Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes (Reflections on Pentecost 8)

I totally get where Jesus is coming from in this Sunday's gospel lesson. Of course, when you read this story you have to understand what came just before it. Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist, has just been beheaded by King Herod. Keep that in mind when you read:

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:13-21)

Having just lost a beloved relative myself, I understand how Jesus would just want to get in a boat and spend a little time on his lonesome to sort stuff out. Unfortunately, the neediness of people doesn't go away just because we're not feeling in the pink, and needy folks have no sense of boundaries. I'm sure Jesus would've loved to tell the crowd, “Sorry, guys, but I'm not really myself today. My cousin just got his head cut off by a blood-thirsty despot, and I'd really like to take little more time off.” But that's not quite Jesus' style.

Jesus knows that no matter how much we give of ourselves, God's generosity is so great that we will always be able to go one step further. The scripture says he had compassion on the crowds, and he started to heal their sick. I'm sure this took some time, and I have to give props to the disciples for recognizing that the crowd was going to need to get something to eat. That was very compassionate of them. BUT, when they take their concern to their boss, Jesus does an uncharacteristic thing. He throws it back on them to address the hunger situation.

Compassion, of course, is all well and good, but if it isn't married to some kind of genuine action it isn't worth a thimble of warm spit. The disciples balk, telling Jesus that their own resources aren't sufficient to handle such a huge issue. Jesus tells them to surrender their lunch pail anyway.

Lots of people speculate that you can explain the miracle of the multiplied food by saying one act of generosity gave rise to others—suggesting the disciples' sharing encouraged others to share their resources. Maybe that's so, but for my money the original miracle was the act of faith by which the disciples were willing to part with their own provisions in the hope of aiding others. Discipleship centered on Christ's love overcame fear of privation. That's pretty impressive.

As a parish pastor I deal with the fear of scarcity all the time. After almost sixteen years in an urban congregation I've begun to recognize that the precipice of fiscal doom is our natural habitat. We live on the edge of faith and hope all the time. And because there is a hurting world out there in need of Jesus' compassion—because we who are in Christ also feel this compassion—we commit ourselves to surrendering what little we have to doing the work of God's love.

I no longer care what people are giving to the church. I care more about why they are giving. I don't care about institutional survival. I'm much more interested in knowing that we are living out the gospel.

Let the miracle be in us.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Who Are You? (Reflections on Pentecost 7)

A weird thing has been happening with this blog lately. It seems that a post I wrote back in January called “Fishing Sucks” has gone—well, if not exactly viral—at least somewhat bacterial in Ukraine. The post was a reflection on the gospel for Epiphany 2 in which Jesus encounters the fishermen Peter and Andrew and James and John and calls them to leave their nets and follow him. The story challenges us to ponder just what it is about Jesus which inspires such a radical change of heart that fishermen are willing to be transformed into “fishers of men.” I guess that the change of identity resonates with our Ukrainian brothers and sisters as recent events in that country have forced them into something of an identity crisis. Are they Ukrainians or Russians or what? Whatever they may be, they are certainly standing in the need of our prayers, so please don't forget them.

BUT: The gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 7 (Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52) is also, I think, a challenge to our identity. It's asking us, “Who are you?” I mean, if you were suddenly to lose your nationality, or your job, or if you could no longer indulge your hobby and hang with your friends, if you lost all possessions and social standing, or if your family situation changed so that you were no longer a husband or wife or mother or father or child or sibling, if it came to pass that you weren't even a Lutheran any longer, who would you be?

Wouldn't you still belong to Jesus? Wouldn't you still be God's child? Isn't that who we are at our very core?

