Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Light in the Darkness (Reflections on the Epiphany of Our Lord)

On December 16, 2014 Taliban terrorists entered a school in Peshawar, Pakistan and massacred 133 school children whose only crime was that they were children of the soldiers of a regime with whom the terrorists disagreed. On December 14, 2012, two years ago but not to be forgotten by any of us, a madman with an assault rifle murdered 20 children and six of their teachers and administrators at a school in Newtown, Connecticut.

The deaths of these Holy Innocents leave us shaken, frightened, and questioning of the goodness of God. From the time of the Epiphany gospel (Matthew 2:1-18) to our own, the world has seen a sickening number assaults on innocent life, and nothing can strike us more deeply than the senseless deaths of children. And yet we must face the realities of this violent world if we are to hear the grace of the gospel.

In response to the bumper-sticker demand to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber recently preached a stirring sermon on keeping Herod in Christmas. Pastor Bolz-Weber lamented the biblical inaccuracies of pretty Christmas cards depicting Magi on camels worshiping Christ in the stable along with adoring shepherds and angels. The reality of the gospel nativity story (or, more accurately stories as our Hallmark iconography actually combines both the accounts of Matthew and Luke) is far less pleasant. In a desire to feel all warm and fuzzy during the holiday season, we often forget the horrible tale related in Matthew 2:13-18, the tale of the jealous tyrant Herod and his attempt to eliminate the rival king Jesus by massacring all the male children of Bethlehem.

To be honest, the massacre described in Matthew may not have actually taken place as it is not recorded by any of the historians of the time. It has also been suggested that if the event actually did occur, the number of boys under age two in the tiny town of Bethlehem at that time was not significant enough to rate a mention. We do know, however, that Herod the Great was a ruthless despot who was not above murdering his wife and two of his own sons as well as committing other acts of brutality in order to secure his power over the people. As such, he stands in a long line of power-mad beasts stretching down past Hitler and Stalin to Bashar Al-Assad, Joseph Kony and others who think nothing of robbing innocents of their lives. Whether Herod committed the act attributed to him in the bible or not, we cannot deny that such acts have been and constantly are repeated on this violent and sinful planet.

But Matthew uses this story for specific reasons of his own. Jesus parallels Moses as a child in danger from the power structure of his day. Yet in spite of the power on the throne, the power of God rescues the boy child so he can rescue his people. Joseph the carpenter parallels Joseph the son of Jacob who journeys down into Egypt—an unwelcome journey, but one which will ultimately be for the salvation of the nation. The Jewish audience of Matthew's time would have understood these allusions, and would look to Jesus as the new Moses.

What was significant to the early Christians as well as to us in this story is that the birth of Jesus was a light to the Gentiles, to foreigners and people who are just not like us. The Magi described were probably ancient astrologers who believed that astronomical events accompanied the birth of great people. (The number three comes from the three types of gifts they bring, but the bible does not specify how many Magi there were. They became “kings” in later Christian history when churchmen attributed the reference in Psalm 72 to kings bringing tribute to the messiah to the Magi. Just thought you should know this!)

The early church depicted these non-Jews as a young man, a middle-aged man, and an elderly man in their iconography to represent that Jesus came for all the ages. They also present the Magi as a Middle-Easterner, a European, and a sub-Saharan African to proclaim that Jesus came for all races and nations. It must have been inspirational for these early Christian artists to proclaim that, despite official persecution from Jews and the Roman Empire, people on three continents were worshiping Jesus as their Lord and Savior within a generation of his crucifixion.

But Matthew's story has one more important symbolic element. The Magi are from the East, and they follow a star. That is, they are from the point where the light comes, where the sun rises, and they seek the LIGHT and find it in Jesus.

No matter how evil and frightening the darkness of this world is—in Matthew's day or our own—we still find the light in Christ. In Jesus we see unconditional love and acceptance. We see the beauty of sacrifice, of giving ourselves out of love for others. We see the cleansing and healing power of forgiveness. We see compassion. No matter how barbaric this world becomes, the light of Christ does not go out. For every act of outrage, there are acts of love and mercy, declaring that the darkness is ultimately doomed and will never prevail as long as we keep seeking the light. And when people seek the light, the world changes. Believe it.

A blessed Epiphany season to you all and a Happy New Year!

PS-Listen or read Pastor Bolz-Weber's moving sermon by clicking here.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Peace On Earth, Good Will Towards Men

I first heard one of the many variations on this story in a Christmas Eve sermon sometime back in the 1970's. Since the event related took place exactly 100 years ago—and it is a true story and worth being repeated—I offer it again as a Christmas meditation.
Soldiers from both sides exchange cheerful conversation

By Christmas Eve of 1914 the First World War had been savaging Europe for over four months. What began as a great patriotic adventure quickly disintegrated into a horror movie. Marching riflemen and charging cavalry, the staples of 19th century warfare, were no match for 20th century automatic weapon fire. As winter descended upon the continent, nearly one million soldiers had been killed. The German army, driven from France into Belgium, dug in with a series of fortified trenches. The French and British did the same, and these entrenchments cut a scar into the face of Europe from Switzerland to the North Sea. Enemies faced each other from filthy ditches, some no more than sixty yards apart. Attempts by each army to go “over the top” resulted in massive casualties on both sides. Men fled the slaughter back into their own trenches—trenches filled with mud, vermin, and disease. The dead and wounded were left in “No Man's Land” where their corpses decayed and rotted within the sight of their comrades.

So brutal and tragic was this war that on December 7, 1914 Pope Benedict XV wrote an open letter to the heads of empires begging them to end the fighting or, at the very least, declare a cease-fire for Christmas. The pontiff's missive was publicly and soundly rejected. This was war, declared the leaders of the combating nations, and war does not take a holiday.

On the night of December 24th, near St. Yves in Belgium, the temperature had already dropped below freezing. British sentries peered eastward across “No Man's Land” and reported an unusual sight. Tiny, flickering lights began to glow from the German trenches. The lights grew brighter and brighter, and one British soldier described them as looking like the footlights on a stage. British officers, fearing that the lights were the preparation for a night assault, ordered their troops to stand ready. Yet no assault would come.

Across the frozen graveyard, a strange sound wafted towards them:

Stille Nacht! Heil'ge Nacht!

Alles schlaft; einsam wacht...”

The Germans, the enemy, the hated Bosche, the Hun, were singing to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. The flickering lights were small bits of candles used to decorate tiny Christmas trees sent to the soldiers from well-meaning women back home who had wanted to cheer up the boys in the trenches.

In spite of the orders forbidding a Christmas truce, it is believed that a spontaneous cease-fire was observed over two-thirds of the Western Front that night. In some places, British forces sang back to their German counterparts.

As dawn rose at St. Yves, sentries reported to a young baronet, Lt. Edward Hulse, that German soldiers were advancing from their trench. Hulse observed a small band of Germans in filthy, mud-soaked uniforms, crossing “No Man's Land” with their arms raised. The men were unarmed. Knowing that shooting unarmed men constituted a war crime, Hulse ordered his troops to hold their fire but shouted to the Germans and ordered them to retreat. They kept coming all the same.

