Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Do You Believe In Angels?

This Sunday, September 29th, is the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels. I guess if I'm honest I've never really given much thought to angels. I mean, they're supposed to be messengers from God, but I've never personally encountered one with shining wings and a halo and all that. This is not to say, however, that I don't believe in them. Many world religions speak of spirit beings or guides who are intermediaries between God and humankind. I'm now too old NOT to believe in the unseen. What does Hamlet say? “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Traditionally, the Western Church has celebrated this feast as Michaelmas. It is considered to be the time of the harvest and the beginning of autumn—the time when the books get balanced. As the leaves begin to fall and the world begins to get colder and thoughts of the departed and my own mortality fill my mind, I like to think that there might be a heavenly spirit hovering over me, giving me benign guidance or, at the very least, keeping me from screwing up too badly. Maybe it's been the presence of angels which has brought me safely to this point in life after all. Who knows?

For me, though, the only angels I know are the flesh and blood messengers who speak divine wisdom to me when I most need to hear it. God has been very good to a poor dufus like me—a habitually lazy, unsuccessful actor with a tendency towards excess. How could it be that I came to be this beloved Lutheran pastor with a beautiful wife, comfortable home, and a real sense of meaning in my life? There must have been some guidance from beyond.

At different times, God has placed people in my life who have given me wisdom, comfort, and sometime financial support when I most needed it. I have angels in my parish and among my circle of friends. At times my wife can be an angel. I even consider my shih tzu dog an angel! (She really DOES remind me of God's love all the time!)

I've only had one really mysterious encounter. I was walking in Center City Philadelphia one night many years ago just before I was to begin duties at my present parish. I'd had a bad fall from a horse while riding in Fairmount Park the week before, and I'd really sprained a groin muscle. I was in pain and had a terrible limp. As I hobbled down the sidewalk, I saw a heavy-set African American woman wrapped in an old overcoat leaning against the wall of a storefront and talking gaily to the passers-by. I assumed this woman to be a street person, one of the many homeless pan-handlers one sees in downtown Philly. I reached into my pocket for a dollar bill, certain I was about to be accosted for a donation. The woman smiled at me and said, “Look! You're Jacob, and the Lord has put your hip out of joint to make you new!” I smiled and said something like, “I guess He did.” After all, I was about to begin a new life as the pastor of my church. The woman never asked me for money. I limped on a few more steps and thought about how God had made a transformation in my life, of how I had been wounded but blessed, of how the last few years—which had included the death of my unborn child, the death of a dear friend, the death of my mother, and a divorce—had made me ready to take on the responsibilities of shepherding a congregation.

I turned around. The woman had vanished.
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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, September 19, 2013

Thieves and Robbers (Reflections on Pentecost 18)

Woody Guthrie 2.jpg                               PrettyBoyFloyd01.jpg

God bless Woody Guthrie! Did you ever hear his “Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd?” It's a romanticized telling of the legend of the Depression Era bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Although Floyd was a known robber and murderer, he reportedly captured the hearts and imaginations of Dust Bowl farmers through gallant acts of charity. It was said of this desperado that, after holding up a bank, he would destroy mortgage records in order to prevent the banks from foreclosing on poor families. Guthrie sang,

But many a starvin' farmer
The same old story told
How the outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little homes.

Another verse recounts a reported act of Floyd's gallantry:

It was in Oklahoma City,
It was on a Christmas Day,
There was a whole carload of groceries
Come with a note to say:
Well you say that I'm an outlaw,
You say that I'm a thief.
Here's a Christmas dinner
For the families on relief.”
True accounts of Floyd's exploits are impossible to find, and fact has congealed into legend in the case of this outlaw. Nevertheless, dear old Woody Guthrie's ballad reminds us that a man who breaks the law may not be completely without redeeming qualities. We are, all of us, at the same time saint and sinner. Simul Justus et Peccator.

That's the lesson I take away from this week's gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 16:1-13). Unfortunately, the hero of Jesus' parable of the dishonest steward is nowhere near as romantic as the machine-gun wielding Charlie Floyd. He's actually something of a pencil-neck geek, too wimpy to do real labor and too stuck up to ask for a handout. He's a sneak who covers his thieving butt by cooking the books. Oh well. It takes all kinds. As Guthrie sang,

Yes, as through the world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

So, you may ask, why does Jesus seem to be holding this guy up as a good example?

