Thursday, October 30, 2014

All Saints Day

What do John the Baptist and Kermit the Frog have in common?

The same middle name.
Kermit the Frog.jpgOkay. Dumb joke, I know. But it was the joke which my friend Pastor Kathleen Gahagen used to open her final sermon at Abiding Savior Lutheran Church of North Tonawanda, New York. Kathleen always began a sermon with a silly joke. She believed if there are no signs of joy in church, there is no joy. She was a sweet, funny, enthusiastic, and beguilingly friendly saint who lost her bout with cystic fibrosis last spring at the age of forty four. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

My sister Maryanne ended her earthly journey this past year at the age of fifty-seven. She was a gifted scenic artist who had lived a wonderfully bohemian life in Manhattan for years, who traveled to Europe, and enjoyed multiple enthusiasm from classical singing to pro wrestling. Yet she turned her back on all that and chose to be a simple wife and mom, struggling to make ends meet in a very unglamorous job for a marketing company in Tacoma, Washington. I worried about her for years. In the end, however, I realized that a life has to be judged on balance, and that there is wonderful romance to be found in commonplace things. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

My congregation, Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia, has lost five faithful members since last All Saints Day. Marilyn, who lost her only son and husband, but who taught us how to be family in Christ. John, who learned Spanish in his eighties and sent his first “tweet” at the age of ninety-three, and taught us all how to age with verve and joy. Doris, a shut-in who faithfully stuffed cash into an offering envelope every week, blissfully cheerful in spite of the grumpiness of her elderly husband, and smiling and perky even in her hospital bed. She taught us the value of patience. Chick, who was the most loving and compassionate step-father to his wife's children, who mowed the church lawn, made generous donations to the offering without calling any attention to himself, and never raised his voice above a hush. Bob, who mourned his first wife's death so deeply, but came alive again when he fell in love in his sixties, a virtual Lazarus, and testament to the goodness of God.

All of them are blessed saints—the meek, the mourners, the sweet and pure of heart, the poor in the things of this world but rich in the things of God. What is a saint, after all, but a sinner redeemed by God's grace?

I believe it is my purpose in life to be a bard for the everyday saints of this world. Every life, you see, is an epic. Every life has something to teach us.

And you too, my friend, are a saint—made holy even in your weakness—an ambassador for Christ.

May the knowledge of your own blessedness bring you peace.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Saint of the Month: Pope Francis

About a year and a half ago I wrote a letter to Pope Francis requesting that the Holy Father consider ending the 500 year schism between Lutherans and Roman Catholics by inviting Lutherans into full Eucharistic sharing with our Roman brothers and sisters. I followed up my little epistle with a petition. Alright. I know. I may be a little crazy, but I'm not quite daffy enough to believe that I would really get a response to either missive. I just thought I'd run the idea up the pole and see if anyone saluted. Alas, Pope Francis is yet to reply. But that's cool--the guy's pretty busy these days. I certainly understand. My petition wasn't exactly a howling success either, running a full year and garnering only 47 signatures--mostly from friends and members of my congregation.

A Catholic buddy of mine, the permanent deacon of a local parish, made an interesting point. "Owen," he told me, "there will never be full Eucharistic sharing between Lutherans and Catholics until there's full Eucharistic sharing between Catholics." What my friend meant, of course, is that there are millions of good, God-fearing Roman Catholics who are disenfranchised by their own church, barred from the Holy Supper because of marital status or sexual orientation.

This week, the press that's coming from the Vatican Synod on Family Values suggests that Pope Francis is rethinking some of the Catholic Church's historic positions on divorce, cohabitation, and the LGBT community. If this is the case, he is the most radical Catholic since Pope John XXIII, and maybe the most radical since Martin Luther himself. Already the voices of dissent have been heard howling, calling for a fallback to the traditional views and vowing that a liberal pope will never reverse the church's teachings on these issues. (See this article) My deacon friend jokes, "I'm sure glad this guy cooks his own meals!" He's suggesting, of course, that so radical a change in church teaching is enough to make someone want to poison the old boy.

Okay. I get that. Such is the Pharisaical nature of our sin that we just have to have some category of persons to whom we can point and accuse of being worse sinners than we ourselves. But this never was the way of Jesus, and what I truly dig about this pope is that he's been giving us back the Jesus of scriptures.