A young, haggered, German officer approached Hulse's position and saluted smartly. Hulse returned the salute and demanded to know what the Germans wanted. In a perfect and almost unaccented English, the young officer told Hulse that they had come to wish the British a Merry Christmas and to ask leave to bury their dead. The two young officers struck up a conversation, and Hulse learned that his counterpart had lived in England. The German asked Hulse to write to his girlfriend in Sussex who was protecting the German's most prized possession, his motorcycle. Hulse ordered the cease-fire and proceeded to inspect the British trenches and arrange for burial of his own dead.

He was soon met by an astounding sight: the trenches were empty of men. The troops had not deserted, rather, they were climbing into “No Man's Land” and greeting their German counterparts. In some areas, soldiers from both armies were singing Christmas carols. It is said that such unofficial celebrations between the two armies were occurring over the entire front, creating the greatest impromptu international Christmas party in history.

Because both armies had received Christmas care packages from home, a lively gift exchange began. British tobacco was exchanged for German sausage. German schnapps were given for British tinned beef. The men also exchanged souvenirs such as buttons, belt buckles, and helmets. It is said that a soldier from a Scottish regiment miraculously produced a soccer ball, and a lively football game ensued. Some reports claim that improvised matches using a large beef tin or a bundle of discarded clothing in place of a ball were played up and down the front (The Germans are said to have won all of these games).

Of course, the grizzly duty of retrieving and burying the dead was also carried out. In some parts of the front the men agreed that, as all who had died were soldiers, they should be buried together in one mass, military grave as brothers side-by-side. The burials concluded with readings from scripture, the most popular being the Twenty-Third Psalm.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies...”

Many of the soldiers who participated in the Christmas truce of 1914 wrote home about the event, claiming they would never forget the brief moment of peace on earth and goodwill towards men they had experienced in the midst of the insanity of war. Some had even secreted cameras into the trenches, and photographs of the truce would later appear in newspapers on both sides of the conflict.

News of this brief moment of fraternity infuriated the high commands of both empires. Orders were given that troops should be regularly rotated along the front so no chance of familiarity with the enemy could be established. Fraternization at any level was declared a court-martial offense. Newspapers and letters home were censored, and a ferocious campaign of propaganda ensued with the goal of dehumanizing and demonizing the enemy. Finally, with the introduction of aerial bombardment and the insidious use of poison gas, the powers succeeded in fanning the flames of hatred. The war would stretch on for another four years and, in spite of a few attempts at “live and let live,” there would never be another break in the fighting similar to that of Christmas 1914.

By Christmas of 1915, Edward Hulse would be dead, along with another million soldiers. The trenches near St. Yves would not have moved a single inch.

The legacy of that one day of forgiveness and peace has never been entirely forgotten, however. British and German soccer teams are scheduled to play a re-match on Christmas Day 2014. Monuments to the truce have been erected all along the line of the former Western Front. The monument at St. Yves is topped by a simple white cross—the symbol of the little baby whose birth was celebrated that night, who came to bring peace and forgiveness to the earth.

That little baby—a homeless child, born in a barn to an unwed teenaged girl—whose birth the angels announced to dirty, desperate men who were just trying to get by. Men just like the ones who would climb out of the filthy ditches nineteen centuries later. Men just like the rest of us trapped on this violent planet who still dream of hope and love and peace.

There will be no truce this Christmas. The warriors of ISIS and Al Queda will not suddenly love Americans or even their fellow Muslims. The citizens of Ferguson, Missouri will still be suspicious of their police department, and there will still be crime in the streets of Philadelphia. But perhaps we, people of faith, can make a truce with the anger, the prejudice, and the bitterness within our own hearts long enough to let God love us as God has intended to do. Let ourselves be loved as through the eyes of that infant in the manger. The baby doesn't care what you've done or who you think you are. He asks only that you hold onto him and receive the peace he has to give. The world will never change unless we change. It's Christmas. Be still. Embrace the peace and forgiveness Christ has to offer.

And you, beneath life's crushing load, whose forms are bending low,

who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow:

look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;

oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.”

PS-The Centennial re-match score was UK-4, Germany-1. OG 12/31/14

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Do Not Be Afraid" (Reflections on Advent 4, Year B)

Annunciation - Buyenlarge / Contributor/Archive Photos/Getty Images

A long-time, venerable member of my parish asked to see me privately in my office one Sunday after mass to discuss some church business. After she'd informed me of the matter she said she had to mention another issue which had been on her heart.

“Claire is pregnant,” she said.

This intelligence rattled my guts like a sudden attack of appendicitis. Not Claire, I thought. Not the fourteen-year-old I'd just confirmed who was such a good student and had so much potential..! My heart crashed like a led balloon.

I guess my faithful Church Lady saw a little too much panic in my reaction and quickly told me, “You know I mean my niece Claire, don't you?”

Thank you, Jesus, I thought. I'd confused the member's pregnant teenaged niece, who lived at some distance, with my not pregnant recent student. All the same I promised to keep pregnant Claire in my prayers.

As I look at the appointed gospel lesson for Advent 4 Year B (Luke 1:26-38), I am struck by the words of the angel to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” When I thought Claire (my Claire) was pregnant, I was most definitely afraid. And what I was afraid of was her fear and how I, as her pastor, could compassionately and honestly minister to it. When I was in seminary, my pastoral care professor taught a lesson in ministering to un-wed teen moms, but I'm not real sure that I'm up to the task.

Okay. We all acknowledge that kids have sex. But here in blue-collar Northeast Philly, I still detect a certain sneer that someone's teen daughter would be dumb enough to get pregnant and cause a major disruption in the flow of family life. What's worse is that some of my Roman colleagues in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia (or, as I like to call it, the Archdiocese That Time Forgot) still refuse to baptize a child born of unmarried parents—as if it's somehow the baby's doing that mom and dad didn't get hitched!

Face it, the announcement the angel Gabriel made to the Virgin Mary would not be particularly welcomed should it come to any of our kids. How would we go about reassuring a fourteen or fifteen year old American girl frightened by the shear messiness of pregnancy and childbirth, by the intrusion the event would cause in the normal pattern of growing up, and by the totally-freaking-HUGE responsibility of being a parent?

But God's word to Mary and to us in this gospel is, “Do not be afraid.”

In his essay on the Annunciation, Martin Luther wrote lovingly and tenderly of Mary. He cited St. Bernard of Clairvaux's contention that three miracles were taking place in this story: God was becoming human, a virgin was conceiving, and Mary was saying “yes” to all of this. Of the three, Luther believed that little Mary's assent is the greatest of these miracles. She must have been terribly frightened by the realization that she, barely more than a child herself, was being chosen by God for a most dangerous and difficult mission. She was an average girl of no importance in the eyes of the world, and the stigma of unwed pregnancy carried many more penalties in her time and culture than it does in ours. Yet she choked back her fear and agreed to be the one who carried Jesus for the sake of the world—just as each of us in our own modest way is called to do in spite of our natural trepidation.