Perhaps because the dishonest steward of the parable is just like us—and Jesus wants to strip our outlaw nature of any of the romanticism with which we cloak our own thievery.

If we take an honest look at ourselves, we're all dishonest stewards, squandering the goods which have been entrusted to us. All that we have is “dishonest wealth,” as the parable says. None of it belongs to us. All is a blessing form God. It doesn't matter how much or how little has been entrusted to our care. What matters is how we choose to use it. And how we relate to this wealth has to have roots in the knowledge that we will one day be dismissed from its stewardship.

Like Pretty Boy Floyd, the white collar crook of the parable aids the poor by easing their debt. In so doing, he creates (as Lois Malcolm explains in Working Preacher) a more lateral, reciprocal relationship. A lateral, reciprocal relationship where wealth is concerned was once known as sharing.

And didn't our mothers always tell us that sharing is a good thing?

Yup. Even outlaws can do generous things from time to time, but I think it takes real courage to cultivate a spirit of honest generosity. I didn't preach tithing when I started my ministry because I was too scared to tithe myself. Gradually, however, I learned to let loose a little more of my “dishonest wealth.” In so doing, I learned two things:
First, Luther was right when he taught that “God daily and abundantly provides...all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life (Explanation to First Article of the Apostles' Creed in The Small Catechism).” Once my offering is in the plate, I never miss it. I can trust in God and I haven't starved or been left homeless.

Second, there is satisfaction in knowing that I have been part of something that has mattered. My poor financial gift has participated in some tiny way in educating children, healing addicts, comforting the aged, aiding the displaced, and feeding the hungry. I may not be Mother Teresa, but I know I did something. I'd rather have my tombstone read, “He did what he could,” than “He got all he wanted.” Wouldn't you?
Do some good with your "dishonest wealth" this week, won't you? And thanks for reading, fellow outlaw.
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Again, I'm asking all my Lutheran and Roman Catholic friends to ask Pope Francis to invite Lutherans back to the communion table. He seems like a pretty cool guy, and it can't hurt to ask. Just click here.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Saint of the Month: Nadia Bolz-Weber

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Okay. Heck, I'll admit it. I'm a fan. I mean, I just love this weird chick!

Last Sunday I was on my way to church and, as is my custom, I tuned my car radio to National Public Radio's On Being series, a weekly discussion of topics in religion, ethics, and spirituality. The guest interviewee that morning was the brilliant and fascinating Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, the pastor of Denver's House For All Sinners and Saints.

I've been following Pastor Nadia for a while now as she's a fellow Lutheran. But, as I sat stalled by an opening at the Burlington Bristol Bridge, I suddenly had an excruciating feeling of inadequacy. I listened to her witty and irreverent apologetics, and I thought to myself, “Griff, you are such an amateur compared to this woman! I mean, you're really a piker.”

It's true. Rarely have I heard Lutheran doctrine expressed in so engaging a way. I won't wax poetic about Pr. Nadia's comments. You can listen to them yourself by clicking on the On Being interview. Just click Nadia.

(If your computer won't let you listen, you can read the accompanying article. On Being is also a really good site just to check out!)

Here's what I will say. Nadia Bolz-Weber has created a real church—a religious community founded on Jesus' injunction to seek the lost. As a shepherd, she has left the ninety and nine and gone in search of the one lost sheep. House For All Sinners and Saints is looking for the ex-junkies, the ex-cons, the LGBT's who don't feel welcome in mainstream congregations, the multi-ethnic, and the ones who just want something spiritual and genuine but can't wrap their inquisitive brains around a fundamentalism at odds with their common sense. What is amazing about this shepherd is that, while she seeks the lost, the ninety and nine straight-arrow, conventional sheep seem to have followed her too.

House For All Sinners and Saints, as the name suggests, is built around a fundamental doctrine of the Lutheran faith: Simul Justus et Peccator. That's Latin for “At the same time, justified and sinner.” This congregation understands that the church is not a country club for saints, but a hospital for sinners, and that everyone—regardless of outward appearance—is in some way broken by the burden of being a human being living in our beautiful but fallen world.

And they're okay with this, because they know that Christ's love covers us all.