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’ (Matt. 13:31-33)

Our relationship with Jesus may seem like a tiny portion of our busy and multi-faceted lives; however, that one relationship changes and informs everything we do and everything we are—just as the little seed grows into a huge shrub or the pinch of yeast causes the whole loaf to rise. It's the knowledge and conviction that once a man loved us so much he was willing to be tortured to death on a cross for our sake. It's the resurrection faith that tells us we are heirs of eternity. It is the inspiration which constantly calls us to live lives of loving service in grateful response to God's goodness and mercy, giving us a sense of purpose and meaning.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (vv. 44-46)

In the 1991 comedy City Slickers (Okay. I apologize for using movie illustrations two posts in a row, but I really like this flick!), an old cowboy tells a younger city dude that the secret of life is one thing.
City Slickers (1991): A Modern

You get that right,” the old-timer says, “and the rest don't mean sh--.”

The younger man asks him, “But what's the one thing?”

That's what you have to find out,” the cowboy says.

But we don't have to find anything. God has found us. For Christians, the one thing, the treasure, the pearl of great value, is Jesus. If Jesus, who walks with us in all of our pain, who promises us eternal life, and who shows us forgiveness, compassion, and healing, is at the center of our identity, everything else in our complicated lives will fall into place.

How cool is that?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Spare the Weeds (Reflections on Pentecost 6)

There's a great scene in the 1939 Ernst Lubisch comedy Ninotchka. Greta Garbo plays a Soviet envoy who has come to Paris on a diplomatic mission. The dour bureaucrat is greeted by three fellow communists at the train station who ask her, “What is the news from home, Comrade?” Garbo, with a brilliantly dead-pan comic delivery, responds, “Wonderful news, Comrades. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”
Film ninotchka.jpg

Of course, the audience in 1939 understood this line as a darkly humorous jab at the violence of the USSR under Joseph Stalin. The dictator's recent “purges” had led to the execution or incarceration of countless Soviet citizens on the grounds that they did not adhere to the purity of Communist Party doctrine.

But is there ever anything really “pure” in this sinful world? The history of the Christian Church might be just as notorious as Stalin for trying to “pull the weeds.” Whether it was the Holy Inquisition or the mass defection from the ELCA following the 2009 Churchwide Assembly, we Christians have usually done ourselves more harm than good when we've tried to separate the evil from the good.

Jesus' parable of the “Wheat and the Weeds” (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), which serves as our Gospel lesson for the Sixth Sunday of Pentecost, must have been quite a shocker to the early church. It's pretty much accepted that Matthew's community was living under persecution. When the heat was on, some of those first Christians sucked it up, stood firm, and suffered the consequences of being part of an outlaw religion in the first century of the Common Era. Others may have equivocated a bit. I wouldn't doubt that the ones who suffered were pretty disappointed with the ones who chickened out. Nevertheless, the parable taught them that it was not their place to judge who did or did not belong to Christ's church. It's not our place, either.

I'd like to point out that, in my research, I noticed the smart old boys of the Jesus Seminar (those clever professors who are always trying to figure out which sayings in the gospels are legitimately the words of Jesus and which were added by the evangelists) don't believe that Jesus really gave the disciples the allegorical interpretation of this parable found in verses 36-43. They suggest that this explanation may have been added later to address the situation in Matthew's community since it doesn't appear anywhere else in the gospels. Okay. I'm cool with that. I think Matthew's interpretation is just as valid as any other. Basically, he's telling us that Jesus says it's not up to us—puny, myopic, mortals—to declare who or what is good or evil in this world. Such an explanation opens the parable up to a whole bunch of new allegorical situations.

Think about it: Can you “weed out” the good and evil times in your life? Would you really want to? When you consider all the crap you've been through, didn't it make you a wiser, more mature, and stronger human being? If you could avoid all of the hard times, difficult relationships, tough choices, and suffering—would you really be living? Wouldn't you be pulling the wheat out with the weeds?

Or think about the people God has placed in your life. I consider my own parents. To be honest, my “Greatest Generation” folks had a few flaws. Chiefly—and how shall I put this?—their views on race, particularly as pertaining to African Americans, were somewhat less enlightened than I would wish them to have been. Nevertheless, these were the people who took me to church, taught me the gospel, and raised me to be a responsible adult. I can't discount them in totality because of their deeply flawed opinions in one area—however wrong these opinions certainly were.

