Thursday, August 29, 2013

Finding Grace at Dunkin Donuts (Reflections on Pentecost 15)

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’ (Luke 14: 1, 7-14)


Here's something I love about Jesus: unlike his bug-eating mentor, John the Baptist, Jesus liked to eat. Dinner parties and eating out were big with him (see Matthew 11:19), and some of his best stuff comes as table talk. To me, there's not a lot in this world that's better than sharing a meal and interesting conversation with people you like.

Last week I had about an hour to kill before officiating a funeral, so I decided to stop at the local Dunkin Donuts and clog my arteries a bit. This particular Northeast Philly Dunkin D is conveniently located between the funeral home and the local hospital so when the patrons collapse from coronaries--brought about by the excess of sugar and fat--there's less of a commute.

The doughnut shop was jammed with patrons. I guess Monday mornings are official “Old Retired Dudes Day" at this particular establishment. At every table sat groups of old guys ( I mean, older than me— the standard by which I judge maturity). They were heavy-set, blue collar, gruff-voiced, Philly guys. They didn't bother to shave. They joked and laughed and tried to out-talk each other. They wore sweatshirts with Philadelphia sports logos and baseball caps—many of which identified the wearers as US military veterans.

“Yo! Father!” one of the guys yelled to me in a playful voice. “Will you come over here and bless this guy?” He pointed to a slightly embarrassed codger at his table. “He's totally full of crap and he needs all the help he can get!”

I walked over to the table. “Does he just need an anointing,” I asked, “or are we talking a full-on exorcism?”

They all laughed. I had been accepted.

I ordered my coffee and a doughnut and began to take the lowest seat—the only vacant table in the place. It was a small table in the rear of the shop which two old gents had just vacated. I had about a half hour to get caught up on some reading, but my coffee break was soon interrupted by the arrival of two more retirees.

“Pardon me, Father,” said one, “but could we share your table?” I couldn't very well refuse as there were no other seats available in the whole shop. So I made the acquaintance of Jack and Larry. Larry suggested to his friend that, as a clergyman was their table guest, they had better watch their language. He then told me a clean version of a dirty joke I'd heard thirty years ago. I smiled, but I confessed I'd thought the joke funnier in it's original incarnation. The ice was broken.

For the next half hour I shared the most delightful and meaningful conversation about faith, ecumenism, and the place of the church in political debate. I also had the chance to hear quite candidly what these two elder statesmen expected from their congregations, worship experiences, and clergy. I rarely get such honesty from my own parishioners. I felt truly honored.

As we parted, Larry remarked, “Ya know, I get the feelin' you didn't become a pastor at age twenty-two. Bet you did something else first. Am I right?”

“You are correct, Sir,” I said, “and that's the nicest compliment I've received all week.”

How exalting it is to be treated like a regular guy.

* * *

In this Sunday's gospel Jesus gives us some tips on good manners. He teaches us how to be good guests and good hosts.

(Hey! Did you hear this one? The Virgin Mary says to the eleven-year-old Jesus, “Son, get your elbows off the table! Where are your manners? Were you born in a barn?” Okay. Dumb joke. I won't do it gain.)

In the world of the gospel text, honor and shame were pretty darn big issues. They could have economic ramifications for an entire family. Even today, self-help gurus encourage us to elbow our way to the places of honor, to blow our own horns, and make our achievements known—and woe to anyone who fails to acknowledge our accomplishments! But Jesus counsels the virtue of humility.

I once had a high school teacher who said he preferred honest arrogance to false modesty. I don't like arrogance of any kind, honest or not. As a Christian, I'm taught to embrace honest modesty—the knowledge that I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that all the things I think make me hot stuff are just ephemeral. My self-worth comes from feeling the love of the Creator God, and knowing that, undeserving as I am, I am given blessings every single day if I will only open my selfish eyes and see them. From the seat of humility we learn to be accepting and grateful, and we're protected from the disappointments of our own puffed-up egos.

Good manners also mean a sense of graciousness. Grace is the gift which comes undeserved. As hosts, we serve graciously to those who couldn't possibly repay our hospitality. If we welcome with the expectation of some kind of return, we are not so much practicing grace but commerce.

* * *

I'd like to suggest a change in our liturgical etiquette if I may. As the celebrant at mass, I always believe in serving the congregation first, the worship assistants second, and myself last. I mean, wouldn't you think me rude if, as head of the table at a dinner party, I served myself first? I'd like to see our liturgical practices reflect this common courtesy. And, of course, I make a point of welcoming everyone to the table—at least everyone who feels they can receive the Lord's body and blood in good faith. How rude to invite someone to your home and not offer them something to eat!

