Thursday, September 25, 2014

Impolite Christianity (Reflections on Pentecost 16)

Once upon a time, when I was a brand new pastor at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia, I suggested to my congregational council that we change the way we do opening devotions at our monthly meetings. Rather than having the pastor lead in prayer, I thought it would be kind of peachy if individual members of the council took turns sharing their favorite scripture readings and leading in prayer themselves. After all, as Lutherans, we believe in the Priesthood of All Believers, and I thought it would be a good idea for us to share our spiritual side with each other.

One long-time, venerable member of the council announced to me that he had no intention of participating, and would not be taking a turn. “I don't do that,” he told me matter-of-factly.

As a new pastor I feared pressing my point, realizing that I can't force a man to pray publicly if he just doesn't want to do it. But this made me wonder: If this guy is a Christian and a leader of his congregation, why is he so against expressing his faith?

Maybe it's our old American tradition which our parents have passed on to us. It's just not right or polite to discuss religion in public. It's a private matter, and good Lutherans don't air private things in public. To a certain point I agree with this. I mean, I've seen boatloads of stuff on facebook which I don't believe I would share myself. Nevertheless, I can't help but feel that if there were ever a time for us to get over our religious shyness, this would certainly be the time!

In the Hebrew scripture lesson appointed for this Sunday (Ezekiel 18:11-4 and 25-32), the prophet reams out the exiled Hebrew people for blaming their parents for their current predicament. Certainly, the sins of the ancestors have caused great pain for the children, but there comes a time when the kids have to suck it up and get over it. They have to find their own sense of repentance and stop embracing their victimization and blaming Mom, Dad, and God for all of their problems. Repentance, change, and responsibility for their own identity is not only possible but necessary.

In the gospel lesson (Matthew 21:23-32), Jesus confronts the high priests and the Pharisees who see him as a huge threat to the status quo. They just don't like all this enthusiasm in their Temple, and they don't like the idea that some hick preacher from Nazareth can claim any authority. Jesus challenges their thinking with a parable about two boys and their dad. One openly defies his dad by refusing to do as directed, but later repents and does the chore anyway. The other says the right thing, but doesn't do what he's agreed to do.

I'm a little uncomfortable with this story because I find that I'm often like that second kid who knows what to say, but doesn't follow through. I mean, I know a LOT about the Christian faith, but in almost sixteen years in my parish I haven't been able to connect it to the hearts of this congregation. We still don't have an ongoing adult Bible class where we share with each other our relationship with Christ. I still see parents who do all the right things—they get the kids baptized, have them receive their first Holy Communion, and make their confirmations—but don't sit with them in church or have conversations about what their faith means to them. Secular activities seem to take precedence over religious observance with lots of folks, and I'm not sure that there's any discussion about how faith and “life” are integrated.

Of course, the good news in both of these lessons is that God desires repentance and doesn't care how late it comes. Sometimes hookers, thieves, and traitors get the message before people who have been raised in the Church. But God is merciful and desires a whole relationship with all of us.

I guess the question for me this Sunday will still be: What does your faith mean to you, and how is the world affected by the fact that you are a Christian?

Let me know what you think, and thanks for reading.

(PS-To see a video of me delivering the sermon for  Pentecost 16, click here.)

Thursday, September 18, 2014

We Are Beggars (Reflections on Pentecost 15)

Ruth was 85 years old when she left this world. Her first husband had been an abusive alcoholic, so she kicked his sorry butt to the curb and raised three children on her own. She endured the gossip of the neighbors who, back in the day, were censorious of a single, divorced woman. She worked six days a week and never took a penny she hadn't earned herself. She raised her children and cared for her aging mother. Eventually, she married a nice widower who predeceased her by twenty years.

Ruth's daughter told me about the lady hospice chaplain who visited her mother in the last weeks of Ruth's life. One day, as the chaplain read from the Bible, Ruth looked up from her bed and declared, “I'm just a speck of dirt. God is everything.”

Sometimes I have to marvel at a generation who worked so hard, endured so much, and yet felt no sense of entitlement. Some day soon they will all be gone, and our nation will be the poorer for the loss.

I see the scripture lessons appointed for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost as dealing with our wounded sense of entitlement. The hilarious book of Jonah is really a remarkable writing. Not only is it a very funny story, but it is almost revolutionary when viewed in the context of its time. My friend Pastor Steve shared an interesting historical tidbit. It seems that the Assyrians, whose capital city Nineveh was, had a reputation for sadistic cruelty to the people they conquered which makes the Nazis look like unruly Cub Scouts (Not that unruly Cub Scouts can't be sadistically cruel, but you get the idea!). One can only imagine how much the people of Israel hated the people of Nineveh for what they had done to them in the days of conquest. Jonah going to Nineveh would be just like a Holocaust victim preaching to Berlin in the days of the Third Reich. This makes God's inclusivity and pity seem all the more radical, and Jonah's outrage at God's mercy seem all the more understandable.

