Thursday, May 29, 2014

Even Better Than 1960? (Reflections on Easter 7)

My buddy Pastor Tim is getting ready to retire. This is no slight deal for a guy who has been pastor of his congregation for thirty-six years and has built it from a little piddly brick building into a gorgeous cathedral and the most stable congregation in his synod. He's a little anxious about who will succeed him in the ministry and how the church he's loved and labored over for so many years will thrive when he's gone. I'll bet his congregation is pretty worried, too. After all, for most of us it's hard to deal with change.

In the First Lesson (Acts 1:6-14) from the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter Seven, we see Jesus' disciples also struggling with new realities. They seem to really dig the fact that their rabbi has risen from the dead, but they're a little hazy about what it all means. Basically, they seem to want to know when he's going to bring back the good ol' days. You know: those great bygone times when there was no Roman occupation, David was on the throne, and all the nations of the earth feared the God of Israel. I suppose this was their equivalent to the church of 1960—when everyone went to church, there were no money problems, no pesky questions about same-gender marriage, we all wore our Sunday best, and the Sunday School and Youth Group were packed with well-groomed, polite, and non-tattooed young people.

Jesus' response, of course, is that what God plans to do from this point on is really none of our flippin' business. We'll find out soon enough. Our job is to stick together, pray, and wait for the Holy Spirit to teach us how to spread the gospel news.

I wonder if Jesus isn't more specific because he knows what God has in mind in this ever-changing world is more wonderful and mind-blowing than the disciples are able to handle at the moment? Ya think? God is working so far out of the box that they wouldn't believe Jesus even if he told them. Can you imagine it?

“Guess what, guys..? Israel is going to be destroyed by Rome and the Temple smashed to the ground, but that's cool because you dudes will begin to speak in new languages and spread the news of my sacrificial love and conquest over sin and death to the far ends of the earth. I mean, it will get a little nasty at times (In fact, all of you will die horrible, martyr's deaths), but you won't really mind because you'll know that you are giving the world something to believe in which will ultimately outlast the Roman Empire and bring light and learning and healing and justice in my name to all the people of the earth. Whatcha got to say to that, huh?”

Can you imagine the disciples' reaction to that piece of news?

Just so, we can't even begin to guess at the way God will be leading us in the next few years.

A really smart lady named Phyllis Tickle, an author and educator, says that every 500 years or so there's been a radical change in the Christian Church. Just shy of the year 500 AD the Western Roman Empire fell and Christianity became the stabilizing force in Europe. About 500 years later, the Catholic and Orthodox traditions split apart. 500 years after that Luther began the Protestant Reformation. I'm not sure that Professor Tickle isn't reading a little too much coincidence into all of this, but if she's right then we're just about due for another big shake-up.

The disciples in our First Reading have to put on their big boy pants and get ready for a church without the physical presence of Jesus. It's time for them to be ready for the mystery God's Holy Spirit will bring—even though they may be a bit afraid of what is to come.

For the folks at my friend Tim's congregation, they have to get ready to be the Church even without their beloved pastor of almost four decades and deal with the changes that their new shepherd will bring.

For the rest of us, it's time to accept that 1960 won't be coming back, but God will lead us to a whole new group of people, lifestyles, music, witness, ministry opportunities, and ways of being Church that we've never thought about before. And you know what..? We'll be okay. Jesus has already prayed for us:

Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

If we don't know what to expect in the coming years—what with increased secularism, an increasingly pluralistic landscape, a yo-yo economy, mind-bending technology, and all the other forces at work on us on this little rock of a world, we should at least get together and pray for some unity. Whatever we do as the church, let's try to do it together.

God bless. Thanks for visiting my blog. Please come back!

PS- If Phyllis Tickle is right and we really ARE heading for something new, how about we try to work on a new age of Christian unity? There's a pretty cool new Pope in the Vatican. Maybe we can get him to open the doors of his denomination a little and let us crazy Protestant come in for dinner? It's worth a shot asking, don't you think? If you're Lutheran or Catholic, please sign my petition here.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Never Orphaned (Reflections on Easter 6)

The music director at Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia is a guy named Frank, and he has a penchant for old-time gospel hymns. That's okay by me, as I kind of like those old 4/4 time, “gonna-go-to-heaven-and-be-with-Jesus” type songs myself. They remind me of my dad, who had a rich repertoire of such holy chestnuts and would sing them constantly around the house in which I grew up.

