Thursday, June 26, 2014

Saints and Sinners (Reflections on the Feast of Peter and Paul)

If you haven't figured it out yet, I'm really into this thing called hagiology, which is the study of saints. In Lutheran theology a saint is nothing more than a sinner redeemed by God's grace; nevertheless, the Augsburg Confession reminds us

...our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith.” (AC XXI.1)

Although we don't insist on some big, fancy procedure for declaring someone a saint, we still love to tell the stories of the men and women whose lives provide us with inspiration. This Sunday we take a break from Ordinary Time to remember two of the big heavy-hitters of Christianity, Peter and Paul.

These two cats are so important that they each get an additional feast day in January (The Confession of Peter on January 18 and The Conversion of Paul on January 25). Some time ago, however, the church decided to consolidate the festivals of their individual martyrdom (formerly June 29 for Peter and June 30 for Paul) into one holiday. I think that's a pretty cool idea, because if you look at these old boys side-by-side you see how very different they were and you can appreciate God's sense of inclusiveness in choosing witnesses to the faith.

You've got to love Saint Peter. He's just such a big dufus. He's a lovable, blue collar dude with absolutely no filter. If it comes into his head, it's out his mouth. No sooner does he make the Good Confession “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” (Mt. 16:16) than he misconstrues the whole thing and is rebuked by Jesus (Mt. 16:22-23). He is endearingly humble. When confronted by Jesus' miracle of the great catch of fish in Luke chapter five, he begs Jesus to leave him saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” (Lk. 5:8) In John's gospel, Peter will refuse to allow Jesus the indignity of washing his feet (Jn. 3:8). Church legend has it that Peter was so humble he begged the Romans to crucify him head downward because he felt he was not worthy to die in the same way Jesus had been killed (Thank you, St. Jerome and 16th century historian John Fox for keeping that tale alive!).

Peter's not an educated guy. He sort of acts on impulse and often reverses himself. When he sees Jesus walking on the water (Mt. 14), he calls out and asks to be allowed to do the same. Unfortunately, when he sees the huge waves, he chickens out and begins to sink, calling for Jesus to rescue him. He swears faithful allegiance to Jesus, but when Jesus is arrested, Peter denies three times that he even knows him. He graciously agrees to welcome gentiles into the fellowship (Acts 10), but back-peddles in Antioch when Jewish legalists give him gas about inclusiveness (Gal.2:11-12).

How can such a fellow—whose weaknesses seem to be dripping out of his pores—be the Rock upon which Christ built the church? I'd say it's because Peter's very weakness is the foundation of Jesus' strength. In the gospel for this Sunday (Jn. 21:15-19), Jesus asks Peter three times if Peter loves him—three chances to reverse the sting of his three denials. The gospel tells us the sentimental Peter was wounded by the repetition of this question. Yet this encounter, heartbreaking to Peter, exemplifies Christ's endless desire for forgiveness and reconciliation.

Saint Paul is a different sort of fellow. He's learned, articulate, fluent in Greek, and, when we first encounter him in Acts, violently legalistic. He loves the law and hates Christians and gentiles. Unlike the impulsive Peter, Paul is won to faith by solid evidence of Christ's mercy. He is loved and cared for by the very people he despises (Acts 9).

Paul is an able debater, but he is not without his faults. His letters indicate that his temper gets the better of him often. In his argument to the Galatians over the issue of circumcision, he rages, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” (Gal. 5:12) He proudly declares that he got up in Peter's face and accused him of hypocrisy. (Gal 2) It also doesn't take too close a look at Paul's letter to Philemon to see that the apostle is not above a little emotional blackmail.

Paul's relationship with gender equality leaves a bit to be desired, too. In spite of relying on capable women such as Phoebe and Lydia to promote the gospel, he adjures the Corinthian church to prevent women from preaching (1 Cor. 14).

But you've still got to love Paul for his bravery in both proclaiming the gospel—which often results in his being jailed, beaten, and once shipwrecked—and in evaluating himself. He never complains about suffering for Christ's sake, and he is always brutally honest about who he is and what he's done. He never hides the fact that he had once been a persecutor of the church, nor does he pretend that he is not still a sinner.

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:18-19)

But for all his faults, it is Saint Paul who most clearly taught us that the road between God and humanity is a one-way street down which God's goodness, love, and forgiveness travel to us, and no contribution of our own can make the journey the other way.

So which saint are you? Are you the emotional and impulsive Peter or the intellectual and articulate Paul? In both of these giants of the faith we see an abundance of brokenness, faults, and weaknesses. All the same, God chose them as instruments of divine reconciliation, as servants of the gospel of Christ's love. They remind us in all their humanness that we, too, are called as vessels of grace. If God could use Peter and Paul, God can certainly use you!

God bless you, my saintly friend. Thanks for reading.

PS – Church tradition has always held that Peter was the first Pope. Why don't we give his current successor an opportunity to be a saint, too? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, please sign my petition for Eucharistic sharing. Let's make a little history ourselves. Just click here.

