Thursday, March 27, 2014

So Who Is Really Blind? (Reflection on Lent 4)

I like this story. It's full of theological messages and I could probably preach for an hour on it, but my parishioners would either walk out or start throwing shoes at me. (Lutherans love church, but only for about an hour at a time.)

The appointed gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary is the story from the ninth chapter of John's gospel, the story of the Man Born Blind. Even though it's a miracle story, its appeal to me is the fact that it's so human. I wonder if John was chuckling to himself when he wrote it, because it's got some real goofy humor in it.

The story (which takes up all of John chapter 9) starts with Jesus and the disciples strolling along and encountering a man whose been blind from birth. I don't know how they knew he was born blind, but somehow they got the idea. The disciples think it's a pretty lousy thing to not be able to see, and can only concluded that it's a punishment from God. Their only question is: who is being punished? Did God know in advance that this guy would grow up to be a total jerk and so decided to smite him at birth? OR, were his parents so awful that they deserved to have a disabled child, and the poor slob in front of them is just collateral damage?

Jesus sets them straight. That's not the way God works. Not every affliction is divine retribution—especially since we bring so many of our troubles on ourselves without any help from an angry God. No. Rather, every affliction is an opportunity for God to be glorified, for God is the source of strength and comfort in our trials.

Once Jesus has made his point, he hocks up some spit, makes mud from the dusty ground, puts it on the man's blind eyes, and tells him to go wash in the pool and he will receive his sight. And so he does.

What's funny about this is that, although the blind man now sees, those around him seem to have become visually impaired. They doubt the evidence of their own eyes and aren't willing or able to positively identify the guy whom they've seen begging every single day for years as the same happy dude who is now doing the Peppermint Twist down the main drag in joy at having received the gift of vision! So who's blind here, anyway?

The former blind beggar's friends are so flabbergasted that they drag him to see the Pharisees—really religious guys who can make sense out of this. Or so they think. Unfortunately, the Pharisees can't get beyond the fact that Jesus spat and made mud on the Sabbath. This, to them, constitutes work and is, subsequently, a violation of religious law. They don't see (and here's that blindness thing again) the facts that a) a friggin' miracle has just taken place, and b) it was a pretty darn compassionate thing which potentially moved the beggar from welfare to work. All they focus on is the violation of Sabbath law and so they can only conclude that Jesus is a sinner. They've made up their minds and don't want to be contradicted by the facts. If they lived two thousand years later, they would all have great jobs as reporters for FOX News.

To settle the question of identification, the Pharisees go to see the beggar's mom and dad. The parents admit that this guy is their son. Unfortunately, they are so sheepish of offending the ruling class and losing their membership in the club that they throw Junior under the bus. He's of age, they say, so let him tell you about Jesus. You would think they'd be a little more supportive of their son since he is now able to go to work and move out of their basement.

By this time, Junior is really tired of repeating the story, but the Pharisees grill him again, hoping he will say something which supports their view that Jesus is a sinner. I often wonder when I read this passage about Junior's reply in verse 27: “I have told you already and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Is this kid being innocent or just being a smartass?

Regardless, this answer really pisses off the Pharisees, who fall back on their credentials as disciples of Moses. Junior counters that a) his sight is a miracle, b) Jesus performed this miracle, c) God would not perform a miracle for an evil person, so d) Jesus must be on the side of God. But this is too logical for the Pharisees who rail at the kid for being impertinent and proceed to tear up his membership card to the synagogue.

To me, this is one of the most painfully human parts of this story. It seems that we can never see ourselves as being righteous unless we can find someone who is un-righteous and makes us look good by comparison. For example, I just read the lovely article by Peter W. Marty in the March issue of The Lutheran magazine. Pastor Marty wrote about God's gift of salvation and suggested that maybe the love of God is so vast, gracious, and unknowable that even people who may not subscribe to exactly the same doctrine we do could actually be “saved.” Of course, in April's The Lutheran there appeared a letter from an angry reader calling for Marty's expulsion from the magazine and immediate defrocking on the grounds of heresy.

(Read the article yourself and see what you think. Just click on PeterMarty.)