I guess a Sunday morning doesn't go by in which one of those old songs doesn't remind me of my dad. As I stand in the chancel during the early mass, I still hear the Old Man crooning in his tenor voice—even though he passed away almost a quarter of a century ago. The hymns of his childhood were a source of comfort to him when he was out of work and struggled doing odd jobs trying to provide for his family. When I sing the songs, Dad is with me, and I am reminded of his faith in God and his love of worship. In a sense, my father is still living—or abiding—with me.

Other things remind me of him, too. For instance, my dad always wore a clean dress shirt and a tie to work, even though his work as an aerospace engineering inspector called him to visit dirty, greasy machine shops all day. His insistence on sartorial perfection was not mere vanity. It was pride in his work. “When I go to work,” he used to tell me, “I represent my company.” And he always looked sharp! Subsequently, I always try to make my parishioners proud of me by appearing as respectfully attired as I can.

My dad was also a veteran. He won two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star in World War II, and so I make a point of thanking vets for their service and volunteering as a chaplain at the Delaware Valley Veteran's Home.

If you ever went out to eat with my dad—and he loved to go out to eat—you'd notice how polite he could be to waiters and waitresses. In a way, he was the Patron Saint of Diner Waitresses. He knew which girls at his favorite coffee shop were in college, who was expecting a baby, or engaged to be married, and he even played Santa Clause at one restaurant's employee Christmas party. He always taught me that people who were in service did hard jobs and had to deal with jerks all day. He admonished me to be polite, friendly, agreeable, and to leave a good tip. I never forgot that.

There's a saying that the learning only starts once the lesson is over. I may not have my dad with me physically to share his ethos, but I have his love and his teaching and his example. It's up to me to make his legacy useful and fruitful in my life.

Next Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension. In our liturgical narrative, Jesus has been appearing to the disciples for forty days—more than enough time for them to get the idea that he's conquered death and promised life eternal. Now it's up to these guys to decide what they're going to do with this knowledge. It's time for them to go from being disciples—followers of Jesus, to being apostles—ambassadors for Jesus. In the gospel pericope for Easter 6, Jesus tells them,

I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:18-20)”

Even though Jesus is not physically present, he is still part of us just as are our departed loved ones and their memories, lessons, and love. This is the work of the Third Person of the Trinity, the promised Advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is God in us. Not just the God of creation, but the God of salvation—Jesus Christ living, abiding within us in his words and example.

The Resurrection of Jesus certainly gives us peace and joy in that it is the promise of freedom from eternal death. But if we're freed from death, what are we freed for? In the Ascension promise, Christ becomes part of us, and we take up his mission to bring peace, healing, forgiveness, and justice to the world. Because the physical Jesus has gone to the Father, we now are filled with the spirit which allows us to see Christ in others and be Christ to others. Truly, Jesus is never gone. He is unseen, but always present.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know if this jogs your thinking any. Also, if there's something you'd like me to write about, I'd love to share it with you!

P.S.-Since we're all one in Jesus, why don't we share this one-ness at the Lord's Table? No. Seriously. I doubt that the Pope will convene a council and suddenly invite Lutherans into full communion. BUT if we keep asking, we might move a little closer to the unity Christ had in mind for us. It can't hurt to ask, so please take a minute and sign my petition here.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Way of Jesus (Reflections on Easter 5)

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’

 Philip said to him, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, “Show us the Father”? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:1-14)

I preach on this text a lot. Well, maybe not the whole text, just the first six verses. You see this passage is the recommended gospel reading for the Service of Christian Burial, and I get called to do lots of local funerals for folks here in Northeast Philly who haven't been to church since the Nixon Administration. And I'm cool with that because it means that I get to preach the gospel to folks who would not otherwise be inclined to hear it. I suspect that this passage was chosen to give the mourners comfort in the certainty of eternity with Jesus. “Where I am, there you may be also” is a promise of heavenly eternity and sounds pretty good to me. However, I tend to get a bit hung up on that “No one comes to the Father except through me” part.

I mean, it sounds kind of arrogant, don't you think? And I'm guessing that the Church has used this passage for centuries as a way to bludgeon folks into doctrinal conformity. It's as if to say, “Unless you subscribe to exactly the doctrine I preach to you, you're going to burn in hell throughout eternity.”