How can we not love Mary? Her story is so much our own. Like us, she was born and lived in a time of violence and bitterness. Like us, she yearned for God's deliverance. Like us, she greeted the news that God loved and favored her and had a purpose for her with perplexity. And like us, she would know moments of helplessness and feel the anguish of loss for one she loved—even though she, in blind faith, was willing to utter the words, “Let it be.”

And this is faith. It is the willingness to face real fear in the belief that God will do a powerful thing through little, unimportant us. And through us,  this sinful world will be brought blessings the end of which we cannot imagine.

Christmas blessings to you, my friends. Go be bearers of Christ!

Thursday, December 11, 2014

John the Outlaw Part II (Reflections on Advent 3)

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
“Make straight the way of the Lord” ’,as the prophet Isaiah said. Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah,
nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’ This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing. (John 1:6-8, 19-28)

Saint John the Baptist
If there was ever any doubt about John the Baptist's status as an outlaw, this reading from John's gospel should set us all straight. Our man John was certainly operating outside of the system, and the surest indicator of this was the hoity-toity ruling class sending their little minions out to question his authority. I'm certain the temple bigwigs were concerned about this bug-eating, camel skin-wearing preacher who had the audacity to proclaim the forgiveness of sins and the amendment of life without ritual sacrifice or their official sanction.

But John also stands outside of the culture of today just as he stood outside all of those centuries ago. He confessed and did not deny that he was nothing special, only a voice repeating what God had been telling the world for centuries. He was not worthy to untie the sandals of the one whose coming he so longed for.

How counter-cultural, in our self-absorbed society, for someone to be so humble and so unconcerned about his own importance. I muse how John would react if he were in our world of “selfies,” Instagrams, and facebook—a world where we perpetually shout, “Here I am! Look at me!” The screenwriter Diablo Cody once commented that our social media obsession has placed us all everlastingly in high school where we constantly compete to see which of us is the coolest. Even our observation of the holy time of Advent has become an exercise in self-glorification. We decorate our homes with lights to celebrate the Light of the World, and find ourselves in competition with our neighbors. We send Christmas cards with pictures of our family, replacing greetings depicting the Holy Family. We teach our children to anticipate the coming of a portly gentleman who will reward their goodness rather than teaching them about the coming of a tiny baby who will love them in spite of their shortcomings.

This is what I love about Advent and the stories of John the Baptist—his message combines both alarm and comfort. If the Light is coming into the world—and if any of it shines on me—it's going to reveal how self-centered, insecure, petty, stubborn, and silly I really am. It's going to light up everything. But that's good news, because any of us are only as sick as our own secrets. When the Light comes, we'll have the glorious opportunity to confess our faults and start over again.

This John is a pretty gutsy guy. He flies in the face of the world's accepted authority, and claims the only authority which truly matters—the fact that he knows Jesus and who Jesus is meant to be for us.

Rejoice in the Light, my friends, and thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

John the Outlaw Part I (Reflections on Advent 2)

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight”.' John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
(Mark 1:1-8)

John the Baptist painted by Leonardo DaVinci

I think Christians make great outlaws. And no character in scripture is as colorfully outside the mainstream as that hero of the Advent lectionary, John the Baptist. Just look at this guy: while the religious elite are gathering in the Holy City, ol' John is out in the wilderness, railing against corruption. When the high priests are dressed in fine robes, John is wearing camel skin. When they are eating the meat of the sacrifice, he's on a diet of bugs and honey. When they are calling for purity of sacrifice, John is calling for the purity of the individual heart.

How do we make that heart pure and clean? Start by confessing your sins and asking God's forgiveness.

I don't know about your individual feelings of sinfulness or guilt, but I've been thinking a lot lately about the need for corporate repentance within the Protestant Church in America. I've been reading this fascinating book called Power Surge by the Reverend Michael Foss, a Lutheran pastor in Minnesota, and I have to tell you I've been feeling pretty convicted by it. (You can find out about this book by clicking on its highlighted title.)

Pastor Foss, who serves a parish in a part of the country where you can't stand with your arms akimbo without poking a Lutheran, still thinks there's a problem with the way we do church. He's not talking about the sins of exclusivity, hypocrisy, homophobia, or subjugation of women (although we certainly have a lot to atone for in those departments!). He's calling us out like John the Baptist for making church membership a priority over Christian discipleship.

Foss maintains when churches focus on gaining and keeping members rather than leading those members to a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ we pervert the gospel and dilute the power of the Holy Spirit. He suggests we tolerate bad behavior, wink at Biblical illiteracy, and burn out our pastors in an endlessly hopeless attempt to keep all the members happy.

Members, Foss says, feel privileged. Disciples, by contrast, feel a sense of mission. If the church were to focus on making disciples, we would be “making the path straight” for the Holy Spirit to do her work. Foss sights six marks of discipleship. Christians:

Pray daily,

Worship weekly,

Read the Bible,

Serve their congregations and the wider society,

Form spiritually nurturing relationships with other Christians, and

Give generously of our time, talents, and resources.

So the sin I'm confessing is this: Although I have devoted myself to preaching, teaching, and enriching the worship life of my congregation, I have been disgracefully negligent in expecting and requiring a level of discipleship from those entrusted to my spiritual care.

Please understand, I'm not suggesting some kind of spiritual litmus test by which to judge who really is or is not a true Christian. But I am hoping to turn a complacent church into a place where Christ is truly experienced, where the world is truly served, and where lives are truly changed. If that's to happen, we have to start by admitting we've been doing something wrong.

What better time than Advent, the time of preparation, to begin our repentance and renewal? In the weeks and months ahead I hope to make some serious changes to the status quo. I know some of them won't go over too well.

I'm starting to feel like an outlaw already.

A blessed Advent to you all, and thanks so much for reading.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Saint of the Month: Sgt. Mary Dague (Reflections on Thanksgiving)

Thirty-year-old Mary Dague describes herself as happy.

Image result for Sgt mary Dague
That's pretty easy to believe by looking at her picture. She's got luminous eyes, funky magenta hair, and a smile that seems to go all the way around to the back of her head. A Youtube video of a thoroughly enthusiastic Mary doing a tandem skydive (without a helmet, mind you!) might just convince you that this is the coolest chick ever. If I had to pick a word to describe her image, I'd say “joyful.”

I heard Mary's story a few weeks ago on National Public Radio's “Story Corp” series, and I thought to myself, “Okay. That's my Thanksgiving sermon!”

(Thanksgiving, I said. Not “Turkey Day.” Not the day before “Black Friday.” I friggin' hate, loathe, and despise those two terms. It is a revolting commentary on our culture that we so neglect a national holiday set aside to appreciate the goodness of God by nominating gluttony and excessive retail spending over gratitude. But I digress.)

I picked Mary Dague's story as an illustration for this national day devoted to gratitude because she seems to me to embody the very spirit of Thanksgiving.

