Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Thoughts on Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday is a rather contradictory festival.  First off, I guess, because we can’t seem to agree what to call it. Sometimes we say “Maundy Thursday” and sometimes we call it “Holy Thursday.” The confusion is doubtless because most folks don’t know what the heck “Maundy” means. In case you’re in doubt yourself, let me explain that “Maundy” comes from a Latin root meaning “mandate” or “command.” On this occasion Christians remember two things Jesus was insistent that we do:

“Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) and

“Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24).

We usually marry that first command to the ritual of washing feet. In John’s gospel (John 13:1-17) Jesus takes the slave’s job of washing his disciples dirty, stinky feet—an act of humility indicating an end to arrogance and rank distinction and a call to love others in charity and dignity. The second command is an order to keep Christ’s sacrifice alive by gathering together for a common meal.

I’m always up for a good dinner party. In fact, I can’t think of many things more enjoyable than sharing a meal with people I love. But this particular meal is fraught with contradictions. It’s supposed to be a festival meal—a party—right? But it is also a reminder of a pretty unpleasant night in Jesus’ life. So what’s up with that?

Jesus and his buddies are celebrating—that’s the right word for it—the Passover. They were remembering something really cool that God did for their people. God led their ancestors out of the bondage of slavery in Egypt and through the parting waters of the Red Sea because God does not desire oppression, cruelty, or bondage for anyone. But there was a catch: God made a covenant with the people at Mount Sinai. Because God was so good, the people were ordered to love God and love everyone else from that time on—an order they (and we) can never seem to obey.

So, on that Passover night which we remember this Thursday, God in Jesus made a new covenant. “Do this,” Jesus said, “in remembrance of me.” Before that night, you see, the people were in the habit of going to the temple and offering up ritual sacrifices in order to pay off God for their failure to keep God’s command of love. This was a pretty elaborate ritual, and one from which many—possibly Jesus himself because of his questionable parentage—were excluded. So Jesus gave us a new ritual from which no one would be excluded. No longer would people need to bring animal flesh to burn on the temple altar or splash blood on the altar’s blistering hot sides. In fact, they would never again have to offer sacrifice for atonement for the failures of being human. Instead, we were to gather together to eat the bread and drink the wine of the Passover, the festival of freedom, and remember that Jesus had freed us by sacrificing himself.
But that night when Jesus celebrated with his friends ended with his being betrayed, arrested, abandoned, mocked, beaten, and sentenced to death, making this dinner party both joyful and sorrowful.

When we take the bread we recall his body was broken. In the wine we remember his blood was spilled. We celebrate by remembering how, on that awful night, Jesus took on everything we endure or fear.

When we eat the meal, Jesus is here with us, physically. He is with us when we are anxious, just as he and his disciples must have been anxious and full of foreboding on that night so long ago. He is with us when we are wounded by a loved one. He is with us when we are disappointed by those whom we have trusted. He is with us when we feel abandoned. He is with us when we are accused and blamed and bullied and made to feel helpless and worthless. He is with us when we are held captive to anything toxic in our lives. He is with us when we are grieving. He is with us when our bodies, ache, bleed, and fail. He is with us when we face death. For he endured all of these things on that night.

So we eat this meal and recall that God is with us, and we are with God. We are known. We are family. We are forgiven. In all of our frailty and weakness and regret, God is with us and in us.

Such things, such unity and wholeness are not true because the act of eating and drinking is some magic ritual. They are not so because the celebrant is so holy that he or she can turn bread and wine into flesh and blood. Rather, forgiveness, life, and salvation come simply because Jesus promised us they would, and we believe his promise.

And because we believe, we are transformed.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Jesus Fans (Reflections on Palm Sunday)

There is no creature on earth which compares to the Philadelphia sports fan. This town has a mania for our local pro athletic teams which rivals the fervor of an ISIS jihadist. Everywhere you go in Philly you'll see sports logos. Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, and Flyers banners are like religious icons—and, I suspect, actually represent the religious zeal of the city. I've had parishioners wear their Eagles jerseys to mass on the days of home games, begging me to make sure church doesn't last too long so they could get home and prepare snacks before the kickoff. I'd be willing to bet that if the Eagles played Dallas in a televised home game on Christmas Eve, the churches would be deserted!

Byzantine Mosaic, Palermo (after 1200)BUT...Just let one of our teams have a poor season, and love turns to hate pretty quickly around here. We curse the coaching staffs and denounce the over-the-hill players who should have retired or been traded long ago. Such is the fickleness of fans. I guess it's like this in all walks of life. We build them up to tear them down. A pop star may be smiling at the Grammys one day and be the butt of Jimmy Fallon's joke the next.

The adoring crowd we read about in the Palm Sunday gospel (Mark 11:1-11) is no different. They cry, “Hosanna!” on Sunday only to turn and scream “Crucify him!” on Friday. And that's why we enter into this gospel story with a sense of dread—we know what's coming, and it isn't pretty. In spite of all the love showered on Jesus as he enters Jerusalem, the inconstancy of shallow hearts will shortly call for his death.

I always think it's a good idea when we read the gospel stories to see who we are in the narrative. Here's a hint: we're not Jesus. Rather, I think we might profit by seeing ourselves as this giddy crowd greeting the Savior as he comes to town.