But I don't believe that doctrinal acquiescence was what John the Evangelist had in mind when he wrote these words. When John has Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he is talking about a process of relationship with the living God rather than about specific creeds or beliefs. Before Christians were called “Christians” we called ourselves those who belonged to the Way (Acts 9:2). The Way, I think, is not a static point. It's a process—day by day, situation by situation, relationship by relationship.

Now, as a good, orthodox Lutheran, I have to say outright that being a follower of the way in practice will not make you holier than you are right now. Nor will it make you more “spiritual” or more “saved.” You are as holy as you're going to get right now as you read this. So am I. And we're just as holy as we need to be. That's because Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has shown us the divine truth of the eternal God whose will is that all may be one in Him in eternity. You didn't do anything to bring this about. You can't make God love you more than God already does.

But by being in relationship with Jesus, you can become a more mature human being. You can become wiser, more content, and—gosh!—maybe even happier. As pious Jews are in constant dialogue with God's law, so we can be in dialogue with the way of Jesus.

And what is this way? First and foremost it's the way of love. Love that is generous, non judgmental, inclusive, and—most of all—forgiving. The Revised Common Lectionary pairs this reading from John with the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7. Stephen, walking in the way of Jesus is able, even with his dying breath, to pronounce words of mercy to his enemies. How powerful is that?

But the way of Jesus' love is very specific. It is the way of sacrifice. When Christians worship, we do not focus on the image of a man who has just won the Power Ball. Rather, we see the image of a man giving everything away—his body, his freedom, his dignity, his life—for the sake of others. In the lesson from Acts, Stephen also sacrifices his own life in testimony to Jesus. I'm not suggesting we all go out and get ourselves martyred for the gospel, but walking in the way of sacrifice teaches us that we can give of ourselves because God is capable of giving us so much more. It's a way of letting go.

This means that the way of Jesus has to be a way of thanksgiving. On the crappiest day you'll ever have, God will still provide endless blessings—a sky above you, water to drink, the sound of the birds, the smell of the grass, the laugh of a child, the love of a friend, the kindness of a stranger. God does not cease to be good because we, in our circumstances, fail to notice God's goodness.

But the way of Jesus is also a way of suffering. If Jesus was not spared the pain of this world, we have no reason to expect that we will be either. We will grow old. We will die. We will lose loved ones. We will suffer disappointments. Even when we say, “I love you,” we will risk being hurt. But in the way of Jesus we courageously carry our own crosses. I do not wish to let my pain “trespass” onto your shoulders, because I know you are carrying enough pain of your own.

And yet the way of Jesus is to live in the way of faith, knowing that through all the joy and all the pain, I belong to my loving God. As Jesus says in the gospel lesson, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me.” I can only pray that my final years or days or (like Stephen) moments are testimonies to such certainty, and—to paraphrase Shakespeare—nothing in my life will so become me like the leaving of it.

Thanks for reading. I always enjoy having you stop by.

PS-Just three years and four months left to go until the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. If ol' Stephen can forgive those who stoned him, surely Lutherans and Roman Catholics can forgive each other. Let's celebrate this milestone by coming together at the Lord's Table. Sign my petition here.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

My Mom, Shepherds, and Those Socialist Early Christians (Reflections on Easter 4)

My mom grew up in New Jersey during the Great Depression. Her dad had died when she was quite young, leaving her mother to raise two children on a greatly reduced income. Money was always scarce, and the little family got used to doing without lots of things. After World War II, my parents were married and set off to live in southern California—then a land flowing with milk and honey and a booming aerospace industry which offered plenty of work for my engineer dad. Things were pretty good for our family for years. But in the early 1970's, loss of government contracts led to massive layoffs in my dad's line of work. He suddenly found himself unemployed. For my mom, the Great Depression returned—privation like a soggy, mildewed blanket descended on her personality, and she never quite got over the feeling that economic catastrophe was waiting right around the corner.

At the end of her life she lived in an assisted living facility, suffering from severe COPD. Even though she was well provided for by Social Security, my late father's pension, and a large cash flow from the sale of her home, she still fretted over money. As her financial power of attorney, I admitted to her that, yes, she was spending slightly more than she was earning for her care and lodging in the nice facility.

“If you keep spending the way you are, Mom,” I told her, “you will run through your savings in about thirty years.”

“Thirty years..?” she said. “I won't live that long.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about, do you?” I replied.