The scandal of this story is equal parts God's profligate generosity and forgiveness and the hero's unattractive bitterness—a bitterness which makes him embarrassingly small-minded and silly.

Perhaps in our economy we are even more scandalized by the appointed gospel lesson, Matthew 20:1-16. I can't imagine a single union member who would be shouting “Amen!” to this parable. The guys who worked only a few hours get the same pay as the long-time employees..? That sucks! That's totally unfair—in our small-minded and silly way of thinking, perhaps, but not in the Kingdom of God.

“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them the equal of us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” says a grumbling laborer in verse 12. God's answer? Yes. Yes, I have made the least of you as important and special in my eyes as the greatest. That's called grace.

To me, the great pity of this story is for those guys whom the landowner hires at five o'clock. When he asks them why they're standing idle, they reply, “Because no one has hired us.” When I was a teacher in the Los Angeles schools many years ago, I used to see groups of Mexican guys standing on street corners in the mornings, waiting for some gringo contractor to come by and hire them for a day of manual labor. I often wondered what happened to the guys who weren't picked for work that day. Did their families go hungry?

Anyone who has ever been out of a job for any period of time can sure sympathize with the guys who get hired last. They spent the whole day wondering if their families would eat that night. They must have felt like crap, and they would be grateful for anything that was offered to them at the end of the day. But imagine their joy and relief at being given a full day's pay! Contrast this with the bitterness of the guys who were given a full days' pay for a full day's work. They should have been grateful for the work, but their inflated sense of importance robs them of contentment.

The joy of the Lord comes only, I think, in acknowledging God's awesome goodness and mercy, and our own unworthiness. Like Miss Ruth who called herself a “speck of dirt,” Martin Luther's last written words were “It is true: we are beggars.” This was his testimony to the unconditional and unmerited grace of God. I get the feeling he died happy.

May you both live and die in God's mercy and goodness. It's so extravagant! Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Holy Cross Day

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. ‘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. ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3: 13-17)
Brosen icon constantine helena.jpg
Emperor Constantine and St. Helena with the Cross
from a Bulgarian icon.

First, a little geeky background on the significance of this holiday. You scholars of ancient history know that Christianity became legal in the Roman empire in 313 when the emperor Constantine the Great declared it was officially groovy to be a Christian. Supposedly, Constantine made this decision following his victory in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge fought the previous year. As the tale goes, Constantine was preparing to take his troops into the fray when he looked up at the sun and saw a cross glowing in the sky. Under the cross he read the Greeks words meaning, “By this sign you will conquer.” Not being one to shrug off a miraculous vision, Constantine ordered his soldiers to paint the Christian symbol known as the chi rho (XP—an abbreviation for “Christ”) on their shields. This they did and proceeded to thoroughly kick the butts of their enemies and win the day. Thereafter, the previously outlawed religion of Christianity became legal and, later, official.

That's the story, anyhow. Really smart historians who study this stuff suggest, however, that Constantine might have been Christian or leaning towards Christianity long before the Milvian Bridge episode. His mother, St. Helena, surely would have introduced him to the faith in his youth. He might have been just looking for a convenient way to go public with it. In any event, Constantine became Rome's first Christian emperor and founded numerous churches and cathedrals throughout the empire. Which brings us to the Feast of the Holy Cross. This yarn says that Momma Helena actually found the true cross upon which Jesus was crucified while on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 326. Her son ordered that this find should be commemorated by the building of a great basilica in Jerusalem on the site of Christ's burial where the true cross could be kept and venerated by the faithful. The church was completed in 335, and on September 14th the cross was taken out of the church in procession. The day has been celebrated by Christians as a minor church festival ever since.

Alas, the “true cross” is said to have been captured by invaders in 614 and then recovered in 630. Who knows? Fortunately, our faith in Christ does not depend on our faith in the validity of souvenirs, and the significance of this day does not depend on what Helena or Constantine thinks may of may not have been lodged in this grand old church. Rather, the essence of our spiritual life depends on the significance of this perplexing symbol.

Why, you may well ask, does the world's largest religion use as its emblem an instrument of terror and torture? Because it's precisely in this horrid device that God's love is most clearly seen. As the gospel lesson points out, “God so loved the world...” This doesn't translate as God really, really loved the world—although God most assuredly does—but that God loved the world in this manner, in the willingness to participate in our pain and brokenness.