But back to our gospel story. It ends with Jesus hunting down the former blind man. Why? Because that's what Jesus does. He seeks the ones who have been shunned by society and shares God's love with them. He's come so that those of us who don't see God's grace in our own lives may see it before us in Jesus' suffering, in the faces of those around us, and in the symbols of the faith which preach forgiveness and reconciliation. He also opens our eyes to our own narrow-mindedness, selfishness, and stubbornness.

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8)

Help us to see, Dear Lord.

Thanks for reading, dear friends. Drop me a comment, won't you?

PS-If Jesus came to open our eyes, let's notice that what Lutherans and Roman Catholics believe about the Holy Eucharist doesn't seem to be that different. The question is: will we look at the differences or will we focus on the similarities? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic and you agree, won't you sign my petition on Eucharistic sharing? Just click here.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

R.I.P. Fred Phelps (Reflections on Lent 3)

Rev. Fred Phelps, quite possibly the single most reviled religious leader in America, died this morning at the age of 84. Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas were infamous for blaming every calamity, large or small, which befell the United States on our nation's tolerant attitude towards the gay and lesbian community. This notorious pastor and his tiny flock of mostly relatives pounced on the national stage by picketing the funerals of Iraq and Afghanistan casualties, claiming that the combat deaths were God's punishment on America for our liberal sexual mores. Rarely has hate speech been more flagrant. Rarely has such speech inspired more outrage from both gays and straights, Christians and non-Christians, military and civilians.

But this morning, Fred Phelps was silenced.

I am a pastor with LGBT people in my congregation. I am also the dad of an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. I'll confess it: my first reaction to news of Phelps' death was, “Good. I hope he burns in hell.” But then I read the comments posted on the Huffington Post in reaction to this man's passing. Without exception, the remarks expressed either forgiveness, exhortations not to respond to hate with more hate, or a prayer that Fred Phelps would find the peace in death which eluded him in life. Today, a little bit of my faith in people was restored.

(You can read the comments if you click on Fred Phelps.)

In this Sunday's gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary (John 4: 5-42) we see another example of divine forbearance. Jesus and his disciples are passing through Samaria. While the boys go off to the local 7-11 to buy some lunch, Jesus rests by the town watering hole. Here he meets someone whom his culture dictates he should have nothing to do with. She's A) a woman, B) a Samaritan, and C) a gal whose been around the block a few times (if you know what I mean!).

But none of that matters to Jesus. Jesus looks beyond the man-made prohibitions of society. Beyond gender, beyond, race and religion, beyond notions of sexual ethics. Jesus sees in this woman one created in the image of the Father. He knows everything there is to know about her, and yet he passes no word of condemnation. Maybe, because he knows everything, he also understands everything, too.

When the woman poses a liturgical question to him, Jesus responds by telling her that the form and location of worship don't matter. “The hour is coming,” Jesus says, “and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” (Jn. 4:23)

What does it mean, I wonder, to worship in spirit? Jesus goes on to say that God is spirit (v.24). Life? Essence? That which is everlasting? Maybe we're being reminded to ignore the petty things and distinctions of this world which draw us away from the contemplation of our own eternal souls. I honestly don't know right now. I have to think about this.

To worship in truth is a little easier for me to get a grasp on. Jesus knows everything about the woman in this story. He knows the truth. When we worship, we need to worship from a place of our own truth—the fact that we are sinful, opinionated, hurting, guilty of wounding others, lost, and confused. Helpless to put ourselves right. Judgmental. Self-centered.

Yup. That would be me.

And Jesus knows it.

A lot of people give up things for Lent. I think I'll try giving up my arrogance. I can really do without my tendency to pre-judge. I have no right to do so. I'll also try to shed some of my righteous indignation. And for the next week at least I'll try to meditate on what it means to worship in spirit and in truth. But whether I'm successful in this attempt or not—and I know I won't be—I will still find forgiveness in Jesus. Hey! If the LGBT community can forgive Fred Phelps, Jesus will certainly bestow grace on the likes of me.

You know what else I like about this gospel story? When the disciples come back with the hoagies and sodas, Jesus isn't particularly hungry. With the Samaritan woman he's made a real, human, compassionate connection. What's more, since he's touched her life she begins to bring others to him. For Jesus, this must be really fulfilling. He says,

My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” (v.34)

I guess nothing can quite fill us up like the knowledge that our identity comes only from God who made us, knows us, loves us, and in whom there is plentiful forgiveness and peace.