I had to sigh when I considered how this dear woman who had so successfully passed on to me her Hessian ancestors' Lutheran faith, taught my Sunday School class, and asked her friends—elderly widows from our home congregation—to help her memorized the 23rd Psalm was so slow to recognize how goodness and mercy had followed her all the days of her life.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.”

“Shepherd” is a curious metaphor for Jesus. Israel's ancient kings were often compared to shepherds who cared for the sheep, but, by Jesus' day, shepherds were looked upon with a certain amount of distaste. They were rather like gypsies—itinerant wanderers who weren't entirely trustworthy. And yet, how very like Jesus to identify with those who were on the margins.

Pastor Violet Little of Philadelphia's The Welcome Church—a church with no physical headquarters which ministers to Philly's homeless community—tells a story about one of her homeless congregants who, after finding a five dollar bill fluttering on the city street, donated the bill to the ministry in the hope that it would help the less fortunate. The irony, of course, is that it is hard to imagine anyone less fortunate than the poor vagrant who made the donation himself!

Pastor Little asked her congregants what they thought she should do with the five spot. Eventually, The Welcome Church decided to begin the “I Have a Dream Fund,” an ongoing fund providing grants to congregations which serve the needy and live out the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King for a just society. Thanks to a generous prize awarded to Pastor Little from and a few other charitable sources, the “Dream Fund” continues to grow and bestow—all from the faith of a man living on the fringes of our commonwealth.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil”

I often ask myself why the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary chose to marry certain texts together, but I think I'm starting to see the connection between Jesus the comforting shepherd and protective gate of John 10 (our gospel lesson for this Sunday) and those early Christian socialists of Acts 2 (our first lesson). In John's gospel, Jesus tells us that he came, “...that (you) may have life, and have it abundantly.” This abundant life in the resurrected Jesus is a life which believes so thoroughly in God's ultimate goodness and mercy that there is no room for fear. This means that there is the freedom to be generous, just as Pastor Little's homeless parishioner felt free to give away the found five dollar bill in the belief that something great, powerful, and Godly would come from his action. So the early Christians had the moral courage to sell their possession, pool their resources, and donate to all who had any need.

Martin Luther wrote in the Small Catechsim:

I believe that God created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and addition, God DAILY AND ABUNDANTLY...provides all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life.”

The early church, along with the folks at The Welcome Church, seem to understand this. I wish my poor, anxious, Lutheran mom had had a little more trust in the Good Shepherd. I think she would've enjoyed her life a little more abundantly. But I try to listen to the Shepherd's voice and blot out the noise that says “there's not enough,” or “it's too risky,” or “you're just wasting your efforts.”

Jesus is calling scared sheep like us to follow him with glad and generous hearts.

Thanks for dropping by, my friend!

PS-It's no risk at all to sign my petition to Pope Francis asking that Lutherans and Roman Catholics come together again at the table of Holy Communion after a 500 year separation. The big Reformation anniversary is coming in 2017. Let's see if we can't nudge the world into a little more harmony by then. Just think: If ELCA Lutherans can break bread with Rome, we might one day actually share the Eucharist with the Missouri Synod! Please click on my petition here.

PPS-If you'd like to read a little more about a really great ministry, click the link to The Welcome Church

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Breaking Bread With Gays, Jewish Folks, and African Americans (Reflections on Easter 3)

...he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.” (Luke 24:35b)

One of my great pleasures in my bachelor days in Philly was the occasional trip to Center City's Ritz Movie Theater to see foreign and independent movies which weren't in wide release. I was particularly excited to see a film called Gods and Monsters, a 1998 fictitious account of the mysterious death of the British film director James Whale—the man who directed the original horror classics Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). I'm a life-long movie geek, and I was also once a horror movie host for a midwestern TV station (probably the low point in my utterly underwhelming theatrical career!) and a tour guide at Universal Studios in Hollywood where those grand old fright flicks were made. I even took my tours past an outdoor set Whale had used, and so his mysterious drowning in 1957 had always been of interest to me.

I was a bit surprised when I entered the Ritz auditorium as I had expected to see it filled with geeky academic types not unlike my own dear self. Instead, the Ritz audience consisted of mostly well-dressed, fashionable, professional looking thin people. And they were almost all men. And they were sitting as couples.

I remember saying to myself, “I wonder if James Whale was gay?”

