Thursday, February 27, 2014

Shine It On (Reflections on the Transfiguration of Our Lord)

And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Matthew 17:2)

Melanie was a stunning bride. Her gown was dazzling white and so very elegant. But it was the radiance of her face that struck me. Filled with anticipation and love and joy—and not a small amount of wedding-day jitters—she came down the aisle to Sean, her groom. I couldn't help but smile in the light of these two young people whose lives I was about to join together by performing the marriage ceremony.

Of course, part of my joy in celebrating with Sean and Melanie was the fact that the two of them had done me a pretty solid favor earlier in the week. The unusually high amount of snowfall we've had this winter here in the Great Northeast caused ice and snow to build up on the roof of the church fellowship hall. A sudden thaw brought gallons of runoff water through the cracked seams of our dilapidated structure, making the hall and my office look like the Brazilian Rain Forrest. While my secretary and I were running around with buckets and pans, trying to catch the drips, Melanie called to ask if her pre-marital counseling session was still on the schedule. “Oh yes, “ I told her, “but I don't know where I'll put you. My office ceiling is leaking like the Titanic.”

“That's okay,” she said. “My fiancee is a roofer. I'll send him right over.” Within an hour the leaks had been contained and the situation temporarily rectified. All that remained was for my church council to come up with a way to pay for the utterly ungodly expense of a new roof—which is actually a pretty depressing prospect.

But I wasn't thinking about any of that in the glow of the wedding ceremony. I know there are all kinds of creams and skin-care products which promise to give people “that radiant glow.” For my money, however, nothing makes a face shine like inner light—the light which comes from joy, peace, love, and contentment. And whether that light comes from the face of a bride, a happy child, a new parent, or a wise and serene elder, it is still the light of God. It is the glimpse of the Feast to Come which reminds us that all of our worries—even leaky fellowship hall roofs—are ephemeral.

In the gospel lesson which ends the post-Epiphany season, Jesus takes his close friends up the mountain on a little retreat. While they're there, they get a glimpse of God's glory shining out of their teacher's face and person. The vision is completely overwhelming. Not only do they see Jesus shine in God's radiance, but they see him with the pivotal figures of Israel's past, Moses and Elijah, the icons of the Law and the Prophets. If this weren't enough, the dazzling bright cloud of God's light totally covers them, and they hear the voice of God proclaim Jesus as Beloved Son. It's too much for these guys. They fall down in terrified exhaustion by the majesty of this experience.

When I think of this story, I always feel that the Transfiguration was not something which happened to Jesus. Rather, it was something which happened to Peter, James, and John. In the glow of God's love and goodness, manifested in the person of Jesus, they temporarily caught fire themselves. They were given a little taste, an exquisite moment of passion, a graceful gift to comfort and sustain them as they made the harrowing journey down the mountain to the valley of persecution, betrayal, and crucifixion.

In a world of violence, as I hear the news reports from Syria, Ukraine, and South Sudan, or even as I deal with the mundane irritants of leaky roofs and overburdened church budgets, I keep looking for those fleeting flashes of God's goodness. I don't want to shine so much as I need to be “shined” upon.

The light of a bride's smile, the glow of a happy Sunday School student, the warm shine of a face looking up at me from the Communion rail, all of these are mini Transfigurations. All of these are bits of the light of Christ which promised Resurrection even while the cross cast its ominous shadow nearby. All of these are promises of the light which scattered the darkness and spoke the cosmos into existence—the light meant for all of us.

And the light continues to shine from Jesus. So listen to him and be transfigured yourself.

Let your light shine a little, too. Take a minute to sign my petition for ecumenical sharing by clicking here.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Saint of the Month: Ellen Page

I love Ellen Page. Of the new crop of young screen actresses, I think this tiny lady is one of the most talented and touching. I loved Juno and Whip It. I thought they were mini masterpieces of simple, honest, American story-telling—and Ellen Page was brilliant in both of them.

Last Friday, at the Human Rights Campaign's Time to Thrive event, Miss Page delivered a simple and poignant address during which she told the audience that she is gay. The press made this admission by the actress the focus of their coverage, but I would compliment Miss Page for the entirety of her speech. As a pastor, I found her remarks led me to theological reflection, and I applaud her for her honesty and simplicity.

Miss Page began by thanking the Human Rights Campaign for their efforts on behalf of LGBT youngsters. She then warned of the temptation to succumb to the world's expectations at the expense of self-honesty, compassion, and acceptance of ourselves.

