Thursday, January 29, 2015

Jesus' Authority (Reflections on Epiphany 4 Year B)

One summer when I was in college I worked for an independent contractor. I helped him paint houses both inside and out. I mixed cement with a shovel and did stone work. I hauled tons of bark chips for landscaping jobs in the hot sun. I rolled adhesive to prep for “popcorn” ceilings.

I hated every friggin' minute of it.

It's not that I'm particularly lazy by nature or adverse to physical labor (although I kind of am), it was just the agony of having to listen to my boss spout his political and religious opinions with an irritating and intolerant certainty day after day which almost drove me to insanity. One day I asked him why he became an independent contractor, and he told me, “'Cause I don't like to take orders from anybody!”

I got that loud and clear that summer. This guy was the only authority he wanted in his life. He was also one of the biggest, unhappiest, most miserable anal sphincters (metaphorically speaking) that I've ever met. I couldn't wait to quit that job.

Now, in my former boss's defense, I should point out that he was only a few years older than myself—a fellow Baby Boomer. Our generation seemed to have a chronic issue with authority, and the culture of our time told us to question and challenge it whenever we could. I grew up being told that the Vietnam war was justified, that black folks were inherently inferior to white folks, and that some day the real, top secret reason behind the Watergate burglary would come out, and then Mr. Nixon would be vindicated. In an age such as ours, it's hard to know who to trust. One wonders if there's really any such thing as an unimpeachable authority.

In the gospel lesson for the Fourth Sunday in Epiphany (Mark 1:21-28) Jesus is recognized for his authority. He speaks boldly for himself and doesn't rely on the traditions of the elders as the scribes had done. But what really closes the deal for those who encounter him in this story is his ability to drive out the unclean spirit. The evil spirit is silenced by the command of Jesus, and the crowds recognize that they are dealing with the real thing here. Authority is respected for what it is able to do.

To submit to the authority of Christ is to drive the demons of arrogance out of our own hearts. Of course, just as in the Bible lesson, our own unclean spirits don't want to give up without a fight. We really love the idea that our authority--our goals, desires, and opinions of ourselves and everybody else--are the ultimate authority by which everything else is to be evaluated. Giving that notion up is a battle which might actually require an exorcism.

For me, one of the most powerful examples of this is found in the philosophy of the Twelve Step programs. The demons of addiction—and their underlying causes—just can't withstand submission to the authority of God. A powerful tool used by such groups is the witness and support of those who have fought the demons and lived to tell the tale. The experience of individuals who have gone through the agony of addiction gives authority to their testimony.

And what does submission to Christ's authority look like? Those who are submissive pray. They obey the command to worship and be thankful for the myriad blessings which they enjoy every day and probably have taken for granted. They are enjoined to be generous to others and not fearful for their own well-being. They are forgiving, compassionate, and understanding. They are humble. They trust in the promise of eternal life, believing that God is gracious and merciful, and understanding that on our own we contribute nothing to our own salvation. With such an understanding in our hearts, there is simply no room for the demons which plague us.

But first, we have to give our assent to the authority of Christ. We have to submit and be willing to believe that there is an authority greater than our own power and understanding.

I believe in this authority because I have seen its power in my life and in the lives of others. It's not true because the Bible declares it. Nor is it true because the Church teaches it. It's not even true because your momma said so. It's true because it's true.

Thanks again fore dropping in. May God be with you.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Responsible? (Reflections on Epiphany 2 Year B)

I don't know a lot about the actor Ethan Hawke except I've enjoyed watching his films over the years. Last Tuesday, however, I was in my car on the way to do some visitation at the local hospital and I heard Hawke on the radio being interviewed by Terry Gross of National Public Radio's Fresh Air series. Hawke has just starred in Richard Linklater's twelve-years-in-the-making cinema opus Boyhood playing the role of a divorced dad learning how to be a parent. During the interview, Hawke said something which had me shouting “Amen!” from behind the wheel of my car. “Unless you meet your responsibilities,” the actor said (and I hope I'm quoting him correctly), “there is no happiness.”

Truer words were never uttered about parenthood, life, or faith.

It no longer seems weird to me that my Roman, Anglican, and Orthodox male colleagues are addressed as “Father.” Being a parish pastor is a lot like being a dad—you have complete responsibility for something over which you have ultimately no control. But faithfulness is about fulfilling responsibilities even when we are unsure about the outcome.

The gospel lesson appointed for the Second Sunday after Epiphany (John 1:43-51) depicts Jesus calling the first disciples. The words disciple or disciples occur hundreds of times in the gospels and the book of Acts. Disciple comes from the same root as discipline—training which develops self-control or character as my dictionary explains it. Jesus does not call fans or facebook friends or Twitter followers. He calls those who listen, believe, and expect to have their lives changed so that they may be change agents in the world.

In John's gospel we meet Philip who is so blown away by Jesus that he feels compelled to share his encounter with another, Nathaniel. I love the gentle way he approaches this. When Nathaniel gives him gas about the itinerant rabbi's hick origins, Philip doesn't browbeat him. He simply asks him to “come and see.” The incredulous Nathaniel, recognizing that Jesus sees him for who he is, gets this wonderful promise from Jesus: “You will see greater things than these. Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (vv. 50-51)

That's a heck of a big promise given to the followers of Jesus. We will see greater things. Unfortunately, I fear that too often we in the church don't even expect great things. We seem to be content with the same, comfortable things.