Sure enough, Gods and Monsters left no doubt as to Mr. Whale's sexual orientation. I thought it was an excellent and entertaining drama (it would later win an Oscar for its screenplay), and I started to leave the theater after the film feeling I had gotten my money's worth. In the lobby I overheard a trio of young professionals discussing the film and wondering how much of it was based on fact. I confess I could not contain my pedantic geekiness, and, apologizing for eavesdropping on the conversation, I introduced myself to the three strangers and shared what I had known about Whale and his career. The troika thanked me for the information, and the four of us struck up a conversation which resulted in their inviting me to join them for dessert and coffee at a bistro on Spruce Street.

My three hosts were a gay man and a lesbian couple—all three of whom I learned could correctly be addressed by the title “Doctor.” One was a physician, one a psychologist, and one a university professor. We discussed the movie, movie-making, art, aging, and a host of other subjects. Rarely have I enjoyed such good-hearted, spirited, and intelligent conversation. It was an utterly delightful, serendipitous experience (made all the better when my three friends insisted on paying the tab!).

Some months later I found myself visiting patients as a volunteer chaplain at what is now called Aria Torresdale Hospital. Making my rounds, I arrived at the room of an elderly patient just as his evening meal was being served. I apologized for the intrusion and suggested that I could come back at a later time.

“Not at all, Father,” he said. “Please come in! Join me! Or should I call you Reverend..?”

I explained that I was Lutheran and that “Pastor” would be the correct form of address. The old gentleman smiled. “Won't you sit down, Pastor?” he said.

I pulled up a chair near his bedside. He explained to me that he was Jewish, and that his faith taught him always to share with strangers. He politely divided the meal he had been served, putting portions of his chicken and vegetables on the bread plate for me, and explaining how a kosher meal should be eaten. Taking a dinner roll, he broke it, handed half to me, and recited a prayer in Hebrew. We ate together, talking religion and ethics. I left the hospital room feeling as if I had met a long-lost relative.

In our first few weeks as students at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia my fellow juniors and I had been instructed to explore worship opportunities in different Christian traditions. One Sunday three or four of us found our way to the New Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a huge congregation on Germantown Avenue. When four young Caucasian men enter an AME church, the ushers know pretty quickly that we were not members. With the utmost of tact, an elderly usher inquired if this were our first visit to New Bethel. We explained that we were LTSP students exploring worship in other Christian traditions. The usher politely directed us to our seats, and then approached the senior pastor, alerting him to our presence. After the first spirited praise hymn, the pastor announced to the assembled faithful that there were special visitors in the assembly that morning. A host of black faces turned to where we were sitting with beaming smiles of genuine welcome. Then the pastor explained that we were seminarians. The smiles turned to shouts of “Amen!” But then the pastor announced that we were students at the Lutheran seminary—the seminary whose Urban Theological Institute had trained so many members of Philadelphia's black clergy. Suddenly we had gone from being celebrities to being super rock stars.

“And of course, Brothers,” the pastor said, “you'll stay after service today and break bread with us!”

There was no saying, “no.” Following the three-hour worship service, the four of us headed to the church basement where an army of church ladies fed us fried chicken, greens, and mashed potatoes until I had to loosen my belt. I have never experienced such genuine love and hospitality in any other church I have attended. It was truly amazing.

In the gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter 3 (Luke 24:13-35) the disciples walking to Emmaus encounter a stranger. When they break bread with him, they recognize him as the risen Jesus. What I love about this story is that these two grieving souls find someone who will walk their journey with them, and when they open their table to him, Christ is present.

I think we all yearn to know Christ—to know the love, the compassion, the total acceptance and forgiveness, the peace that is the presence of Jesus. In the gracious welcome of strangers—be they LGBT, Jewish, African American, or whatever—Christ is made known. In the comforting of the bereaved, when a neighbor brings a meal to a mourning family, Christ is made known. Anytime we choose to feed the hungry, Christ is made known. And when we all come as one with our burdens and sins and anxieties to the table of the Lord's supper—each of us weighed down and each of us in need of grace—when we acknowledge our oneness as the bread is broken, Christ is made known.

May we all experience Christ in the breaking of bread and, like the disciples of Emmaus, may we be eager to run and tell the tale!

God's peace, my friends.

PS- Wouldn't it be great if Lutherans and Roman Catholics could break bread together at the Lord's table? A church called Mission of the Atonement in Beaverton, Oregon brings the two denominations together to worship and—almost—share the Eucharist. Read this cool article about the church by clicking on Mission of the Atonement. Then, sign my petition to Pope Francis and see if we can't all of us break bread together! Just click here.