Thanks for reading, friends. Have a blessed Lent, and drop me a comment to let me know you've been here.

PS-I think the hour is coming and is now here when Christians will put a way ALL distinctions in order to worship in spirit and truth. Yeah, I know it's a long shot, but I'm still trying to convince the Pope that, if Jesus can drink with a woman of Samaria, Lutherans and Catholics can fellowship together at the Lord's table. If you're Lutheran or Catholic, and you agree with me, click here.

PPS-(Added Monday, March 24, 2014) Check out this new item on Fred Phelp's funeral: Click Counter Protest.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Saint of the Month: Aneurin Bevan

In March I always think of my Welsh ancestry. March 1st is the Feast of St. David, the Patron Saint of Wales. March 17th is St. Patrick's Day, and there's a large body of evidence that Ireland's Patron was actually born in Wales. The Lutheran Church celebrates the great Welsh-American theologian Jonathan Edwards, Father of the First Great Awakening on March 22nd. So while my Taffy Pride is still in full bloom, I'd like to say a word of praise to a figure little known in the United States but whose fiery spirit would certainly be welcome this March as we come to the deadline to sign up for
the Affordable Care Act.

Aneurin Bevan (1897-1960) was the son of a Welsh coal miner and a seamstress. He grew up among deeply religious (a Baptist father and Methodist mother) working-class people. He entered the coal mines himself when he came of age, and became a fiercely loyal supporter of labor unionism. Through the union, Bevan entered politics as a candidate from Britain's Labour Party and represented his Welsh constituency faithfully in Parliament. “Nye” as he was called, fought ferociously for the rights of working-class and poor people. He opposed Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policies, but was equally critical of Britain's imperial adventurism during the Suez crisis.

Bevan's greatest achievement, however, came following World War II when he was tapped to serve as Minister of Health. Through great opposition from Conservatives and the medical profession, Bevan created Britain's National Health Service in 1948. He boldly asserted, society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”(from In Place of Fear, 1952)

Although the UK's National Health has been roundly criticized for delayed service, I have to agree with Bevan that a wealthy nation has a duty to provide for all of her citizens. I am convinced that America's Affordable Care Act is very likely stuffed full of clauses and conditions which will become unwieldy and troublesome in the future and will have to be amended or altered in some way. Nevertheless, the principle of charity and mercy for all convinces me that universal healthcare is right, moral, and in keeping with the Christian faith.

...cure the sick who are there, and say to them, 'The Kingdom of God has come near to you.'” (Luke 10:9)

Some weeks ago, my sister was placed on hospice care. She is losing the battle with a type of cancer which would have been curable had adequate healthcare provided an early diagnosis. Unfortunately, her employer did not provide her with such benefits, and purchasing health insurance was beyond her means. I have little patience with those who claim that the Affordable Care Act, an attempt to provide quality healthcare for all Americans, is “socialist” or a threat to Americans' freedom or liberty. The uninsured in this country face harsh economic struggles with the high cost of our healthcare. There is no greater threat to Americans' liberty and freedom than poverty.

So God bless you, Saint Aneurin, and all who champion compassion for the poor and working classes. I hope there's a Welsh corner in Heaven where the angels are lustily singing Cwm Rhondda and Calon Lan. I know, when the time comes, that my sister will make a fine addition to the soprano section, and that she'll keep a space in the tenor section open for me.

Flag of Wales 2.svg

PS-It looks like the new Pope is a pretty aggressive champion of the working class himself. Let's invite him to have a meal with us by clicking and signing my petition for Eucharistic sharing here.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why the Sacrifice? (Reflections on Lent 2)

When I was in high school I had this eccentric English teacher who tried to teach us kids language arts by having us read pop novels. I don't know what's become of Mr. Hollis, but almost four decades after having taken his class I'm giving him a shout-out. He taught me how to write a good essay (a skill which served me all the way through graduate school and seminary) and when I had successfully completed an assignment ahead of my classmates, he furtively slipped me a beat-up copy of the then-banned The Catcher in the Rye like he was handing off a bag of pot. I owe the guy.