My First Same-Sex Wedding (Reflections on Pentecost 2)

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”
(Matthew 10: 34-36)

First, I have to say that it was a huge honor, and that Colleen and Michelle are two of the most charming, funny, and oh-so-much-in-love people it's ever been my privilege to meet. They've been a couple for years, and now, following the US District Court's May 20th ruling which struck down Pennsylvania's prohibition against same-gender marriage, these two were able to speak their vows before God, family, and friends and unite in a legal marriage. I officiated the ceremony, both sets of parents blessed them, and the assembled congregation joined in the joy of a human rights triumph long overdue.

I just wish I could convince my sister that this is a good thing. But dealing with conflicting views is just part of what it means to be a Christian and to be part of a family.

Let me say for the record that my sister Lorraine is one of the very best, most loving, decent, and committed Christians I've ever known—and I don't say this just because she's family! She has been a Sunday School teacher and a parochial school teacher for decades, passing up better paying jobs in public education for the joy of doing the only thing she's ever wanted to do: tell children about Jesus Christ. Today she writes curriculum for a Christian textbook company, and she has twice gone on mission trips to the developing world to help spread the gospel. Her credentials are unimpeachable.

But she and I have to agree to disagree on the subject of same-sex marriage. I see the issue as being a recognition that God's love and justice are extended to the entire human family, regardless of sexual orientation. Lorraine sees it as a violation of scripture. Both of us take our positions based on our love of the Bible and our dedication to being Christ's disciples.

Please don't get me wrong. Lorraine and I still love each other as brother and sister. When we disagree on something, we're much more likely to just change the subject than start a whopping family fight. We've never feuded and we never will. But we'll always stand up for what we believe to be right.

From the time Matthew wrote his gospel until today, taking a stand for Jesus is bound to cause some kind of blowback. To embrace Christ will always mean pushing against the status quo, and even our own family members may not understand why we do what we do. In the world of the gospel text, being on the outs with family was almost a death sentence within the culture. It's a little less severe today. All the same, however, if we're not committed enough to face some opposition, maybe we're not committed enough.

The LED sign outside Faith Lutheran Church of Philadelphia reads, “ALL are welcome.”

We mean it.

Thanks for dropping by, and my very best wishes for a lifetime of happiness to Colleen and Michelle!

PS – All baptized Christians who wish to receive Christ's true body and blood for the forgiveness of sins are welcome at our communion table, too. We don't care if you're Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal, or Orthodox. In a world where religious factions are busy murdering each other, it's time for Christians to show some unity. Let's ask the Pope to welcome us back to the table. Just click here.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Saint of the Month: My Sister Maryanne

Regular followers of this blog will know that my sister Maryanne was diagnosed with cancer back in 2012. She was given six months to live. She died peacefully in her home in Tacoma, Washington on Saturday, May 31st a full two years following her initial diagnosis.

If you've ever lost a loved one to cancer, you'll know that when death finally comes, it comes as a gentle friend, ending the indignity of an incapacitating and merciless illness. I grieve that my sister—my wonderful, goofy, creative, eccentric, loving, kind sister—is no longer in this world. But I rejoice that, although she is absent from the body, she is present with the Lord. The suffering is over. It is a time to mourn, but also a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:4b)

There is a full metric ton of memories I could unload on you about this life. I could go on and on about Maryanne's talent as a scenic artist, her Bohemian days living in Hell's Kitchen, her trek up Mount Snowden in Wales, and her myriad enthusiasms from figure skating to pro wrestling. But in this moment, all I really think proper to reflect on was her willingness to face the inevitable with a courage born from true faith in Jesus Christ.

When Maryanne was first diagnosed, one of her doctors—understanding the gravity of her illness—asked her if she wanted to talk about how much time she might have left in this world. Her answer was “no.”

Please understand, it was not that my sister was afraid of death. Rather, she chose to be truly alive in the time remaining to her.

She phoned me around Thanksgiving of last year and—never being one to mince words—asked, “Do you have any interest in seeing me while I'm still alive?” With the help of my daughter, who was living in Seattle at the time, I flew to the West Coast for a reunion. I hadn't seen Maryanne in years and I was rattled by her appearance. She was rail thin, and her hair, which had been sacrificed to radiation and chemo therapy, was wispy and gave her the look of a man with male pattern baldness. Nevertheless, her face looked strangely youthful. The skin was tight over the bones but clear and smooth for a woman of fifty-seven years of age. The only sign of her illness were some pouches under her eyes and a certain weary, far-away look. We greeted with an embrace, and I felt I hadn't been hugged so warmly in my adult life.

There is something poignant about spending time with someone whose time is so short. I found my sister, in spite of her physical condition, her familiar affable and slyly funny self. After sharing family news and getting caught up she insisted on treating me—with her 17 year-old son, Aled, in tow—to lunch at her favorite Thai restaurant. We headed off in her somewhat-the-worse-for-wear car with Maryanne in the driver's seat. The harmonic swing music of the Mills Brothers blared from the stereo. No one who saw the cheerful woman in the beret slapping her fingers on the steering wheel in time to the bouncy '40's tunes would ever guess she had less than six months left to live.

