Sunday, March 31, 2013

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

Christ is Risen! Alleluia!
A very blessed Day of Resurrection to you, my friends!
Can I just say that I LOVE Easter!? It's my very favorite day of the year, and the holiest day of the Christian calendar. I guess it's the retired actor in me, but I love the Church's liturgy of acting out the passion and resurrection story of Jesus. Every year, we get to make this story real to us by acting it out in our public worship. Last Sunday we waved the palm branches which greeted Christ on his entry into Jerusalem. On Thursday we washed the feet and ate the meal, then we stripped the altar in solemn remembrance of the betrayal, abandonment, arrest, beating, and mockery which Jesus endured that night. The following evening we told the story of his trial and death on the cross, slowly extinguishing the lights until we sat in the darkness of a world without redeeming love.
But then this morning came. Like the women in the gospels I arose in the darkness of early morning. And, as I have for the last fifteen years, I came to a garden to meet with fellow believers and praise the goodness of God.
Sunshine or rain, tornado, or blizzard, year after year, about 100 or more Philadelphia Christians gather on the banks of the Delaware River and sing to the rising sun. We are Lutherans and Episcopalians, Baptists and Methodists, Roman Catholics and United Church of Christ and every other Christian denomination. On this morning, our tiny doctrinal differences don't matter to us.
We are clergy and laity, black and white, old and young, straight and gay. We are ALL believers in the deliverance made known to the world in Jesus Christ, the immortality of our souls, the goodness of God, and the call to love one another for the healing of the world.
We sing contemporary songs, but we sing the old hymns too. Sometimes, in those old, well-remembered words, I can almost feel the spirits of the departed singing with us from Heaven. We pray together. We acknowledge our faults. We jointly proclaim the beliefs which bind us together. And, year after year, the riverbank is a place of joy and love among neighbors and strangers.
For me, it is always the singing. I love to sing, and I love to hear people sing. In this mp3 player generation, how wonderful it is to hear people stand together and just sing.
Sing we to our God above, Alleluia!
Praise eternal as his love: Alleluia!
Praise him all you heav'nly host, Alleluia!
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!
May Easter's joy fill your hearts! Thanks for reading.

P.S.-I have but one lament: Our ecumenical worship this morning did not include the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. Unfortunately, our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters are not yet permitted by their doctrine to join with the rest of us. Pray that the new Pope will soon invite ALL Christians to the table of the Lord and that our fellowship will be complete.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Creepy Stuff (Reflections on Holy Week)

A very blessed Holy Week to you all.

Have you noticed--or maybe it's just me--how creepy American popular culture has been getting lately? Every time I turn on TV it seems that the stories on current dramas are growing darker and more gory and, well, just kind of sick. We are deluged with stories of grizzly sex crimes, serial killers, cannibals, and just lots of perverted, violent stuff. Maybe it's always been like this and I'm just getting more sensitive in my old age, but I almost feel as if the culture is obsessed with darkness.

Even stuff which used to be kind of innocent has taken on a sense of menace, disease, and dysfunction. As a kid I used to read Marvel Comic Books. They were fun fantasies then. But I don't know if I could recommend to a six-year-old today the adventures of a Spider Man who is being consumed by the "dark side" of his nature, or a Captain America with PTSD, or an Iron Man with a substance abuse problem! Even our fairy tales are being repackaged in a more sinister form with TV dramas such as "Grimm" and "Once Upon a Time."

And yet, people still tell me that they don't want to attend a Good Friday tenebrea worship because it's "too depressing!"

To an extent, I have to agree with them. The presence of human darkness is deep within the Christian mythology and ritual--and no more so than during this week. On Holy Thursday we see Judas, a symbol of treachery and greed. We see the machinations of the Sanhedrin, supposedly a wise council, but puffed-up with arrogance, lust for power, and jealousy. And on Good Friday there is that consummate thug, Pontius Pilate, as ruthless as Bashar al-Assad in putting down dissent, surfeited with corruption and cruelty.

All of this leads us to the contemplation of that most obscene invention of human brutality--the cross.

But running throughout this story of thorns, mockery, impaled flesh, and abandonment is a parallel story of self-emptying, sacrificial love and forgiveness.

"Then Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.'" (Luke 23:34)

Our current popular culture of darkness is really rather safe by comparison. It does not require anything of us but to enjoy being scared and to relax when the story is over. But the darkness of Holy Week is entwined with the light of God who calls us to look at ourselves and see what we are capable of doing, and then to look to God and see how God is capable of loving.

This darkness requires our response.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Holy Awkwardness (Reflections on Lent 5)