Yet here's what I really dig about Pr. Nadia: Unlike my man Garrison Keillor, who, in his folksy, charming way has managed to make a loving celebration of Lutherans' boring and timid conventionality, Pr. Nadia has managed to make Lutheranism sound cool. And believe me, as a life-long Lutheran, that's no small trick. This tattooed, icon-covered iconoclast has made a 500 year old tradition real, immediate, and meaningful.

House For All has found a way to translate ancient Christian liturgy into modern, relevant worship. My liturgical brain lights up when I hear Pr. Nadia explain that only a love and understanding for the ancient permits us to innovate with integrity. There's something reassuring in knowing that our order of mass—however our individual communities have tweeked it—still unites us sinners with all of the saints who have experienced this worship throughout the centuries.

Some time ago I turned my daughter on to Nadia's website. Now, my daughter, like many of her highly inked, tech-savvy contemporaries, is not exactly a regular church-goer. But, inspired by Pr. Nadia's online sermons, she just told her mother and me that she is looking into an emerging church congregation in her neighborhood.

And for that alone I have to say, “Thanks, Nadia. I owe you one.”
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Hey, Lutherans and Catholics! Help me out. Let's see if we can get Pope Francis to help us celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by joining us at the communion table. Okay. I know. That's like asking Ann Coulter to join the ACLU, but it can't hurt to ask, can it? Just click my petition here

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Would Jesus Bomb Syria?

Well here we go again.

After—what is it?--twelve years of seemingly unending and at times pointless armed conflict, the US is once again contemplating military action. The obscene and catastrophic civil war in Syria has produced a new horror—the use of a chemical agent by the Syrian government against her own people. Bashir Al-Assad, in violation of international agreement (the Geneva Protocols of 1925), has, it seems, murdered over 1,400 of his own citizens because they have violently rejected his ruthless control of their nation.

So what are we to do about this?

President Obama is prepared to take military action to punish the Syrian government and its military for what is pretty clearly a crime against humanity as well as a dangerous and threatening violation of international law. Pope Francis is urging restraint and diplomacy, arguing that any further escalation of hostilities will only cause more suffering for the people of Syria—Christians and Muslims alike.

Now, we could take the Pope's advice and back off. We could engage Syria's neighbors and the other power players in this insane spectacle and try and see if we can come up with some kind of negotiated solution to the ongoing violence. This might mean offering Al-Assad (who is probably a war criminal in addition to being a consummate s.o.b) a face-saving way to depart his country and live in luxurious exile the rest of his days. It would also mean giving a green light to the next power-mad despot who wants to murder his own people and face no consequences from the community of nations. Could we do this in good conscience?

What does Jesus say?

You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also...” (Matthew 5:38-9)

Martin Luther took a rather unique view of Jesus' exhortation, however. In his 1523 essay on Temporal Authority Luther wrote:

Although you do not need to have your enemy punished, your afflicted neighbor does. You should help him that he may have peace and that his enemy may be curbed, but this is not possible unless the governing authority is honored and feared.”

Of course, the above begs the question: Who is the governing authority? Is the United States the “Policeman of the World?”

Honestly, I don't know the answer. How can Christians, in this situation, do both justice and mercy? At the risk of losing my Lutheran Card, I think I have to go with the Pope on this one. For my own part, I would rather see a villain escape than the innocent suffer. And too many innocents are suffering as it is.

One fact is unambiguous in this conflict: over two million Syrians have become refugees since the start of this mess, and over a third of the people of that nation are now in some way dispossessed. This became real to me when I met “Joe,” the Syrian guy who runs a shop in the strip mall next to my church. He tells me two of his daughters are still in Syria, and God knows what has become of them. I can't look at that man or even think of him without wondering what kind of pain he must be suffering. And I can't even begin to guess at what it must be like to be a refugee, to lose home, job, and identity and fight daily for mere survival.

All I know is that it is time for Christians to be Christians. Jesus commands us to welcome the stranger, and this applies even if the stranger is in a camp somewhere in Jordan or Turkey. Okay. I'm not suggesting we all quit our jobs and volunteer to be refugee aid workers. But in the face of this humanitarian catastrophe, we can at least redouble our efforts to support our denominational aid agencies. Lutheran World Relief is providing comfort kits, hygiene materials, and bedding to those in the resettlement areas. Pray for peace, my friends, and do what you can. It may not be much, but it's better than nothing.