If you check out her story online, you'll find that Mary was a rather shy, sentimental kid growing up in Montana. She was engaged to be married right out of high school, but her future mother-in-law scared her—unintentionally, I'm sure—with thoughts of an oppressive domesticity. Mary wanted to be something more than just a housewife. She broke her engagement and, determined to do something that mattered, joined the United States Army. In her second enlistment she rose to the rank of sergeant with the frightening Military Occupation Specialty of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), the “Bomb Squad” of the Army.

(She also fell in love and married a fellow soldier named Jared)

In November of 2007, while on deployment in Iraq, a small IED detonated in Mary's arms. She lost both of her arms slightly above the elbows, received lacerations to her face, and lost a good portion of her hearing. A newspaper article reports her reaction to one of the corpsmen who transported her to hospital: “Dude, this sucks.”

But if you listen to Mary's voice and hear how grateful she is to be able to share her story with other wounded warriors, if you get a sense of her whacky sense of humor, her compassion, and her new sense of purpose, you will quickly forget her injuries and see only her beautiful spirit. Mary Dague soldiers on with optimism and a collection of oddball graphic T-shirts displaying wry and darkly humorous references to her condition. Aided by her husband, a service dog, some sophisticated prosthetics (there's a great picture of her online feeding herself a strawberry with her new arm), pure Montana ingenuity, and a defiant sense of humor, this veteran is a living, breathing inspiration.

I don't know Mary, so I don't know what her religious beliefs—if any—are. I hope she wouldn't mind my using her story to make a theological point. But in seeing this courageous lady, I am reminded that God does not stop being good because we in our circumstances stop appreciating that goodness. Indeed, the crappiest day we will ever have will still be filled with blessings. There will be sky above us and beauty around us and glorious people to love us and help us through.

Mary Dague's story illustrates the point made in the appointed gospel lesson for the Day of Thanksgiving, the story of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19. There is a world of difference between being cured and being healed. Jesus cured all ten of the lepers in the story. That is, he restored all of them to their former conditions of health. But only the one was healed. Healed comes from a word meaning “to be made whole.” Wholeness suggests peace, acceptance, self knowledge, and appreciation. We can't be healed or whole without gratitude. Maybe Sgt. Mary cannot be completely cured (But then, none of us can. Being human is a terminal condition), but she certainly seems to be healed.

I am grateful just for the opportunity to gather with loved ones and recognize how good I have it, acknowledging that none of the blessings I enjoy come from my deserving them in the least. I guess the more I recognize this, the more thankful and the more whole I will become.

I saw a cool sign in front of a church I pass on my way to and from Faith Lutheran which sort of sums it up:

It's not a day. It's a way of life.

Or, as the old hymn put it:

Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided;
great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

And I am thankful to you, dear friend, for reading. A blessed Thanksgiving to you.

PS-Check out Mary Dague story by clicking on StoryCorp.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Christ the King (Year A)

Kings. We really don't know what to do with them here in America. We say that Elvis was the “King of Rock 'n' Roll” and Michael Jackson was the “King of Pop,” but for the most part we've done pretty well without them for some 238 years.

Nevertheless, Americans really do love to gossip about British royalty. Part of us has a grudging awe and admiration for someone who, by the accident of their birth or through “divine right,” gets to own an entire country. There seems to be something magical in the concept.

I've never seen royalty myself, but my late dear ol' dad, back in his “regular army” days before the Second World War, had the honor of standing guard for their Royal Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they visited the US in 1939. Dad thought the queen was a charming and radiant woman, but he really was unimpressed by the king, whom he described as looking slack-jawed and confused.

If you've seen the movie The King's Speech, a wonderful bio pic about George VI, you won't wonder too much at my dad's impression. It seems that the King was, by nature, a fairly unimpressive guy. He suffered from a crippling stutter and an almost equally crippling personal insecurity. He was second in line to the throne behind his flamboyant and dazzlingly charming brother, King Edward VII. It was only when Edward's romantic difficulties forced him to abdicate that George was forced into the top spot—a position he feared and never coveted.

The British journalist Alistair Cooke once commented that few constitutional crises were ever more fortunate for the British people than Edward's abdication. The faltering and shy George turned out to be a much better symbol for the war-beleaguered nation than the dashing and charismatic Edward. George was the king to whom the average citizen could relate—a man obviously distressed by the nightmare of war, but doggedly determined to see the thing through shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the country.

In today's gospel lesson (Matthew 25: 31-46), the King of Kings exercises his magisterial power to judge between the sheep and the goats. But, judgment aside, he is a very unimpressive king. He comes to us hungry like the unemployed dad who arrived at my church door last week looking for food donations. He comes thirsty like the thousands in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to clean drinking water. He comes naked like the inner-city school kid whose single mom can't afford to buy her a good winter coat. He comes as a stranger like the three Afghan women refugees who explained in their broken English that they were told a church might help them out with living expenses. He comes sick like the victims of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and the ebola virus. He comes to us in prison and on parole and addicted to drugs and alcohol. He comes as a battered wife and an elderly veteran in a nursing home. He comes as a young girl with an eating disorder and a young gay man bullied by his classmates. He comes weak, insecure, lost, angry, afraid, and in millions of different forms which have no claim on our earthly admiration. But he comes.

And, as his loyal subjects, we are called to serve him.

The Evangelical preacher and activist Jim Wallis tells the story of Mary Glover, a poor woman who volunteered at a food cupboard in Washington, D.C., a mere twenty blocks from the White House. Mrs. Glover relied on the cupboard for food assistance herself, but joyfully gave of her time to hand out groceries to hundred's of disadvantaged people living in the capital of the wealthiest nation on Earth. Each Saturday before the cupboard opened, Mrs. Glover led the volunteers in prayer, a prayer which always ended, “Lord, we know that you'll be comin' through this line today; so, Lord, help us to treat you well.”

God bless you, my fellow subjects. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jesus' Parable of a Rotten Employee (Reflections on Pentecost 23)

Can I make a confession?

People often ask me how it was that I went from being in show business—a sometime soap opera actor, radio voice talent, and denizen of tiny Los Angeles theaters—to being the pastor of a Lutheran church in Philadelphia. My answer, of course, is God had different plans for me than I had for myself. I think that's a pretty good answer. But, if I'm totally honest, the real reason starts with the fact that my career as an actor was in the toilet. I mean, after years of auditions, calls to my agent, photos mailed to casting people, etcetera, etcetera, I just wasn't getting anywhere. And what really sucked the most was the more “no's” I heard, the more desperate and nervous I was becoming. I got to a point where I was more afraid of failure than I was excited about success. So I had to hang it up.

I guess that's why I love this parable so much. It speaks to me in a very uncomfortable sort of way.

The gospel reading in the Lutheran lectionary for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 25:14-30) paints an identifiable portrait of another hapless dufus. The poor slob in this story is entrusted by his master with a talent—in this sense, a sum of money which, in weight, was the equivalent of twenty years' wages for the average working man of the day. It's a lot of cash, and he doesn't want to lose it, so he buries it in the earth until the boss gets back. Two of his co-workers, whom the boss believes to be more gifted in investing, have been given larger sums which they trade and invest and manage to double.