And to that end, I still invite you, dear Reader, to sign my petition asking Pope Francis consider open communion with Lutherans. Yeah, I know. The Cubs will win the pennant before I get a response from the Vatican on that issue. But we can hope, can't we? Just click here. Thanks for stopping in!

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Idolatry of Virtue (Reflections on Pentecost 14)

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. (Luke 13:10-17)

Here's a parallel parable:

Mrs. Johnson was a good woman. She was in church every Sunday and could always be counted on to assist with dinners and charity events. She had been the faithful wife of Walter for thirty years, raised her son (who lived in the family basement) and a daughter. Unfortunately, Mrs. Johnson's daughter suffered from substance abuse issues, and Mrs. J. often had to look after a six-year-old granddaughter herself. Additionally, this good woman cared for her aging mother who insisted on living alone, and held down a part-time job as a bookkeeper for a local construction firm. Her friends loved and trusted her, and frequently consulted her when they had problems in their own lives.

One day, the good Mrs. Johnson announced that she was divorcing her husband on the grounds of his chronic intemperance and habitual verbal abuse. She also told her nineteen-year-old son that he had three weeks to get a job and move out of her home. She told her daughter that she would no longer bail her out of jams, open her home to her, or give her any money or support unless she agreed to go into rehab immediately and stay clean for at least a year. She admitted to an addiction to over-the-counter sleeping pills, filed for disability, and quit her job at the construction company. She then informed all of her friends that she would not be taking their phone calls if they insisted on burdening her with their problems. Finally, over much objection and emotional blackmail, Mrs. Johnson had her aging mother placed in an assisted living facility.

So is Mrs. Johnson still a good woman?

If you answered “yes” to the above question, there is an excellent chance that you are behaving like a Christian.

I don't know what kind of medical diagnosis applies to the woman in the gospel lesson from last Sunday (Luke 13:10-17, above), but I know that there are all kinds of spirits which can cripple us and keep us bowed over in a perpetual state of pain—emotional as well as physical. The woman in the story doesn't ask for Jesus' help. She just piously comes to the place of prayer on the sabbath because—for all the spirits which cripple her—she still knows that she is a daughter of Abraham and the heir of God's love and favor. And Jesus does not wait for her to apply for healing. He knows that it's not God's will that this woman—or anyone else for that matter—should suffer from pain and oppression.

Unfortunately, the leader of the synagogue doesn't get it. Let's forget for the moment that this guy is probably crazy jealous because a hick preacher from the hick town of Nazareth has just shown him up by performing a miraculous act of spiritual healing. We're all awfully good at coming up with pious reasons to mask our most ignoble inclinations. The leader supposedly is “indignant” that sabbath observances have been ignored. He's turned virtue into an idolatry—the same sort of attitude that keeps all the Mrs. Johnsons in this world bowed over in bondage.

Jesus calls the Church to lift the yokes. And if we don't know how to lift the burden, the very least we can do is refrain from judging those who are carrying it.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
   the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
   and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
   and your gloom be like the noonday.
(Isaiah 58:9b-10)

Thanks for dropping by, my friends! As always, your comments are appreciated.

(PS-Yup, I'm still trying to get signatures on my petition to ask Pope Francis to let Lutherans and Roman Catholics share Holy Communion. Do I think it will do any good? Probably not, but hey..! We've got another four years to go before the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. If nothing else, we can start the conversation. A lot can happen in the next four years, and this new pope looks like a pretty cool guy. Let's give it a shot. Just click here.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Can You Be a Christian Without Pissing Someone Off? (Reflections on Pentecost 13)

Okay. So suppose somebody does this:

A guy (or gal) runs for President of the United States. The candidate announces that he will stop all US support to Israel on the grounds that Israel has violated international law repeatedly by building settlements in Palestinian territory thereby leading to poverty and oppression for the Palestinian people. The candidate cannot support any human rights violation anywhere. In fact, he will immediately order the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and will pardon, forgive, and repatriate all detainees. He will then pursue a concentrated effort to to achieve peace and reconciliation with the Muslim world.

Then the candidate announces that he will overturn Obamacare. Instead, he will use executive power to create a national healthcare system which excludes no one—not even illegal aliens—and will be funded by tax revenues paid by the wealthiest of Americans. He will also implement a similar program for universal education.

Next, the candidate proclaims his intent to abolish all abortion in the US—and outlaw all capital punishment on the grounds that all lives are sacred to God.

Would this guy stand a snowball's chance of getting elected?

One thing would be certain: he'd get everybody's attention, and he'd make more than a few people very angry.