I mean, aren't you just bored to tears with a blond, blue-eyed, lamb-carrying, namby-pamby Jesus--the Savior of all virtuous well-scrubbed white boys and girls? Me too. I want the world to see the Biblical Jesus: an heroic, willing martyr whose burning compassion for the poor and those outside of society challenges the self-satisfied status quo. I want to see a church which is not a country club for saints but a hospital for sinners.  

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ But when he heard this, he said, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ (Matthew 9: 10-13)

I believe Pope Francis is doing more than just creating a "welcome environment." He's giving us the real Jesus--the one who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. This is the only view of the Savior which truly speaks to our world. 

Thanks for dropping by, dear friends. Leave me a note and let me know what you think, okay?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Tough Parable (Reflections on Pentecost 17)

Collaert, October, with The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
Adriaen Colleart (1560-1618)
"The Wicked Tenants"
The parable of the "Wicked Tenants" (Matthew 21:33-46) is kind of a tough one for me to preach on. The obvious historical context of this parable is a little obscured. The smart guys in the Jesus Seminar say that when Jesus originally told this story, he left out the part about the vineyard being given to other, more qualified tenants (see the gnostic Gospel of Thomas 65:1-7). He might have just been giving a warning to absentee landlords—who were pretty common in his day—about what happens when you treat your tenant farmers harshly. The early Church, of course, added the bit about new tenants claiming the vineyard, thereby making it an allegorical story about how the Jews had screwed the pooch by rejecting the son (that would be Jesus) and the Kingdom of God now belonged to the new folks (that would be us).
To me, that theme just doesn't preach too well. It might leave us feeling awfully smug, but I'm not sure it draws us closer to Jesus. Besides, there's just too much us against them going on in the world now as it is, don't you think?

So let me try to pull something different out of this story. As it appears in Matthew's gospel, the landowner (that would be God if you want to get allegorical) is a pretty cool guy. He decked out this vineyard with everything necessary for the growing of good fruit and sustaining life. He then leased it to tenants. Leased it—that is, he made a contract with them. A covenant, if you will. Both sides know the score here. Alas and alack, the tenants chose not to honor the covenant.

As always in my way of thinking, the best didactic way to look at Jesus' parables or any of the Bible stories would be to cast ourselves in the role of the least sympathetic characters. So: wicked, sinful us (we?)—that's you and me—get the role of the covenant-breakers.

But this landlord is merciful. Even though the tenants renege on their remittance deal, the landlord still gives them three opportunities to do the right thing. So how come these “wretches” get put to a “miserable death?”

(By the way, I love the use of the term “wretches.” It has a double meaning. It can mean either a person who behaves wretchedly and is despised and scorned, or it can mean a person who is miserable and distressed. Charity suggests (don't you think?) that if someone behaves wretchedly it is because they are miserable and distressed. I, for one, never met a rotten,vicious person who seemed really happy. Have you? I mean, it's something to think about. We bring the punishment on ourselves.)

What's wrong with these tenants? First off, I'd say that they are ungrateful for the opportunity that the landlord has given them. They got their daily bread, but they don't seem to be thankful for it. There is a nasty sense of entitlement to these wretches which leads them to greater sins. They are also void of any sense of respect. Not only does their disrespect lead them to ingratitude, but it leads them to violence in that they cannot see the lives of others as being of value. Their overwhelming passion is for gain. They are covetous and grasping. Selfish, ungrateful, disrespectful murderers don't seem to have much of a claim on our sympathy.

So where does this leave us? To respect the landlord's son (yes, this is still Jesus) means to try to grasp the enormity of God's love for us—a love so great that God can enter into our suffering, providing us even his body and blood. This cognition leads us to a feeling of gratitude and respect. On the crappiest day we're ever going to have, God will still provide air and water, light and beauty, caring individuals in our lives, and the hope of eternity. The landlord has given us and will give us everything we need to bear fruit in our lives and be a blessing to others. And he asks so little in return—only that we find love in our hearts to do the right thing.

Thanks for stopping by this week. Leave me a note and let me know you were here.