But the poor, gutless slob does nothing with the wealth to which he is entrusted. He doesn't even put it in the bank to earn a trifle of interest. When the boss comes back to ask for an accounting, this pusillanimous employee digs up the cash, proudly declaring that he hasn't lost a nickle. The boss goes into a rage, calls the guy “wicked” and “lazy,” and promptly fires him.

Now, for my part, it does seem a bit of a stretch to make the boss in this story analogous with a merciful and forgiving God. He's actually a bit more like a Donald Trump or some other robber baron more concerned about the bottom line than the welfare of his employees. Nevertheless, he points out a hard reality: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you fear failure more than you desire success, you doom yourself to failure.

What's the lesson here for Christians? Let's start with the talent with which we've been entrusted. I'd say that this is the Gospel—the power to believe that a merciful Creator God, made manifest in the suffering, forgiving, crucified and risen Jesus Christ, can change our lives, give us courage, and create a just and merciful world. That's a pretty darn big treasure with which to be entrusted. So what do we do with it?

My fear is that we in the organized Church are more afraid of losing what we have—a comfortable, somewhat religiously-based social club (what Nadia Bolz-Weber would call “the Elks Club with Communion”) than we are eager to invest in the Gospel. After all, such an investment might require risk. We'd have to be willing to change our thinking (sometimes called “repentance.”), seek ministry opportunities with people unlike ourselves, and devote ourselves to the cultivation of real discipleship. Such an investment could cost our congregational treasuries money or mean that we'd have to give up some of our free time and miss an episode or two of the Real Housewives of Newark in order to attend Bible study or do some mission work. So we bury our treasure, cling to the status quo, and watch our congregations go down like Custer at the Big Horn.

But in Christ all things are possible. When my congregation first started a non-traditional music format at our late service, we had a number of volunteers to lead singing. I thought this was swell at first. Unfortunately, many of these good folks, however much they liked to sing, were more afraid of messing up than they were excited about leading worship. They'd stand a toll call away from their microphones, terrified that, if they hit a sour note, everyone in the congregation would hear it. Their embarrassment and reluctance to lead worship with praise and conviction made the whole congregation feel uncomfortable rather than joyful to be in the house of the Lord.

Little by little, however, things began to change. When one of our past worship directors suggested that we put on a concert in which the singers would actually be given solo parts, my reluctant Praise Team—with fear and trembling—agreed to give it a try. To be honest, we didn't sound all that great, but neither did we die of mortified embarrassment. We made a joyful noise unto the Lord, and from that moment on we've been slowly growing in confidence and ability.

I think this parable reminds us that we serve an awesome and powerful God who can take the investment of our talents and use them to His glory—if we're brave enough to trust Him. If all we desire is institutional survival, then survival is the best we will achieve. But if we are willing to take risks, to make the change form being church members to true  disciples of Jesus, and commit to growing in the things of God, there is no telling what we might achieve.

Don't be afraid, my friend, of the wealth God has given you. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wise Oil and Veterans (Reflections on Pentecost 22 and Veterans Day)

Flag of the United States of America

I guess it's always something of a challenge for a liturgical preacher like my own dear self to try and marry the appointed text for a given Sunday with the secular holiday being celebrated at the same time. If you try to do it, you'll probably end up mangling the original meaning of the text in the attempt. But, shoot..! Here goes anyway.

The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) is another attempt by Jesus to tell us what living in God's kingdom and under God's rule is like. All ten maids know something is about to happen. The groom (let's make him analogous with Jesus) will certainly come to us at some point, but we need to be ready for the moment of arrival. I'm not sure that moment always has to be the Second Coming. Perhaps it's an illness, a death, a job loss, or even an unexpected blessing. The question is whether or not we're ready for it. What is the oil in the parable a metaphor for? It's got to be more than just correct doctrine. If we look at the Hebrew scripture lesson appointed for this week (Amos 5:18-24), we see that God has no time for religious observances if they're not connected to justice and righteousness.

So the next question would be, what do these qualities mean to you? What is righteousness? A pious Jew might find righteousness by being in constant dialogue with God's law, always asking what is the right course, the moral course, or the most acceptable. As Christians, however, we can't be in dialogue with the law because the law always shows us we have fallen short of it. Instead, our “oil” is to be in constant dialogue with Jesus, using the qualities we have learned from him as our guide. Which course is the most compassionate? Which the most forgiving? Which promotes peace and understanding and healing? Which the most beneficial to the suffering, the poor, the outcast? Which course is the course of love?

There are “Come to Jesus” moments in every life, and they come without warning. Those who have brought the oil of Christ's righteousness—his wisdom, his faith, his love—can't give it to those who are without it. It is up to all of us to cultivate our own relationship with Jesus, to watch for him and recognize what God is doing in our lives. The road to wisdom requires discipline.

So what does any of this have to do with Veterans' Day you ask? Honestly, not a darn thing. Except, I guess, that our walk with Jesus is preparation for any and every day. So let me just change the subject entirely and say a few words about our American secular holiday.

First, this holiday on November 11 was originally declared by Woodrow Wilson in observance of the end of the most ungodly bloodbath the world had seen up to that time—World War I. After an entire generation of young men in Europe and North America had been decimated by this carnage, Wilson thought it was a good idea to remember its horrors every year on the anniversary of the armistice in the hopes that such an event would never, ever reoccur. He further proposed that the victors of this conflict show mercy and compassion to the vanquished and create friendships and lasting peace through forgiveness and cooperation. This idea didn't go over too well at the time. A generation later we were slaughtering each other again. So Wilson's “Armistice Day,” intended to be a day to commemorate peace, was renamed “Veterans Day” to honor those who served and suffered in the defense of peace.

November 11 is also the feast of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers. The legend of St. Martin states that, as a soldier of the Roman Empire, Martin encountered a nearly naked beggar. Moved with pity for the man, the soldier cut his long cape in half and gave half to clothe the beggar. Later, in a dream, he saw the caped beggar and recognized that he had given his cape to Christ himself (See Matthew 25:36). He then left the military and dedicated his life to the service of God and the poor. Because of his act of selfless generosity, small churches were given the name “capella” or “little cape.” From this we get the words “chapel” and “chaplain.”

And, of course, November 11 is also the birthday of Martin Luther. Luther taught that a man could be a soldier and still honor God if he fought in defense of the weak and powerless. The temporal sword, according to Luther, if wielded by a righteous and God-fearing government, helped fulfill the first use of God's law, namely the suppression of lawlessness. (See Letter on Temporal Authority, 1523)

I hope we observe Veterans Day in the spirit intended by Wilson, St. Martin, and Dr. Luther. That is, we bring to the feast the oil of righteousness—compassion, mercy, and the desire for true peace—and not just flag-waving bravado. To honor those who sacrificed their youthful years in order that the world would be a safer, more law-abiding, and more just place, I offer a prayer by Luther and a litany of my own.