We all know that any attempt to change things—even if that change has the most idealistic of motives—will spark controversy and polarization. Jesus knew this too. In this week's gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary we read these words:

I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’ (Luke 12: 49-53)

Although we like to think of Jesus as the Prince of Peace, the scriptures still portray a revolutionary. What do we do with this picture? Pretend it isn't there or embrace it? Do we want a passive church focused only on our individual salvation or a powerfully militant church in action and service to the world? Which version, do you think, will inspire the young people of today?

Ask yourself: Where would the Christian faith be without the fiery Martin Luther or the equally fiery Martin Luther King, Jr? Or defiant lawbreakers like Corrie ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Or the outspoken Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu? All of them inspired faith, and all of them made enemies. I think that, sometimes, a little division is good for the faith.

Personally, I'm a mite suspicious of a church that has no division. Homeostasis, I'm told, is one of the symptoms of a dysfunctional family. Even Saint Paul tells us,

Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” (1 Corinthians 11:19)

Jesus has this annoying habit of forcing us to reevaluate our positions and our purpose, and this always leads to controversy. But rather than run from disagreement and strife, we should be grateful for the challenge of speaking our faith. If this leads to division, then we are blessed with the challenge of learning to forgive those whom we oppose. Our sinful nature will always rebel against Christ's command to reconciliation, charity, and humility. But a passive, “feel good” religiosity will never set fire to our spirits.

The saying is true: Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Thanks for reading, my friends! Stir up a little trouble for Jesus' sake this week, won't you?

PS- If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, help celebrate the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by making this plea for Christian unity. Ask Pope Francis to let Lutherans and Catholics share the Holy Supper once again. Just click here.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Thief In the Night (Reflections on Pentecost 12)

But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’ (Luke 12: 39-40)

Do you remember that old movie A Thief In the Night? It's considered to be a landmark flick in Christian movie-making. Combining an almost sci-fi style plot with a rock music score, A Thief In the Night has been seen by an estimated 800 million people worldwide since its release in 1972. It's about this chick who wakes up one morning to discover that her Christian husband and millions of other Christians have suddenly vanished off the face of the earth, caught up in The Rapture—the miraculous rescue of Christ's Church predicted to occur before the time of the Great Tribulation preceding the End of the World and the Last Judgment.

Now, speaking as a former SAG member who once acted with Tom Hanks, I think I'm qualified to critique this film on its artistic merits.

(Okay. I didn't really act with Tom Hanks. I sort of acted behind him—I was an extra in one of his early films. But I still think I'm a good judge of movies!)

Let me just say that, as a piece of cinema, A Thief In the Night is a piece of crap. The dialogue, direction, acting, and cinematography are of an embarrassingly amateurish level which makes the film almost laughable. But, speaking as a theologian, I don't feel the film should be dismissed until we've looked at its Christian message.

Then we should dismiss it. The basic premise of this turkey is that believing in certain doctrines will save you from the Day of God's Wrath. Okay. Maybe that's true, but I'm not sure that the Bible actually bears this out.

(By the way, the entire doctrine of the Rapture is a masterpiece of bad Biblical study and poor theology. I urge any serious Bible student to check out Barbara Rossing's wonderful book, The Rapture Exposed (2004 Westview Press). Just click on Barbara's name for a review of the book.)

Speaking as one who has had his home burglarized, I'm pretty glad I wasn't around when the thief came. Can you imagine what that would be like? It's 2:00 AM. You and your loved ones are safe in bed—or so you believe. Suddenly, you are thrashed from a peaceful sleep by the sound of breaking glass! Your heart thunders in your chest. PANIC! There is a horrifying sense that you are in danger. You are prepared, though. You holler to your wife or child to call 911 and lock the bedroom door. You step out into the corridor and begin switching on every light in the house. “Whose there??!!” you demand. You search for some kind of weapon—a knife, a baseball bat, an umbrella—anything which will protect your family. In the glare of a streetlight through your broken rear window you catch the silhouette of the thief fleeing into the night.

You ask your family, “Are you alright?” They answer, “Yes,” but all of you are scared and shaken. The police arrive and take your statement. This takes time. None of you will get back to sleep that night.

Maybe, as you lie back down in your bed again, you whisper a prayer of gratitude that you have been spared. You pray, too, for safety for those nice police officers who came to your door. And perhaps you even pray for the soul of the man who violated your home and left this night scarred by the knowledge of a shadowy malevolence waiting somewhere in the darkness.

No amount of “correct” doctrine saves us from the time of tribulation. We all ride on the roller coaster of daily challenges. The Bible never claims that we don't. I love that this week's Revised Common Lectionary readings include the passage from Genesis 15: 1-6 in which God's chosen, Abram, wails in despair that, even though he has done everything God has demanded, he still has not received the desire of his heart. God has promised Abram children, but has not delivered. Abram fears God never will make good.