I credit my big sister with introducing me to the novels of Thomas Hardy and P. G Wodehouse, the songs of Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, and the art of modern dance. She also taught me how to ice skate. It was appropriate, therefore, that she enlighten me one more time by suggesting I order a Thai iced tea. As always, she was right. Thai iced tea is delicious.

On our way home, she related to me an unusually vivid dream she'd had just before her doctors declared there was nothing more they could do for her cancer. In this dream, she saw herself in heaven greeted by our father—who was reunited with the family dog of our childhood. I found this vision very comforting. I asked my sister if she was afraid of what was to come, and she told me, “no.”

Maryanne was always generous with her passions, one of which was the theater. She had once worked professionally as a scene painter, but life in Tacoma as a wife and mother had taken her a long way from her paint-splattered past. In her last months, however, she became determined to introduce her girlfriend Laurie to the live stage. She treated Laurie to a performance of The Nutcracker ballet, and later invited Laurie's son Charles to see a local civic light opera production of Man of La Mancha. I'm sure she created great memories for both of her friends who will cherish her generous spirit.

She also made one more attempt to express herself with her paintbrush. A small still life watercolor of an Easter lily against a cobalt blue background called simply “Easter Morning” became her church's bulletin cover for the celebration of Christ's Resurrection. How very appropriate.

As a good steward, Maryanne left this world with all her affairs in order for her son and husband. She and I spoke on the phone shortly after she had signed her DNR. True to her bizarre sense of humor, she began to sing her modified version of the third verse of the old Welsh hymn, “Guide Me Ever, Great Redeemer:”
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Please do not resuscitate...”

For some, this may seem like black humor, but it put me in mind of this verse:

Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” (Proverbs 31:25)

To paraphrase Shakespeare, nothing in her life became her like the leaving of it. Her strength and dignity where both a blessing and a lesson to those who love her and are left behind.

Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised." (Proverbs 31:30)

Thanks for reading my friends, and for letting me share.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Reflections on Pentecost

Alright. This is probably the dumbest illustration I can think of for the Day of Pentecost, but here goes: Some time ago, just for kicks and giggles, my wife and I took our shih tzu dog Greta to a pet psychic. We made an appointment with a dreamy, new-agey chick named Emerald who claimed she could commune with Greta's inner thoughts and tell us why our doggie acts so berserk whenever we try to take her out anywhere. Emerald went into some kind of mild trance and then explained that Greta is just full of enthusiasm when she encounters a new place with new smells and she can't understand why her human Mommy and Daddy aren't as enthused as she is.

Okay. That's one possible explanation. Personally, I think it's just that Greta is a hyper little doggie whom I haven't trained very well.

But this got me to thinking about enthusiasm. The very word comes from the Greek and means to be possessed by God. This is the concept which under-girds our understanding of the third Person of the Holy Trinity. The Holy Spirit is God in us. If we recognize that our very life and breath are the manifestation of the Creator God, ought we not to be enthused? I don't necessarily mean that we should be jumping and leaping around the church like my little dog does, but I wonder how often we go to church and really experience the joy of the Lord. Or even expect to experience it.

What are you enthused about? Do you approach the throne of grace with a sense of excitement in your heart the way my dog approaches me when I come home at night? Does the exquisite love of God burn within you?

Looking at the gospel lesson for the Day of Pentecost, Jesus approaches the disciples when they have locked themselves up because of fear and blesses them with, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19) In other words, he drives out the fear so that they can be full of the spirit. Think about it: can you be both frightened and enthusiastic at the same time? I can't. One emotion will always overcome the other. Yet in this story Jesus gives the Church the power to overcome. Yes, if we retain the sins of any—retaining our guilt or fear or prejudice or arrogance—such sins are retained. But if we let them go, God will remove them from us as far as the east is from the west.

To me, part of the glory of Pentecost is the story of theses twelve scared men suddenly finding their enthusiasm, unlocking their doors, and going out among the people with a fire for the good news of Jesus Christ. Their fear of death, ostracism, ridicule, or anything else was subordinated to their overpowering desire to bring the blessing of Christ's love and healing to the world.

So I ask you again: What are you enthused about? Are you more passionate to see justice and mercy done in Jesus' name than you are afraid of spending a few bucks, being inconvenienced, or looking silly?

Enthusiasm. It's to be possessed by God. God the Father Almighty.

Not God the Father the relatively big.

Not God the Father the pretty darn strong.

But God the Father Almighty who can fill you and use you to God's glory. So get enthused!

PS-God in the Holy Spirit created the Church on Pentecost. The WHOLE Christian Church. I think this is a good day to think about the unity of the Church, don't you? If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, why not use today to make an effort to nudge our two communions a little closer together? I think the Spirit is willing! Just sign my petition for Eucharistic sharing here.