Sometimes, we just have to let the weeds grow with the wheat. We can't condemn an entire life because of a weak moment. We can't lock our hearts away because we fear being scorned or abused. We can't give up on the faith because some ignorant and arrogant people have called themselves Christians. It is a very lucky and merciful thing to realize that we are not  called to be the gardeners of our own lives.

God bless you, my fellow weedy sinners. Thanks for dropping by!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Good Soil (Reflections on Pentecost 5)

So this week it's Jesus' parable of the sower and the seed (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23). You know this one: the guy goes out and scatters seed in the field. Some of it grows, some of it doesn't. I'm not that much into horticulture myself, having been an apartment-dweller for much of my adult life. Now that I'm a suburban guy, however, I have to deal with flower beds and lawns and such and I now know first hand that, yes, some stuff grows and some doesn't.
"The Sower" by Vincent Van Gogh

This parable puts me in mind of the days when I was extending my congregation's mission by serving as a volunteer chaplain at Aria Torresdale Hospital. On my rounds one afternoon I visited the room of a young man who had been injured in an automobile accident. The room was filled with family and well-wishers, but when the young patient saw me he asked his guests to step out for a few minutes so he could speak with me privately. I pulled a chair next to the bed where the youngster lay with is legs in what appeared to be very painful traction. He started to cry.

“Father,” he said, “I'm losing my faith.”

“Okay...” I said.

“I don't know why God is punishing me. What did I do wrong?”

He went on to detail a list of recent misfortunes which would've made anybody seriously depressed. I listened as carefully as I could while—like all chaplains, I'll bet—I desperately tried to think of something intelligent to say in response to all of this genuine pain. Here's what I came up with:

“So, you're saying that if you're living a good and virtuous life, God should reward you with good and virtuous things? Do I have that right?”

“Yes,” he said.

“And if you're a total jerk, God should punish you, right?”


“Well I'm glad you're losing your faith. Because that's not God you're believing in. That's Santa Claus. And—if that's the case—then I'm afraid I have some bad news for you.”

To be honest, I don't recall how that encounter ended as it was some years ago; nevertheless, meeting that young man got me to thinking about how we receive the word and promise of God. I'd be willing to bet that the world is filled with millions of really sweet people who, if they had to answer a survey, would call themselves Christians. They may have great credulity for the mystic. Perhaps they believe in divine intervention, in miracles, guardian angels, holy shrines, and all that happy stuff. But they just don't believe in it very often. That is, they have compartmentalized their faith, turning to eternal questions only when they are in crisis. They are the shallow soil in which it's difficult for a real, honest relationship with God to take root.

As a parish pastor I've seen so many people and families come and go over the years. There are some who are very faithful until the youngest child makes Confirmation and then, hasta la vista! That is to say, they figure they've done their duty to God, looking at their faith more like it's a transaction rather than a relationship. There are also those who come in with all guns blazing and then disappear just as suddenly. I suppose there are others who have “inherited” Christianity as a culture, rather like the European state churches. We'll see them faithfully at Christmas and Easter.

The comfort I take from this parable is that I have grown to expect that the seed of God's word is not going to take root everywhere all the time. The Church is always going to disappoint us in this respect, and I'm actually pretty okay with that. It's up to God to give the growth. I'm just called to spread the seed.

All the same, I can take comfort in knowing that some seeds are very slow in germinating. Like most teenagers, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis rejected the faith in which he was raised. It was only when he reached his early thirties, after he had been wounded in combat in World War I, had begun a career, and had taken on the responsibility for raising a fallen comrade's family that faith in Christ began to take root in his heart.

There's a great (and really easy-to-sing) praise song by Handt Hanson called Good Soil which has this lovely, prayerful lyric:

Lord, let my heart be good soil, open to the seed of your word.”

Just as I get out my Miracle Grow for my suburban garden, I think there are ways we nourish the soil of our hearts. We prepare it through doubt and questioning. We prepare it through knowledge of scripture and Christian history. We fertilize our souls with prayer and meditation. And we practice patience. Nothing, not even faith, grows overnight.