So what does God do in the story? He calls Abram outside and asks him to look up at the stars. Then this good man, so filled with disappointment and worry, views the power, the majesty, and the beauty of God. He unfolds his focus from his own fears and opens himself to the universal and the eternal. And his faith and relationship with God are restored.

In the lesson from Luke's gospel, Jesus exhorts his disciples not to fear for the necessities of life. He urges us to unclench our grasping fists and be open to the needs of others. After all, you can't put anything new into a closed hand.

I'm too old now to think of God as some kind of cosmic Santa Clause who grants protection and blessings to those who obey Him. I know that the Day of Tribulation—or, I should say the Days of Tribulation, as there are many in a lifetime—will come unexpectedly whether I have been pious in my faith or negligent. But the faith which sustains me is the knowledge that I am God's child, baptized into God's beauty and majesty, and that God's desire for me is abundant life.

Tribulation has the power to lead us into despair or deeper faith. It is always around the bend in life's road, and none of us are ever 100% ready for the danger of being a human being on planet earth. But we walk forward calmly with our hands open to each other, our eyes focused on eternity, raptured by the day-to-day hidden goodness of God.

* * *

Hey! The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is just a little more than three years away. If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic don't you think it's time we patched things up?Please sign my petition asking Pope Francis to approve open communion between our denominations. It may not help, but it couldn't hurt! Just click here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Lots of Stuff (Reflections on Pentecost 11)

Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.’ (Luke 12: 13-21)

Don't you just love the dysfunctional triangulation in this story? This guy tries to get Jesus involved in his family dispute, but Jesus wisely avoids the issue. And everybody knows—or is part of—one of those families where somebody dies and the survivors almost knife each other over the inheritance. Jesus reminds us that, whatever the value of the estate, in the end it's just stuff.

I was fortunate with my parents' estate. My half brothers, effectively disinherited by my father's neglect to write a will, graciously refused an offer from my sisters and myself to split our mother's inheritance with them. My sister Lorraine, the executrix of our mother's estate, refused to take an executrix fee on the grounds that “Mommy would want us to split everything equally.” I am forever thankful that my siblings' graciousness spared the entire family the emotional bloodbath which so many other clans have endured following the death of a parent.

The worst part of dealing with the “estate” was the necessity of putting my mother in an assisted living facility and selling the family home following my father's death. I think that now, seventeen years after my mother's passing, I can finally admit that I am the surviving adult child of a hoarder.

It's not that Mother was particularly attached to the accumulated stuff in her home. In truth, she loathed it. But as she aged, some of her Depression-era demons began to overcome her, and she began to retreat emotionally from her environment.  Mother was an artist and an extremely creative woman by nature. She painted, crafted, sewed, and designed. Her greatest artworks were brilliantly executed dollhouse miniatures in 1”:1' scale which astounded everyone who saw them with their beauty and detail. Unfortunately, she was never satisfied with the expectations of women of her generation. She was forever uncomfortable with being a "homemaker." She never learned to drive an automobile, and, I think, began to feel herself more and more trapped at home and in a role not of her own choosing. Her outlet was to paint or create, working by herself long into the night, smoking countless cigarettes while the chaos crept in around her. In her later years she developed emphysema.

When her own body betrayed her, Mother tried to control whatever she could. She refused to relinquish control of her home and its accumulating clutter. When it was suggested that half of the things around her should be thrown away, she would reply, “Yeah? Which half?” But she would not allow anyone to dictate a course of disposal. Finally, whens she was safely ensconced in assisted living and her house sold, I hired a truck to haul away the amassed junk. She was furious with me for taking away her power over her stuff.

It's so easy to let possessions possess us. We amass so we may have control, but how much control do we really have?

Is there anyone's whose soul will NOT be required of them? Anyone who will not grow old? Will possession and wealth keep away cancer? Can we keep our kids safe all the time or keep our parents from dying? Can we control the economy? Or the weather?

Better we should be rich in the things of God. Have we loved as selflessly as Christ loved? Have we contributed to the causes of justice, mercy, health, or peace? Have we possessed an appreciation for the goodness of God which is greater than our individual circumstances? Have we inspired others in hope?

My parents may have left me a mess to clean up, but they also left me a legacy of faith in the crucified and resurrected Jesus. For any faults they may have had, they bequeathed to me the example of decency and morality which lives within my memory and gives me courage when I am discouraged.

And they gave me four siblings whom I love and respect.

How blessed I am!