It's my understanding that Miss Page has studied Buddhism, but I think she and Martin Luther would get along just fine. Luther believed that the three great causes of sin were the devil, our own willful nature, and the culture which surrounds us (see his explanation to the sixth petition of the Lord's Prayer in The Small Catechism). Indeed, our world—with it's emphasis on physical beauty, position, and wealth—constantly leads us into temptation, offering an open door to disappointment, despair, and self-loathing.

In sweetly expressed and gentle words, Ellen Page urged her listeners to love themselves, and, through self-charity, honesty, and forgiveness, to learn to love others without criticism or rancor. At least that's what I took away from her speech. I also applaud her for reminding her audience that we can do so much more for justice and dignity by working together than any of us can do on his or her own, and that we all need to be supported. In an ideal world, that is what the church should be doing.

Unfortunately, I'm not above sin myself. Moments after listening to Miss Page's lovely talk on the internet, I caught a sermon on the Trinity Broadcasting Network by a famous televangelist, a rotund and bombastic preacher whose ministry logo displayed a globe but no cross. I wallowed in self-satisfied indignation as the famous preacher launched into a loud vitriolic harangue (in a sermon about “peace” no less!) in which he likened the US negotiations with Iran to Neville Chamberlain's Munich Pact, urged Congress to expand the military, and railed against same-gender marriage. How ugly and forbidding this sermon sounded when compared to Ellen Page's kind and pastoral words. If this is what American Christianity is like, I thought, no wonder the churches are losing members.

But I got over myself. I guess I have to love even the preachers with whom I so passionately disagree. Nevertheless, I couldn't escape the feeling that in the TV preacher I was seeing the world, a world of hypocrisy and bullying; whereas, in the petite young--and at the time quite vulnerable--actress I was seeing the cross of Jesus. Ellen Page hung herself out and exposed herself to all the ridicule and possible negative career consequences that will come with the admission of her sexual orientation. But, like Jesus, any sacrifice she made will have redemptive power for many whom she will never meet or know personally.

You can listen to Miss Page's address by clicking on Ellen Page.

PS-As Jesus and the Beatles have pointed out, all we need is love. So let's see if we can find some love between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. Seriously, it's been almost 500 years  since we've shared a good meal together. Let's ask Pope Francis to change some rules and bring everyone back to the table. Just click here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jesus, Moses, and Jay Leno (Reflections of Epiphany 6)

Gosh but I'll miss Jay Leno! I really enjoyed the goofy late-night talk show host and his topical humor. And, like millions of other Americans, I tuned in to watch his final performance on The Tonight Show last week. I was touched by Jay's farewell address in which he praised the show's staff and modestly claimed that any success he and The Tonight Show might have had over the years was due to the collaborative efforts and hard work of those behind the cameras. The myriad sentimental tributes paid on that broadcast to Jay's generosity and kindness led me to believe that the comic was sincere in his sentiments.

Jay's valedictory speech caused me to ponder how lucky I am to have such a good staff and so many pious volunteers to keep little Faith Lutheran Church of Philadelphia afloat. If we do any mission at all at this place, it's because lots of good folks are working their tails off while I stand around trying to look important. Jay Leno's farewell reminds me that it's all about togetherness—and not about me.

In the First Lesson for Epiphany 6 we see another legendary character saying his last good-bye. This time it's Moses bidding farewell. (Deuteronomy 30:15-20) The old boy has led the children of Israel out of slavery, through the Red Sea, and across the Sinai desert for forty years. Now it's time for him to step aside and let a younger guy take over. So what final words does he have? He reminds the people that it's all about God—and not about them. God is the giver, they are the receivers. If they're faithful to God and God's Law they will live in prosperity in the land God has given them. If they don't, they won't.

Of course, this then begs the question of how one is to live faithfully to God's law. In the Gospel lesson (Matthew 5: 21-37), Jesus gives a pretty darn strict interpretation of the law. You think you're not supposed to murder? Well even being angry with someone is a violation of the law. You shouldn't cheat on your spouse? Well even thinking about sex with someone is adultery. Oh, and divorce and remarriage? That sound like adultery, too. And don't even think about swearing an oath because pretty much anything that comes out of your mouth is demonic.

Say what..?

Those are pretty tough rules, Jesus. Just how are we supposed to be faithful to them? Either we'll become pious frauds by claiming to have kept the letter of the law even though our secret hearts are far from righteous, or we will be filled with despair, knowing that perfect fidelity is impossible for any of us.

Of course, that's rather the point. We can't be faithful to God's law. Our best intentions are never enough. So what do we do? We let our failure drive us to our knees and beg for God's mercy.