I spoke recently with parents who felt it was their responsibility to see that their children made their confirmations, but then treated that milestone as if it were a graduation from church. If all we expect is that our kids will go to Sunday School through the eighth grade than that is the best we can hope for. Why don't we expect that the young will see an active, vibrant community of faith which will inspire them as it has inspired their parents? Maybe because the parents don't seem to be that inspired.

Perhaps we have lowered our expectations—and, subsequently, our sense of responsibility—to the point where the church is only about our individual salvation and sense of comfort. For too long American Christianity has settled for nit-picking purity issues and not believing the promise that followers of Jesus will see great things. We have to ask ourselves if we really believe that responsible discipleship and faith can bring about the healing of this world, the alleviation of poverty, disease, and strife. Do we believe that we are called to see the great things, the miracles Jesus has promised?

I think that when we read about the call of the disciples we should reevaluate our own call to discipleship. Face it: if we put the bar for church membership any lower, we'd have to dig a trench.

I feel compelled now to step up my game as a pastor and ask and expect more from the people of my congregation than just sitting in the pews on Sunday and hoping to be comforted. We are called to lead others to Jesus, and in taking that responsibility we will find our true joy.

I saw a great billboard recently which defined Christians as “Beggars who tell other beggars where the food is.” I like that definition. It implies responsibility.

God bless, my friends. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Adopted by God (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord, Year B)

There are lots of different ways to be family.

And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.'” (Mark 1:11)

In the waters of baptism, Jesus was declared the Son of God. This illegitimate peasant, raised by a blue-collar worker from a hick town, became kin with the divine and the eternal.

Some time ago, I had the honor of officiating at the baptism of an adopted child whose mother I had baptized as an adult some years before. After the mass I invited the family and sponsors back to my office to sign the baptismal documents. Some of my confirmation students were milling about my office door to ask me a question about their latest assignment. One of the visiting members of the baptismal family noticed the students and asked me, “Pastor, are these your children?”

For a brief moment I found myself ready to answer, “Why, yes! Yes, they are!” I have no biological children of my own, you see. But, having been pastor of Faith Lutheran Church as long as I have, and having watched these children grow up from infants, I feel as if they are somehow a part of me. I never imagined that I would ever feel this kind of love for children, but in the family of God this love just sort of comes.

For me, this is one of the great promises of the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It is the promise we all inherit in the water and the Word of God which makes us, like Jesus, part of the family of God. The sacrament promises, as Luther 's Catechism reminds us, forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. But it also confers upon us identity. It is this sacrament which makes us Christians. And this is the powerful source of who we are as human beings. All that we are comes out of our baptism.

Of course, there are plenty of misconceptions about this sacrament. Even in the early church, folks didn't always quite get what it meant to be washed in the same water as our Lord Jesus. In the second lesson assigned for this Sunday (Baptism of Our Lord, Year B, in our Common Lectionary), Saint Paul encountered some well-meaning baptized Greeks who had only a partial knowledge of what it means to be baptized (Acts 19:1-7). They understood that baptism conferred the forgiveness of sins as John the Baptist had promised, but they didn't know what it meant to live as part of the Holy Spirit of God.

Here in Northeast Philadelphia, I suspect that there are plenty of other misconceptions about the sacrament. We bring our children to the font for various reasons, including but not limited to the following:

Fire insurance: This is for people who aren't sure if there really is a hell, but—just in case—they don't want their kid to go there. This is treating the sacrament like it's something we do to appease an angry God rather than something God offers to promise us love and wholeness. Such an understanding is really more superstitious than religious.

Please the baby's grandparents: No explanation for this is needed.

An excuse for a party.

A ticket to Roman Catholic parochial school.

Personally, I never feel comfortable refusing to baptize a child—even though I've learned through experience that many of the non-member baptisms which I officiate will be for children whom I will probably never see again. Nevertheless, I want to offer these children membership in the family of God, and I want to preach to their parents, godparents, and extended families the truth of the gospel: Once, the almighty God loved us enough to wash in our dirty bathwater and take on all of our pain, pettiness, loneliness, anger, guilt, frustration, grief, and torment. He loved us enough to die in shame and torment and then rise in glory so we would know that we are part of the Holy Spirit and we are promised eternal life, forgiveness, and wholeness. God is telling us, "You are my beloved child, and you will never fall far enough away that my love can't reach you." Everything that we do, everything that we are, comes out of this revelation. We can claim no identity—no nationality, no ethnicity, no rank, no social status, no club membership, no denominational affiliation, no family name—which is as meaningful as our identification as baptized members of the family of Jesus Christ. We are baptized only once, but we live in the truth of our baptism every day of our lives and on into eternity.

My prayer will be that I will live a life worthy of this beautiful, wonderful gift given to me when I was washed into adoption as a small child. May the thoughts of my heart, my words, and my deeds bring honor to you, my fellow family members, every day of my life.

Thanks for being part of the family, and thanks for visiting. Leave me a comment when you get the chance.