Jesus says in John 3 that he will be lifted up just as Moses lifted the serpent in the wilderness. This is a reference to the Hebrew scripture reading assigned for this festival, Numbers 21: 4b-9. In this story, the children of Israel are afflicted while in the wilderness by poisonous snakes after they have spent considerable time bitching about how miserable their journey has been and what a rotten leader Moses is. Showing a gift for ironic humor, God makes their punishment fit their crime. After all, they have been creating disharmony by spewing poison from their mouths, so God gives them some really poisonous mouths to contend with. Their salvation is to look at the image of a snake Moses has placed on a high stick. That is, they have to look at their sin and at the thing that is killing them before they can be healed.

I find the serpent particularly meaningful as it puts us in mind of that crafty serpent in Genesis who claims that disobedience to God will make Adam and Eve be like God. This is, after all, our original sin—our desire to put ourselves and our desires on the throne ahead of everything and everyone else.

The wanderers of Israel had to confront their selfish small-mindedness, their ingratitude, their lack of faith, and their lack of respect and charity before they could be made whole. Similarly, we need to look to the cross of Jesus where we see our cruelty and our desire to objectify others. After all, the Romans used the cross as a weapon of terror. Crucifixions were meant to deter disobedience and enforce the will of one people upon another. They may have been partially successful to that end too, but crucifixions also bread resentment, hatred, and violence.

When we look to the cross of Jesus, we have to confront our sin, but we also confront God's everlasting empathy and love. Jesus went willingly to the cross out of love. Here we see God entering into our suffering. Without the cross we, could never really know God.

I guess I lose a little patience with TV evangelists who stand in front of huge spinning globes or maps of the world, supposedly symbolic of the spread of the gospel across the face of the earth. In the cross we see Christ's victory through his weakness and suffering. Unless we can recognize our need for repentance and God's forgiveness, unless we can recognize God in our suffering, we will never recognize God at all.

What do you see when you see the cross? What nails have you driven into the flesh of others? What nails have been driven into your own?

Thanks for reading, my friends.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Jason & Doug's Wedding Homily

John 15:9-12

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

You guys!

Yeah. I have to admit it: this is a very special day of celebration for me and for this congregation as well as for the two of you. You are Faith Lutheran's very first same-gender couple to be legally married—not only in the eyes of God and of this community of friends and family—but in accordance with the laws of this commonwealth. This day is long overdue, and we rejoice that it has come at last. It's a celebration of your love for each other, of our society's recognition that you have a right to live out your love honestly and openly, and of this congregation's love for the two of you.

Gotta be honest here. Although I was really delighted to have you lads join Faith two years ago, I wasn't exactly sure how to represent you to the congregation. I didn't want to point at you and say, “Here's Jae and Doug, our token gay couple!” It wasn't that I thought I'd get any backlash from the folks here, it was that I didn't want you to be just “those gay guys.” I figured that if I didn't say anything, eventually these clever Lutherans would figure it out. And they did.

And they decided that they loved you. Jason, your enthusiasm on the Praise Team warmed the hearts of retired choir ladies. And Doug, your willingness to help out with Sunday School made you a favorite with our teachers and parents and our kids. Your anti-bullying workshop was beautifully done and truly appreciated. This congregation saw new, young Christians who were willing to form community, volunteer their time for Interfaith Hospitality Network, serve on Sunday School and the church council, and lend a hand whenever a hand needed to be lent. You walked the walk, and as your pastor, I want to tell you how much I appreciate what you've done and continue to do for Faith.

But there's something else. From the time you came here, a change started to come over this congregation. You guys are two of the most genuinely loving human beings I've ever had the pleasure to know, and, somehow, your gentle spirit has started to effect this place. We've been better people since you've been here. I can't explain it, but we have. And I love you for that.

Love. That's really what today is all about.

In the gospel lesson for this service, Jesus tells the ones he loves to live and breath and move and have their very beings in the love that comes from obedience to God's law. And what's that law? Basically, the Ten Commandments just boil down to this: love God, and love everyone else. But Jesus exhorts us to love as he has loved us. And that might be a pretty tall order.

Here in the fifteenth chapter of John's gospel, Jesus has just taken the servant's job and washed the feet of his disciples. He's loved them by serving them. As a married guy, I think I can testify that a little foot rubbing from time to time can go a long way towards strengthening a relationship. But it's more than just that. Today you're being called upon to confess that you will love each other as servants—each putting the needs of the other before his own, each subjugating his own ego.