Luther's Soldiers' Prayer:

Dear God, you see that I must go to war. I would surely rather keep out of it. I do not rely and trust in the righteous cause, but upon your grace and mercy. I will not wage war against you, neither will I be in an army that robs God of the things that are God's. O heavenly Father, here I am employed as you will in this work and service of my rulers. My first loyalty is to you; then to them, for your sake.

I have learned through your gracious Word that our works cannot help us and that no one is saved by being a warrior. I will in no way rely on my obedience and work as a soldier. But I will sincerely do this work as a service to your will.

Enable me to believe with all my heart that only the innocent blood of your dear Son, my Lord Jesus Christ, obediently shed for me according to your gracious will can redeem and save me. In this faith I will stay here, wage war, do all that has to do with war, and if need be die. Dear God and Father, preserve and strengthen this faith in me through your Holy Spirit. I commend my body and soul into your hands. Amen.

A Veterans Day Litany

Spirit of the Living God, we give you thanks and praise for those who have given themselves to the cause of world peace, security, and justice. For all veterans and active duty military, we pray your blessing, your strength, and your healing love. We cry your mercy:

For those who have returned from service injured, whether in or out of combat, who have lost health or limb;

For those who suffer emotional pain;

For those who saw buddies killed or maimed;

For those who have seen sights they cannot un-see;

For those who feel guilt over the deaths of the innocent;

For those who know the pain of taking human life;

For those who turned to alcohol or drugs;

For those who were shunned, blamed, spat upon, or whose service was unappreciated or ignored;

For those who were victims of sexual misconduct;

For those who have suffered financial hardship because of multiple deployments;

For those who wonder why they were allowed to survive when others perished;

For those have missed holidays, birthdays, and the achievements of their children, or became strangers to their families because of their military service;

For those who attempted suicide;
For those who have not been able to feel pride, but rather shame for their actions;

For those who feel they haven't given enough;

For those who have become homeless;
For those who feel their government has let them down;

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.
Thanks for reading, my friend. Stop in again soon.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

All Saints Day

What do John the Baptist and Kermit the Frog have in common?

The same middle name.
Kermit the Frog.jpgOkay. Dumb joke, I know. But it was the joke which my friend Pastor Kathleen Gahagen used to open her final sermon at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church of North Tonawanda, New York. Kathleen always began a sermon with a silly joke. She believed if there are no signs of joy in church, there is no joy. She was a sweet, funny, enthusiastic, and beguilingly friendly saint who lost her bout with cystic fibrosis last spring at the age of forty four. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

My sister Maryanne ended her earthly journey this past year at the age of fifty-seven. She was a gifted scenic artist who had lived a wonderfully bohemian life in Manhattan for years, who traveled to Europe, and enjoyed multiple enthusiasm from classical singing to pro wrestling. Yet she turned her back on all that and chose to be a simple wife and mom, struggling to make ends meet in a very unglamorous job for a marketing company in Tacoma, Washington. I worried about her for years. In the end, however, I realized that a life has to be judged on balance, and that there is wonderful romance to be found in commonplace things. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

My congregation, Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia, has lost five faithful members since last All Saints Day. Marilyn, who lost her only son and husband, but who taught us how to be family in Christ. John, who learned Spanish in his eighties and sent his first “tweet” at the age of ninety-three, and taught us all how to age with verve and joy. Doris, a shut-in who faithfully stuffed cash into an offering envelope every week, blissfully cheerful in spite of the grumpiness of her elderly husband, and smiling and perky even in her hospital bed. She taught us the value of patience. Chick, who was the most loving and compassionate step-father to his wife's children, who mowed the church lawn, made generous donations to the offering without calling any attention to himself, and never raised his voice above a hush. Bob, who mourned his first wife's death so deeply, but came alive again when he fell in love in his sixties, a virtual Lazarus, and testament to the goodness of God.

All of them are blessed saints—the meek, the mourners, the sweet and pure of heart, the poor in the things of this world but rich in the things of God. What is a saint, after all, but a sinner redeemed by God's grace?

I believe it is my purpose in life to be a bard for the everyday saints of this world. Every life, you see, is an epic. Every life has something to teach us.

And you too, my friend, are a saint—made holy even in your weakness—an ambassador for Christ.

May the knowledge of your own blessedness bring you peace.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Saint of the Month: Pope Francis

About a year and a half ago I wrote a letter to Pope Francis requesting that the Holy Father consider ending the 500 year schism between Lutherans and Roman Catholics by inviting Lutherans into full Eucharistic sharing with our Roman brothers and sisters. I followed up my little epistle with a Change.org petition. Alright. I know. I may be a little crazy, but I'm not quite daffy enough to believe that I would really get a response to either missive. I just thought I'd run the idea up the pole and see if anyone saluted. Alas, Pope Francis is yet to reply. But that's cool--the guy's pretty busy these days. I certainly understand. My Change.org petition wasn't exactly a howling success either, running a full year and garnering only 47 signatures--mostly from friends and members of my congregation.

A Catholic buddy of mine, the permanent deacon of a local parish, made an interesting point. "Owen," he told me, "there will never be full Eucharistic sharing between Lutherans and Catholics until there's full Eucharistic sharing between Catholics." What my friend meant, of course, is that there are millions of good, God-fearing Roman Catholics who are disenfranchised by their own church, barred from the Holy Supper because of marital status or sexual orientation.

This week, the press that's coming from the Vatican Synod on Family Values suggests that Pope Francis is rethinking some of the Catholic Church's historic positions on divorce, cohabitation, and the LGBT community. If this is the case, he is the most radical Catholic since Pope John XXIII, and maybe the most radical since Martin Luther himself. Already the voices of dissent have been heard howling, calling for a fallback to the traditional views and vowing that a liberal pope will never reverse the church's teachings on these issues. (See this article) My deacon friend jokes, "I'm sure glad this guy cooks his own meals!" He's suggesting, of course, that so radical a change in church teaching is enough to make someone want to poison the old boy.

Okay. I get that. Such is the Pharisaical nature of our sin that we just have to have some category of persons to whom we can point and accuse of being worse sinners than we ourselves. But this never was the way of Jesus, and what I truly dig about this pope is that he's been giving us back the Jesus of scriptures.

I mean, aren't you just bored to tears with a blond, blue-eyed, lamb-carrying, namby-pamby Jesus--the Savior of all virtuous well-scrubbed white boys and girls? Me too. I want the world to see the Biblical Jesus: an heroic, willing martyr whose burning compassion for the poor and those outside of society challenges the self-satisfied status quo. I want to see a church which is not a country club for saints but a hospital for sinners.  

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matthew 9: 10-13)

I believe Pope Francis is doing more than just creating a "welcome environment." He's giving us the real Jesus--the one who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This is the only view of the Savior which truly speaks to our world. 