But, as usual, I digress.

One of the books Mr. Hollis had his students read was the Cold War suspense novel Fail Safe. It was about a cataclysmic computer glitch which causes a squadron of B-52 bombers to proceed on a mission to drop nuclear warheads on the Soviet Union. All attempts to recall the bombers fail. The US Air Force must join efforts with the Russians to shoot down their own aircraft. Unfortunately—spoiler alert here if you've never read the book or seen the movie—one bomber gets through and nukes Moscow. In order to prevent an all-out nuclear holocaust which will mean the end of life on earth, the president of the United States makes a deal with the Soviet premier. The president orders an American bomber to nuke New York City. The sacrifice is necessary to prove to the Russians that the Moscow bombing was a mistake and that the Americans really wanted peace. The book gave me nightmares.


I thought about Fail Safe this week—not just because of the renewed tensions between the US and Russia which fill our newscasts—but because of the gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary this week. (John 3:1-17)

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.” (John 3:16)

The idea of a grizzly death on the cross is horrifying if we only think of it as a way to appease an angry God for the offense of human sin. But such is, I think, a misreading of the text. God isn't some kind of cosmic child-abuser. No. In John's gospel it's very clear that Jesus and God are one. The holiness and love of God is made present in this frail human being. Frail and prone to bleeding, pain, and death as we all are.

The sacrifice is necessary to show God's love, because we can't believe anyone's claims of good intentions unless they share in our suffering. And this sacrifice, if we look at it in light of God's presence in our humanness, makes our pain holy. It also changes who we are. It has the power to convince us that we are not victims of an angry God and that our misfortunes are not signs of divine retribution. Rather, in pain or glory, we are part of the family of God. And not by our own choosing, either, but by God's. Such knowledge has to change who we are.

If Jesus is willing to enter into our mess, shouldn't we, the Church, his body here on earth, be willing to enter into the pain of our brothers and sisters?

This Lent, I'm focusing on repentance. I'd like to see the Church repent of desiring comfort and institutional survival over passion and mission to the hurting. Remember: Lent is a time to reach out to the poor, to enter into their sorrow as Christ entered into the sorrow of humanity.

I pray this will be part of your discipline, too, Dear Reader. May you have a blessed Lenten season. Again, feel free to drop me a comment and tell me what you like or don't like about this blog—or just say “Hello.” That would be okay, too,

And, of course, you can also sign my petition. The Body and Blood of Christ was given for EVERYONE for the forgiveness of sins, so let's do a little sharing, shall we? Just click here.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"The Devil Made Me Do It!" (Reflections on Lent One)

I still chuckle when I think of those words spoken by  the 1970's TV comic Flip Wilson dressed in full drag as his alter ego, Geraldine Jones. Geraldine, a whacky, hedonistic chick, ducked responsibility for just about every naughty act by claiming, “The devil made me do it!”

In the lessons of the Revised Common Lectionary for the First Sunday in Lent, the devil takes center stage, tempting Adam and Eve as well as Jesus himself. So let me ask you: Do you believe in the devil? I mean, seriously, what's your take on the ol' boy? I often joke that a Satanist must have designed the building here at Faith Lutheran since just about everything about it inhibits Christian worship. It sits backwards on the block, facing a one-way street, it's breathtakingly ugly from the exterior, it makes no architectural sense, has no good storage space, and is mercilessly evil to the elderly and physically disabled. But heck..! It's paid for and it has a parking lot, so I guess I'll just count my blessings.

But I digress.

Judging from his writings, Martin Luther was a believer in supernatural demonic forces. There's a story that he did battle with the devil during the ten months of his safe-keeping in the Wartburg fortress following the Diet of Worms. Supposedly, Satan appeared to Luther in an attempt to prevent the great reformer from translating the Bible into the vernacular. Luther chased off the Evil One by hurling a pot of ink at him. This story is almost certainly made up, but it's perfectly in line with Luther's beliefs.

So what does the Bible say? Well, to tell you the truth, the devil doesn't actually appear in this Sunday's Hebrew scripture lesson (Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7). Really, you ask? Really. Because if you read the lesson, there is no reference in the Hebrew to a satan—a spirit of obstruction. The serpent in the story is just that: your basic, crafty, talking serpent. The story is really about temptation. The woman is told that if she disobeys God's command, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 24b-5)

Basically, she's being promised that she can do whatever she wants with no consequences.