You see, to love as Jesus loves means to be willing to sacrifice. Jason, you have to give up a little bit of your need for reassurance and control. Doug, you'll have to give up taking things for granted. You'll both need to carry your cross, remembering that you can only be responsible for your marriage to your partner, you can't control your partner's marriage to you. You will require faith, hope,and love.

Now, I know you love each other. In fact, you've told me it was love at first sight that day Doug wandered into the AT&T store. You guys just knew. Three months later you were living together, and you've made it work for the last five years. So for the next fifty years, let me give you a bit of advice:

In the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer the marriage vows used to contain the phrase, “With my body I thee worship.” Think of Holy Matrimony as a worship service. It must include praying together. It must include praising—both God and each other. And it must include the element with which we begin every mass—daily confession and absolution. If you can't learn the phrases, “I'm sorry” and “I forgive you” and really mean them, you can't be married.

And remember, too, that St. Paul taught us that while we were yet in our sins, Christ died for us. He didn't wait to sacrifice himself until we were perfect or until we deserved it. We have to love others in their sins just as Christ loved us in ours.

My prayer for you is that you will always love each other courageously for your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Thank you, again, for being who you are, and may the peace of God which passes all our understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Reconciled in Christ (Reflections on Pentecost 13)

Reconciliation. That's the theme for worship on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary. For lots of churches, this Sunday is, as we at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia call it, “Welcome Sunday.” It's the day of family reunion when summer travelers return to the pews (we hope!) and kids return to Sunday School. It's a day of getting folks together to celebrate.

Recently, we've had a quite a bit of festiveness at Faith in celebration of the first same-sex wedding held in our congregation. This was a pretty big deal for a little blue-collar church. Some time back, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began to use the term “Reconciled in Christ” for congregations which were welcoming to same-gender oriented people. Certainly, if nothing else, the Church should be a place of reconciliation, but I noticed when I worshiped at “Reconciled in Christ” congregations back in California that these parishes tended to become “the gay church.” Reconciled in Christ looked an awful lot like Segregated in Christ.

Similarly, on our last Welcome Sunday we welcomed our “renter” congregation, the Beth-El Church of God in Christ, to join us in worship. Their wonderful pastor, The Reverend George Nash, preached a sermon so orthodox that Martin Luther himself could have written it. Still, I seemed to detect a small amount of squeamishness when Beth-El's choir took to the chancel and began to worship in the manner consistent with their African American Pentecostal tradition. There just seems to be something about this which makes middle class white Lutherans a little uneasy.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is often quoted as saying that Sunday morning worship time is still the most segregated hour in America. Perhaps it's a good thing that today's lessons (Ezekiel 33:7-11 and Matthew 18:15-20) focus on our responsibility to our neighbor and Christ's desire to see hearts corrected and brought back into the fold. It is the Church's responsibility to bring folks together, black and white, gay and straight, and all other shades and varieties. Yes, it's been a pretty tough order for most of our history, but that fact shouldn't keep us from trying.

I love the fact that Jesus' instructions on reconciliation in Matthew's gospel is the model which ELCA constitutions use to correct erring church-goers. Once in my ministry I had to resort to these instructions, and I'm happy to report that they proved practical. Jesus seems more concerned about reclaiming a family member than punishing a discipline problem. That's the spirit in which Christians need to approach all schisms, differences, and disagreements. We need to ask, “What do we have to do to bring people together when they are hurting and injuring each other?”

I know. Sometimes we just can't get reconciled with people who don't want to be reconciled. If you're like me, the news of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, brutally beheaded by the radical Islamic group called ISIS does not make me want to go out and kiss a Muslim. I'm also all in favor of doing justice and punishing the wicked. But I want to be careful about the spirit in which I approach it. Hatred only breeds hatred. A desire to be a victor will have to make someone else a victim. There must be a better way.

I feel a little less powerless, however, when I read in The Lutheran magazine about the work the Lutheran World Federation is doing to aid the victims of the war in Gaza. The LWF's Augustus Victoria Hospital on the Mont of Olives in Jerusalem has Christian, Muslim, and Jewish staff all working together for humanitarian goals. Somehow, this institution has broken through the walls of segregation and reconciled people of three different faiths. It can be done.

Jesus promises us in this pericope that whenever we agree with each other, we have God's blessings for success. Even Gentiles and tax collectors were not locked out of Christ's compassion and grace. Let's accept the challenge to correct in love and keep striving for togetherness.
Thanks for visiting, my friends.

Augustus Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives, a place of reconciliation.