Thanks for dropping by, dear friends. Leave me a note and let me know what you think, okay?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Tough Parable (Reflections on Pentecost 17)

Collaert, October, with The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
Adriaen Colleart (1560-1618)
"The Wicked Tenants"
The parable of the "Wicked Tenants" (Matthew 21:33-46) is kind of a tough one for me to preach on. The obvious historical context of this parable is a little obscured. The smart guys in the Jesus Seminar say that when Jesus originally told this story, he left out the part about the vineyard being given to other, more qualified tenants (see the gnostic Gospel of Thomas 65:1-7). He might have just been giving a warning to absentee landlords—who were pretty common in his day—about what happens when you treat your tenant farmers harshly. The early Church, of course, added the bit about new tenants claiming the vineyard, thereby making it an allegorical story about how the Jews had screwed the pooch by rejecting the son (that would be Jesus) and the Kingdom of God now belonged to the new folks (that would be us).
To me, that theme just doesn't preach too well. It might leave us feeling awfully smug, but I'm not sure it draws us closer to Jesus. Besides, there's just too much us against them going on in the world now as it is, don't you think?

So let me try to pull something different out of this story. As it appears in Matthew's gospel, the landowner (that would be God if you want to get allegorical) is a pretty cool guy. He decked out this vineyard with everything necessary for the growing of good fruit and sustaining life. He then leased it to tenants. Leased it—that is, he made a contract with them. A covenant, if you will. Both sides know the score here. Alas and alack, the tenants chose not to honor the covenant.

As always in my way of thinking, the best didactic way to look at Jesus' parables or any of the Bible stories would be to cast ourselves in the role of the least sympathetic characters. So: wicked, sinful us (we?)—that's you and me—get the role of the covenant-breakers.

But this landlord is merciful. Even though the tenants renege on their remittance deal, the landlord still gives them three opportunities to do the right thing. So how come these “wretches” get put to a “miserable death?”

(By the way, I love the use of the term “wretches.” It has a double meaning. It can mean either a person who behaves wretchedly and is despised and scorned, or it can mean a person who is miserable and distressed. Charity suggests (don't you think?) that if someone behaves wretchedly it is because they are miserable and distressed. I, for one, never met a rotten,vicious person who seemed really happy. Have you? I mean, it's something to think about. We bring the punishment on ourselves.)

What's wrong with these tenants? First off, I'd say that they are ungrateful for the opportunity that the landlord has given them. They got their daily bread, but they don't seem to be thankful for it. There is a nasty sense of entitlement to these wretches which leads them to greater sins. They are also void of any sense of respect. Not only does their disrespect lead them to ingratitude, but it leads them to violence in that they cannot see the lives of others as being of value. Their overwhelming passion is for gain. They are covetous and grasping. Selfish, ungrateful, disrespectful murderers don't seem to have much of a claim on our sympathy.

So where does this leave us? To respect the landlord's son (yes, this is still Jesus) means to try to grasp the enormity of God's love for us—a love so great that God can enter into our suffering, providing us even his body and blood. This cognition leads us to a feeling of gratitude and respect. On the crappiest day we're ever going to have, God will still provide air and water, light and beauty, caring individuals in our lives, and the hope of eternity. The landlord has given us and will give us everything we need to bear fruit in our lives and be a blessing to others. And he asks so little in return—only that we find love in our hearts to do the right thing.

Thanks for stopping by this week. Leave me a note and let me know you were here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Impolite Christianity (Reflections on Pentecost 16)

Once upon a time, when I was a brand new pastor at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia, I suggested to my congregational council that we change the way we do opening devotions at our monthly meetings. Rather than having the pastor lead in prayer, I thought it would be kind of peachy if individual members of the council took turns sharing their favorite scripture readings and leading in prayer themselves. After all, as Lutherans, we believe in the Priesthood of All Believers, and I thought it would be a good idea for us to share our spiritual side with each other.

One long-time, venerable member of the council announced to me that he had no intention of participating, and would not be taking a turn. “I don't do that,” he told me matter-of-factly.

As a new pastor I feared pressing my point, realizing that I can't force a man to pray publicly if he just doesn't want to do it. But this made me wonder: If this guy is a Christian and a leader of his congregation, why is he so against expressing his faith?

Maybe it's our old American tradition which our parents have passed on to us. It's just not right or polite to discuss religion in public. It's a private matter, and good Lutherans don't air private things in public. To a certain point I agree with this. I mean, I've seen boatloads of stuff on facebook which I don't believe I would share myself. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that if there were ever a time for us to get over our religious shyness, this would certainly be the time!

In the Hebrew scripture lesson appointed for this Sunday (Ezekiel 18:11-4 and 25-32), the prophet reams out the exiled Hebrew people for blaming their parents for their current predicament. Certainly, the sins of the ancestors have caused great pain for the children, but there comes a time when the kids have to suck it up and get over it. They have to find their own sense of repentance and stop embracing their victimization and blaming Mom, Dad, and God for all of their problems. Repentance, change, and responsibility for their own identity is not only possible but necessary.

In the gospel lesson (Matthew 21:23-32), Jesus confronts the high priests and the Pharisees who see him as a huge threat to the status quo. They just don't like all this enthusiasm in their Temple, and they don't like the idea that some hick preacher from Nazareth can claim any authority. Jesus challenges their thinking with a parable about two boys and their dad. One openly defies his dad by refusing to do as directed, but later repents and does the chore anyway. The other says the right thing, but doesn't do what he's agreed to do.

I'm a little uncomfortable with this story because I find that I'm often like that second kid who knows what to say, but doesn't follow through. I mean, I know a LOT about the Christian faith, but in almost sixteen years in my parish I haven't been able to connect it to the hearts of this congregation. We still don't have an ongoing adult Bible class where we share with each other our relationship with Christ. I still see parents who do all the right things—they get the kids baptized, have them receive their first Holy Communion, and make their confirmations—but don't sit with them in church or have conversations about what their faith means to them. Secular activities seem to take precedence over religious observance with lots of folks, and I'm not sure that there's any discussion about how faith and “life” are integrated.

Of course, the good news in both of these lessons is that God desires repentance and doesn't care how late it comes. Sometimes hookers, thieves, and traitors get the message before people who have been raised in the Church. But God is merciful and desires a whole relationship with all of us.

I guess the question for me this Sunday will still be: What does your faith mean to you, and how is the world affected by the fact that you are a Christian?

Let me know what you think, and thanks for reading.

(PS-To see a video of me delivering the sermon for  Pentecost 16, click here.)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

We Are Beggars (Reflections on Pentecost 15)

Ruth was 85 years old when she left this world. Her first husband had been an abusive alcoholic, so she kicked his sorry butt to the curb and raised three children on her own. She endured the gossip of the neighbors who, back in the day, were censorious of a single, divorced woman. She worked six days a week and never took a penny she hadn't earned herself. She raised her children and cared for her aging mother. Eventually, she married a nice widower who predeceased her by twenty years.

Ruth's daughter told me about the lady hospice chaplain who visited her mother in the last weeks of Ruth's life. One day, as the chaplain read from the Bible, Ruth looked up from her bed and declared, “I'm just a speck of dirt. God is everything.”

Sometimes I have to marvel at a generation who worked so hard, endured so much, and yet felt no sense of entitlement. Some day soon they will all be gone, and our nation will be the poorer for the loss.