In my book, this is original sin. Somehow, all the unnecessary pain and suffering in this world comes from our believing that our own wants are the ultimate good, putting ourselves in place of God, and believing nothing bad will happen (or not caring if it does!). Such is the great evil of this world which none of us can quite escape. It pervades our culture, and we all battle with it daily.

Now a little bit about Satan. Actually, you can learn quite a lot about Satan from Elaine Pagel's excellent book The Origin of Satan (Vintage Books, 1995). Check it out.

The Hebrew word “satan” actually means an adversary or an inhibitor. “Devil” comes from the Latin diabolos, which refers to someone who throws something across a path, blocking the way. We first see a “satan” in the Bible in Numbers 22 when an inhibiting angel of God stands between the prophet Balaam and the Moabite King Balak (I recommend you read this story if you don't know it. It's pretty funny, and I dare you to read it without thinking about Eddie Murphy in Shrek!). There's also a “satan” in the book of Job, but this guy is clearly subservient to God even though he takes an adversarial role.

The idea of the “fallen angel” comes from Isaiah 14:12-14 which refers to a Canaanite god whom the God of Israel casts down out of heaven. There's also a jealous angel appearing in some of the Jewish writings of the inter-testamental period. These satans were originally part of God's creation, but they rebelled against God out of jealousy.

The story of the devil in the gospel lesson (Matthew 4:1-11) can have lots of interpretations. First, I just like the idea that Jesus has not only washed in our dirty bath water in his baptism, but is heir like the rest of us to all the pitfalls of being a human being on this broken planet. Just when the senior prophet on the scene, John the Baptist, has complimented him and God himself has declared him a beloved son—just when Jesus is the Golden Boy and has the world by the shorts—that's the moment when he is driven out into temptation. That's the same with the rest of us. Look at King David. Or Bill Clinton. It happens.

But you can look at the story another way, too. Jesus avoids the adulation of the crowds and retreats into a fast in the desert. It's only when he is famished and his needle is on empty that Satan shows up to mess with his head. That happens to us too. When we've gotten to what we think is the end of our rope, we risk doing, saying, or thinking things we wish to God we didn't do, say, or think.

In the story the devil starts by tempting Jesus with material goods. Jesus replies that material stuff is pointless without ultimate meaning in God's Word. So what does Satan do next? He suggests that Jesus hurl himself from the roof of the temple to see if the angels will catch him. To me, that's just Original Sin saying, “Go and do any reckless thing you want to do. There are no consequences. Screw the poor slob you land on, or the traumatized child who sees your brains splattered all over the temple courtyard, or the family and friends who grieve for you. None of that matters. It's all about you. Make God prove that He loves you!” To which Jesus replies that it's a pretty dumb idea to test God. When we think our behavior will influence God, we're kidding ourselves. That's not religion. That's superstition.

Finally, the devil suggests that if Jesus will worship him, he will give Jesus power over the whole world. You don't even have to read the fine print to know that that's a load of crap. As if we ever really control anything in this world! And trying to be in charge and to have control is an addiction worse than crack. Jesus calls the devil out for the liar that he is.

Maybe that's what the holy season of Lent is meant for—chasing off the devil of our own temptation, fear of privation, stupid behavior, and illusion that we can be in control. The Christian Church gives us the gift of this forty-day journey of fasting, giving, praying, and worshiping so that we can recognize the Inhibitor in ourselves, chase his lying butt off, and get to work on being the people God created us to be.

May God bless you in this holy time. Thanks again for stopping by. Please feel free to leave me a comment and let me know what you like or don't like about this blog.

P.S. - Remember, we're only a few years shy of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Let's keep the devil on the run by announcing the unity of the Christian faith. If you're a Lutheran or a Roman Catholic, join me in asking Pope Francis to invite Lutherans back to the table of Holy Communion. We don't have to see eye-to-eye on everything to enjoy a meal together. Just click here.

PPS - Just for giggles, if you're not familiar with the late Flip Wilson, click on Flip and watch the comic perform as Geraldine.