indeed, Johns had run-ins with the authorities by openly violating racial segregation laws at place in Montgomery in the 1940's.

The Evangelical Lutheran Worship liturgy for Holy Baptism reminds us that all Christians are called to "proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace." Pr. Johns was certainly not afraid to work for justice in a time when so much justice was denied to so many, and when the call for justice could be so very dangerous. I admire his bold--and sometimes shockingly honest--preaching and his fearless stand for justice.

Ultimately, the deacons of Dexter Ave. Baptist called Pr. Johns' bluff and accepted one of his many offers of resignation. The pastor never  again served a congregation and remained a traveling preacher until his death by a heart attack in 1965. The irony, of course, is that the deacons, hoping to find a younger pastor whom they could more easily control, called the twenty-six-year-old Martin Luther King, Jr. as their next pastor.

In spite of a pretty darn good TV movie about Vernon Johns, his contributions to the civil rights movement remain unknown to many. My take-away is this: you don't have to be the one who scores the touchdown as long as you know you've helped move the ball down the field.