There is an American agave plant at the University of Michigan Botanical Garden that is eighty years old and is only now flowering. Some people are like that plant. But that's cool. We love them for who they are anyway.

And I love that you took the time to read this post! That was so sweet of you. But.! I wonder if I could prevail upon you to read just a little more? Sometimes it take a while for a seed to take root. It's been over 50 years since the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues were started by Pope John XXIII and the Lutheran World Federation. Yes, we signed the Joint Declaration on Justification in 1999, but let's see if we can get even cozier than that. Have a look at my petition by clicking here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Saint of the Month: Sir Ben Kingsley

I was seventeen years old, and my ambition was to become the greatest American-born classical actor since John Barrymore. You can imagine how thrilled I was when my high school drama class was invited to the state university during the visit of traveling actors from Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company. One of the actors, an up-and-coming thirty-three year old, had just scored a major success with his interpretation of Hamlet. We were invited to attend his lecture on acting that most challenging of roles.

I took my seat in the front row, pen and notebook at the ready to catch the pearls of wisdom from this new young talent. A thin fellow with a receding hairline wearing a long-sleeve T-shirt and blue jeans stepped shyly onto the stage. He smiled at the assembled students, bowed slightly, and said “Good morning. My name is Ben Kingsley.”

I'd never heard of the guy. It would be another five years before the Anglo-Indian would give his Academy Award winning performance in the title role of Gandhi and leap to international fame.

He began his talk by drawing a diagram on a chalkboard. Two contiguous rectangles represented the open pages of a book. On the left page was a spiral. The end of the spiral crossed over onto the right page and terminated in a small dot.

“I saw this diagram in a book once,” the actor said. “It's a time-line of the history of our planet. Our earth is so old that if every mileometer on this line represented one million years of history, the line had to be coiled and coiled and coiled in order to fit into the space in this book. The tiny dot at the end represents the time human beings have existed on this planet. It had to be exaggerated in order to be visible on the page.”

He let the idea sink in for a few seconds—how very insignificant we all are when compared to the vastness of creation. “And yet,” he said, “in every tiny human life—in that blink of God's eye—there is the capacity to rise to great magnificent heights of love and joy and wonder and to sink to horrible depths of sadness, fear, and despair.”

In every life.

I never forgot that.

Every human life is an epic. In every human story there are the same, limited emotions—joy and love and fear and grief and desire and frustration and so on and on. If someone were to make a motion picture of the life of the most boring person you've ever met, you'd still watch that movie with fascination because those same passions exist in your life and in your story. Ben Kingsley explained that this is why people go to the theater—to see the phenomenal juxtaposition of our insignificance and our magnificence. That's also why I read the scriptures. I believe that everyone's story is found in the pages of sacred text, and that when we see ourselves we will also see our brothers and sisters and draw closer to God.

When I preach a funeral service—and I preach lots of funeral services—I always try to see the individual, specific human life as a gateway to eternal truth. In the stories of truck drivers and housewives are the same examples of love, forgiveness, sacrifice, thanksgiving, suffering, and faith which unite us with Jesus and the saints. When we look at these things, we are looking at the holy.

I don't know what Sir Ben, who was given the birth name Krishna Pandit Bhanji, would call this unifying humanity, but I call it a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

So thank you, Sir Ben, for being the first person to articulate the hermeneutic which has shaped my ministry. The very fact that words I heard from a man I did not know spoken thirty-seven years ago still influence my work today is itself a tribute to the majesty packed into a single “blink of God's eye.”

May you enjoy and fully experience your epic lives, my dears! Thanks again for reading.

PS-You never know what influence a small word or action may have. If you're Lutheran or Roman Catholic, why don't you join me in this small, silly act and sign my petition for Eucharistic sharing? I know it's a long shot, but so is winning the lottery—and your on-line signature doesn't even cost the price of a ticket! C'mon! Just click here.