I see the scripture lessons appointed for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost as dealing with our wounded sense of entitlement. The hilarious book of Jonah is really a remarkable writing. Not only is it a very funny story, but it is almost revolutionary when viewed in the context of its time. My friend Pastor Steve shared an interesting historical tidbit. It seems that the Assyrians, whose capital city Nineveh was, had a reputation for sadistic cruelty to the people they conquered which makes the Nazis look like unruly Cub Scouts (Not that unruly Cub Scouts can't be sadistically cruel, but you get the idea!). One can only imagine how much the people of Israel hated the people of Nineveh for what they had done to them in the days of conquest. Jonah going to Nineveh would be just like a Holocaust victim preaching to Berlin in the days of the Third Reich. This makes God's inclusivity and pity seem all the more radical, and Jonah's outrage at God's mercy seem all the more understandable.

The scandal of this story is equal parts God's profligate generosity and forgiveness and the hero's unattractive bitterness—a bitterness which makes him embarrassingly small-minded and silly.

Perhaps in our economy we are even more scandalized by the appointed gospel lesson, Matthew 20:1-16. I can't imagine a single union member who would be shouting “Amen!” to this parable. The guys who worked only a few hours get the same pay as the long-time employees..? That sucks! That's totally unfair—in our small-minded and silly way of thinking, perhaps, but not in the Kingdom of God.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them the equal of us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” says a grumbling laborer in verse 12. God's answer? Yes. Yes, I have made the least of you as important and special in my eyes as the greatest. That's called grace.

To me, the great pity of this story is for those guys whom the landowner hires at five o'clock. When he asks them why they're standing idle, they reply, “Because no one has hired us.” When I was a teacher in the Los Angeles schools many years ago, I used to see groups of Mexican guys standing on street corners in the mornings, waiting for some gringo contractor to come by and hire them for a day of manual labor. I often wondered what happened to the guys who weren't picked for work that day. Did their families go hungry?

Anyone who has ever been out of a job for any period of time can sure sympathize with the guys who get hired last. They spent the whole day wondering if their families would eat that night. They must have felt like crap, and they would be grateful for anything that was offered to them at the end of the day. But imagine their joy and relief at being given a full day's pay! Contrast this with the bitterness of the guys who were given a full days' pay for a full day's work. They should have been grateful for the work, but their inflated sense of importance robs them of contentment.

The joy of the Lord comes only, I think, in acknowledging God's awesome goodness and mercy, and our own unworthiness. Like Miss Ruth who called herself a “speck of dirt,” Martin Luther's last written words were “It is true: we are beggars.” This was his testimony to the unconditional and unmerited grace of God. I get the feeling he died happy.

May you both live and die in God's mercy and goodness. It's so extravagant! Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Holy Cross Day

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3: 13-17)
Brosen icon constantine helena.jpg
Emperor Constantine and St. Helena with the Cross
from a Bulgarian icon.

First, a little geeky background on the significance of this holiday. You scholars of ancient history know that Christianity became legal in the Roman empire in 313 when the emperor Constantine the Great declared it was officially groovy to be a Christian. Supposedly, Constantine made this decision following his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge fought the previous year. As the tale goes, Constantine was preparing to take his troops into the fray when he looked up at the sun and saw a cross glowing in the sky. Under the cross he read the Greeks words meaning, “By this sign you will conquer.” Not being one to shrug off a miraculous vision, Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint the Christian symbol known as the chi rho (XP—an abbreviation for “Christ”) on their shields. This they did and proceeded to thoroughly kick the butts of their enemies and win the day. Thereafter, the previously outlawed religion of Christianity became legal and, later, official.

That's the story, anyhow. Really smart historians who study this stuff suggest, however, that Constantine might have been Christian or leaning towards Christianity long before the Milvian Bridge episode. His mother, St. Helena, surely would have introduced him to the faith in his youth. He might have been just looking for a convenient way to go public with it. In any event, Constantine became Rome's first Christian emperor and founded numerous churches and cathedrals throughout the empire. Which brings us to the Feast of the Holy Cross. This yarn says that Momma Helena actually found the true cross upon which Jesus was crucified while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326. Her son ordered that this find should be commemorated by the building of a great basilica in Jerusalem on the site of Christ's burial where the true cross could be kept and venerated by the faithful. The church was completed in 335, and on September 14th the cross was taken out of the church in procession. The day has been celebrated by Christians as a minor church festival ever since.

Alas, the “true cross” is said to have been captured by invaders in 614 and then recovered in 630. Who knows? Fortunately, our faith in Christ does not depend on our faith in the validity of souvenirs, and the significance of this day does not depend on what Helena or Constantine thinks may of may not have been lodged in this grand old church. Rather, the essence of our spiritual life depends on the significance of this perplexing symbol.

Why, you may well ask, does the world's largest religion use as its emblem an instrument of terror and torture? Because it's precisely in this horrid device that God's love is most clearly seen. As the gospel lesson points out, “God so loved the world...” This doesn't translate as God really, really loved the world—although God most assuredly does—but that God loved the world in this manner, in the willingness to participate in our pain and brokenness.

Jesus says in John 3 that he will be lifted up just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness. This is a reference to the Hebrew scripture reading assigned for this festival, Numbers 21: 4b-9. In this story, the children of Israel are afflicted while in the wilderness by poisonous snakes after they have spent considerable time bitching about how miserable their journey has been and what a rotten leader Moses is. Showing a gift for ironic humor, God makes their punishment fit their crime. After all, they have been creating disharmony by spewing poison from their mouths, so God gives them some really poisonous mouths to contend with. Their salvation is to look at the image of a snake Moses has placed on a high stick. That is, they have to look at their sin and at the thing that is killing them before they can be healed.

I find the serpent particularly meaningful as it puts us in mind of that crafty serpent in Genesis who claims that disobedience to God will make Adam and Eve be like God. This is, after all, our original sin—our desire to put ourselves and our desires on the throne ahead of everything and everyone else.

The wanderers of Israel had to confront their selfish small-mindedness, their ingratitude, their lack of faith, and their lack of respect and charity before they could be made whole. Similarly, we need to look to the cross of Jesus where we see our cruelty and our desire to objectify others. After all, the Romans used the cross as a weapon of terror. Crucifixions were meant to deter disobedience and enforce the will of one people upon another. They may have been partially successful to that end too, but crucifixions also bread resentment, hatred, and violence.

When we look to the cross of Jesus, we have to confront our sin, but we also confront God's everlasting empathy and love. Jesus went willingly to the cross out of love. Here we see God entering into our suffering. Without the cross we, could never really know God.

I guess I lose a little patience with TV evangelists who stand in front of huge spinning globes or maps of the world, supposedly symbolic of the spread of the gospel across the face of the earth. In the cross we see Christ's victory through his weakness and suffering. Unless we can recognize our need for repentance and God's forgiveness, unless we can recognize God in our suffering, we will never recognize God at all.

What do you see when you see the cross? What nails have you driven into the flesh of others? What nails have been driven into your own?

Thanks for reading, my friends.