The good news is that God always grants such mercy. Our failure in achieving righteousness based on our own merits drives us to humility, and that humility drives us to the wonderful goodness of God. That's when we realize that it's never been about us. We're not the star of this show—God is.

There's an old story about Martin Luther trying to teach the concept of God's forgiving grace to his Wittenberg students. He explained that perfect obedience to the law of God is impossible, so the just must live by faith in God's loving care. One student supposedly asked him, “Then, Dr. Luther, do you mean to say we can do anything we want?” To which Luther is said to have replied, “Yes! But what do you want to do?”

(I don't know if this story is true or not, but, if it isn't, it ought to be!)

It's good, however, to take Moses' parting advice to heart. Choose the life that exists in being faithful to God's law. But be aware that we will always screw it up somehow. That's when we can be thankful that it's not about us, and that thankfulness will make us want to do better next time.

I find this doctrine enormously comforting. When it's all about me, there's just too much pressure and I'm never satisfied. When it's all about God, there's nothing but grace and blessings.

God is good. All the time.

Thanks for reading, my friend!

PS-Since we ALL need God's grace, why don't we ask for it in unison? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, please sign my petition asking Pope Francis to allow Lutherans to receive the Eucharist with Catholics. Wouldn't that be a swell way to observe the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation? C'mon! What do you have to lose? Just click here.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tastelessness in the Church (Reflections on Epiphany 5)

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matthew 5:13)
Pussy Riot by Igor Mukhin.jpg

Can the church be tasteless? I guess it depends on what you mean by “taste.” Some church events have been criticized for being in bad taste. Two years ago, three members of the Russian feminist protest punk band Pussy Riot invaded the chancel of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow and attempted to perform a musical prayer called “Mother of God, Chase Putin Away.” Church security and the Russian justice system found this act rather tasteless. Two of the singers were sentenced to two -year prison terms for what can only be considered voicing criticism of state oppression and the Church's collusion with that oppression.

Some Americans consider the unorthodox Lutheran cleric Nadia Bolz-Weber to be tasteless. I have to admit, not until I heard Pastor Nadia speak at Trinity Lutheran Church of Lansdale, PA last November had I ever heard the dreaded “F Bomb” set off within the walls of a consecrated house of worship. I don't know how her remarks were received by every member of that audience, but I know they made a big impression on me.

In the gospel lesson for the Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany in the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 5:13-20), Jesus warns the disciples about tastelessness. I don't think he's talking about good manners or appropriate behavior or fashion. He's likening the Church to salt—one of the most valuable commodities in the desert regions where our faith began. Salt preserved food, kept folks from becoming dehydrated, and gave food flavor. Without saltiness, the table fare just wasn't very interesting or desirable.

I love that Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth.” He doesn't say that we “could be” the salt or that we “should be” the salt. Rather, he reminds us that we already have the knowledge of his sacrificial love, the faith in God's mercy and forgiveness, and the hope of eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven. These are gifts which aren't to be horded. They are to be used and shared.

But it's pretty easy for the Church to become tasteless.

We lose our salt when we assume that “everybody” knows what it means to be Christian. Being the dominant culture, the Church risks becoming complacent and stale. We have a wonderful message, but we don't ponder it, question it, or talk about it.

We become bland and distasteful when we assume that the unchurched are “unspiritual.” That is, by assuming others don't hunger for ultimate meaning, we lose the opportunity to learn from their spiritual journeys and questioning. We also write them off as people who simply don't understand our values.

We neglect to be seasoning for the world if we focus obsessively on questions of individual salvation and spiritual comfort, forgetting that we are called to be in mission to the world.

We are flavorless when we declare that it is not polite to discuss our faith with others—associating evangelism with crazed street corner preachers or annoying door-to-door Jehovah's Witnesses. We forget that God's proclamation can take many forms. St. Francis of Assisi exhorted his monks to preach through their deeds.

Perhaps the most tasteless of all is the terror of associating belief in a righteous, merciful, compassionate, and just God with any kind of social activism. Heaven forbid we should mix religion with politics..!

I think what makes the Pussy Riots and the Pastor Nadias of this world so salty is not their unconventional behavior. Rather, it's their unshakable conviction that a little flavor can actually change both lives and societies. I have not been given the light of the gospel for my benefit alone. The Holy Spirit has given me the gospel so I might be a light to others. The Church is given the gospel to be a light to the world—feeding the hungry, healing the sick, freeing the captives, welcoming the outcast, and sharing the joy of our salvation.