Mary, Martha, and Jesus
I don't know. Is anyone besides me uncomfortable with this week's assigned gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, John 12:1-8? I mean, when Jesus says, "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me (verse 8)," doesn't that strike you as a little arrogant? And what do we do with the very troubling character of Judas? In the other gospels, he's kind of a pathetic betrayer. He tries to give his blood money back to the priests, and he kills himself in anguished remorse for his act of betrayal. In John's gospel, he's just a greedy thief (verse 6). Also, how do we handle the fact that all four gospels have a different variation of what is obviously the same story?
Okay. That last question doesn't bother me so much because I don't think the Bible authors gave a rip about historical accuracy. I just take each story on its own merits and try to figure out what point the evangelist was trying to make and how the particular tale can relate to my life and issues. And I like to put myself inside the story and look at it from the point of view of one of the characters.
So who am I in this story? I know one thing: unless I die on a cross for the sins of the world, I'm not Jesus.
But imagine a dinner party given in Jesus' honor in a humble home in Bethany. Jesus is being honored because he has given the hosting family the greatest gift imaginable--he has brought the host, Lazarus, back from the dead. Lazarus lives with his two unmarried sisters who serve as hostesses. I guess they're a poor family. Maybe the three adult siblings have never married because weddings are just too expensive? There don't seem to be any servants here, either. Big sister Martha waits at table herself, while little sister Mary does the slave's work of hospitality by washing the feet of their guests.
This is all perfectly fine and dandy until Mary does something completely unexpected. She busts out a jar of pistachio nut oil--a really expensive jar, worth about twelve to eighteen grand on the open market--and she anoints Jesus' feet with it. In itself, this act makes me a bit uncomfortable because I know this oil costs a lot more than this poor girl should be spending. But then she really does something wild. She starts to wipe his feet with her hair.
I shift uncomfortably in my seat. This is just too passionate. It's too intimate and too personal. I'm embarrassed in the face of this self-emptying adoration.
But Mary doesn't care. She doesn't think about what's right or legal or theological or practical. All she knows is that she loves this Jesus. He gave her back her brother. He turned her mourning into dancing. She can never repay him for the blessing he gave to her. All she can do is pour out her heart with this expensive foot bath in humble devotion and gratitude.
So who am I in this story? I'm Judas, of course. I can't bring myself to envy Mary's love for Jesus. I can only feel ashamed that I am unable to give myself to such passion, so I make a self-serving criticism of the woman who is capable of bestowing her heart so openly and poignantly. "Why," I ask, "was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?" Not that I even care about the poor, but, as the treasurer of the group, I want to see that my own needs are met. You see, I'm very good at making justifications for my own selfishness and lack of zeal.
But Jesus understands something here which neither I, Judas, nor Mary herself understand. Charity for the dead is equal in this culture to charity for the poor.
As beautiful a gift of love as Mary has given Jesus, he is about to give a greater gift--his life. And the wonderful thing he has already done for her will be as nothing compared to the wonderful thing he is about to do. He will make all things new.
May you have a blessed week, my friend. Thank you for reading. Find your passion for Jesus. Remember the poor.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Fairness v. Justice (Reflections on Lent 4)

Every Christian in America knows this Sunday's appointed gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary. It's Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, better known as "the Parable of the Prodigal Son."

But just in case there's someone out there who doesn't recall the story, it goes something like this: A landowner has two sons. The older of the two, under Hebrew culture of the time, will inherit the majority of the property upon his father's death. This being the case, the younger son asks his old man for his share of the property in advance. The father gives it to him, and this young knucklehead strikes out on his own, basically wasting his inheritance on hookers and booze.

Then, as luck would have it, the whole country goes into recession. The young son is broke, out of work, totally ashamed, and forced to take a job cleaning pig poop. Coming to his senses, he decides to return to his dad's estate, apologize for being a complete idiot and an embarrassment to the family, and beg his father to employ him for wages.

The kid's dad is overjoyed at seeing his long-lost son return. He welcomes him with open arms and throws a huge "Welcome Home" party. Meanwhile, his older son sits outside the festivities sulking. When the father asks him what's wrong, the older son gives him an earful about how unfairly he's been treated. After all, he's worked with his father faithfully all his life. His idiot brother has squandered money and disgraced himself. The older boy wants to know why the party is being thrown for the family meathead while he--the faithful son--has never been recognized. The father says,

"Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found." (Luke 15:32)

Earlier in the pericope, Jesus says,

"I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:7)

And that's kind of the point.

Nevertheless, I have a mature lady in my parish who just hates this parable. She doesn't want to see the little reprobate jackass brother get rewarded. "It's just unfair!" She tells me. And I guess I get that. But the whole nature of life is unfair, isn't it?

To my way of thinking, "fair" really shouldn't be the issue because "fair" implies equality. I would much rather be concerned about justice and mercy. After all, we're never going to have things be completely even-steven equal are we?

Think about your own family. I believe that in every family on the planet there will always be one kid who will get more attention and/or resources from Mom and Dad than the other siblings. This will be the kid with special needs. The kid who can't seem to find himself. The kid addicted to alcohol and drugs. The family screw-up. This child will get more because this child will need more.

Similarly, in every family there will be one kid who will end up holding the bag for an aging parent. All the duties will fall on his or her shoulders. Why? Because this is the kid who, by virtue of proximity, maturity, or resources, will be able to perform the function of caregiver.

We all live in a system of family-based socialism--from each according to ability, to each according to  need. "Fair" never enters into it. We just try to do what we can and hope we are doing right. I would hope that the "older brothers" out there recognize what an honor and privilege it is to spend time with their aging parents, and not think of their care-giving as a burden.

Similarly, in my years of ministry, I've seen lots of families with sons and daughters who have caused boat loads of emotional pain. I've seen parents and siblings who have wisely cut off contact with the family screw-ups so as not to enable destructive behavior. But I am yet to see a parent who would not willingly sacrifice a limb in order to get that child to repent and come home contrite and whole.

Bottom line? God desires our repentance and our forgiveness of each other. After all, don't we pray in the Our Father to be forgiven as we ourselves forgive? It may not be fair, but it is right.

I dream of a world in which forgiveness is a chief priority. Just imagine: The U.S. would welcome Cuba back into the family of nations, Lutherans and Roman Catholics would kneel together at the communion rail, and country music radio would once again play the Dixie Chicks! Wouldn't that be grand?

Thanks for reading, my friends. Drop me a comment and let me know what you're thinking, okay?