Here comes the long-expected Jesus, indulging in a little bit of street theater. He's chosen to enter the city looking ridiculous—riding on the least majestic or threatening critter he can find. He's on the back of a very young (and small, no doubt) donkey (or young horse or nursing mother donkey, depending on which gospel you read). He's absurd when compared to the way the conqueror should appear. He's not on a powerful steed surrounded by a military retinue and flanked by glorious banners. He's on an animal which can just barely support his weight, flanked by illiterate fishermen and the ragged clothing and palm branches waved by his fellow peasants. It's a pretty pathetic sight, but they do seem to love him.

Why, we ask? What are they expecting to get from him? It's pretty obvious when we translate the word, “Hosanna.” The word derives from a plea meaning “Help! Save us! Rescue us!” It's really an SOS call, but those who are calling don't understand what rescue really means. They are looking for the coming of the kingdom of their ancestor David. They think that somehow Jesus is going to solve all their problems by overthrowing their enemies and giving them a sense of being conquerors and restoring their tribal pride (sort of the way Philadelphians feel when we sing, “Fly, Eagles, Fly!”).

But they don't get the joke. Jesus' silly little parade is an assault on pride. Because when there's no pride, there's no competition. No fear of the “other.” No anxiety about winning and losing. And that will open the door to the freedom to love selflessly. Maybe Jesus' undignified entrance was too subtle. It would take his undignified crucifixion to drive the point home.

So what do we expect from Jesus? I doubt any of us are still expecting a warlike victor who will conquer the world, but we might appreciate a comforter and heavenly therapist who will make us feel better when our lives get tough—provided he doesn't ask for too much in return.

But what we get in Jesus is someone who teaches us love of enemies, compassion for the poor and sick, who advocates for justice, who forgives all, and who calls for sacrifice—which, in turn, calls for real faith.

In times of trouble we may cry “Hosanna!” Save us. But have we cried, Teach us? Transform us? Lead us? To be led means to follow, and to follow Jesus is to take up his cross for the healing of the world. But should that prove inconvenient, we slink away like that fickle crowd on that first Palm Sunday.

The challenge of this lesson is to ask ourselves if we are Jesus disciples or only his fans.

A blessed Holy Week to you, my dears. I am grateful that you stopped by.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Reflections on The Annunciation of Our Lord

When I was vicar at Grace Lutheran Church of Yorktown Heights, New York I had the honor of participating with a wonderful ministry called Midnight Run. Midnight Run was an ecumenical group of churches and synagogues organized to care for the homeless of New York City. They collected usable clothing items, new socks and underwear, and made bags of sandwiches and buckets of hot soup and coffee. Around midnight, caravans of Midnight Run volunteers would drive through Manhattan and bring as much comfort as possible to people living on the streets. 

I participated in two “runs” during my time at Grace. On my second run, about three o’clock in the morning, our caravan made a stop near Columbus Circle. Under the shelter of a skyscraper entrance on the lip of Central Park we met up with a colony of displaced people who had created a sort of “tent city” out of cardboard boxes. As I recall, it was about mid-March, and the temperature was only slightly above freezing. 

As I handed out soup and sandwiches, one of the homeless—a guy I’ll call Chuck—asked me if I’d go into the “tent city” to feed Old Joe. Old Joe was sick and could not get up to stand in line for food. I found the man shivering under a piece of cardboard from an old appliance box. I handed him a bag of food and a cup of coffee. He thanked me. As I walked away, I wondered how much longer Old Joe would have on this earth. 

Chuck thanked me for my kindness. He took my hand and shook it with profound gratitude. His grip was like a trash compacter. He could easily have broken every bone in my hand had he been so inclined. I somehow fancied that Chuck might have been a Vietnam veteran. He had a rough, unshaven face, and I noticed that he had a scab across the bridge of his nose and scrape marks on his knuckles as if he’d been in a fight. What struck me the most about him, however, was the way he held my gaze. His eyes, which foretold imminent tears, locked onto mine as he shook my hand. I had the feeling no one had really looked at this man for a very long time. 

How deep and aching is our human need to be seen and acknowledged. 

I think part of the beauty of the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) is Mary’s reaction to having been noticed by God. Verse 29 tells us that this girl was “perplexed” by being told by the angel that God was with her and that she was favored. After all, she had no prestige in the culture. She was not from a wealthy family, she had no education, she was a woman in a male-dominated world, and—truth be told—the Bible doesn’t even claim that she was particularly virtuous (although we always assume she was!). But nevertheless, God had seen and acknowledged her. And he called her to be the bearer of Christ. 

Not that this was particularly good news. Mary would soon be an unwed teen mother, a condition which would place her even lower in the culture. Martin Luther believed that there are three miracles present here: The first is that God deigns to dwell with humankind. The second is that a virgin conceives. But Luther feels the greatest miracle is the fact that this sacred and confused girl said “yes” to God’s plan. She believed that she had been seen and chosen and that she was called to do something which mattered to the world.  

So I ask you: Do you believe? Do you believe God is present with you? That you matter? That you are called to bear Christ, and that God believes you are up to the task. Can you say with Mary, 

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” (v.38a) 

Of course, it’s pretty easy to doubt this. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that every pastor or priest has at some time felt unworthy of their call. “No. Lord, you don’t really mean me do you? Isn’t there someone better suited to bear Christ?” 

We all slink back into the closet of our self-doubt. “I can’t proclaim Jesus. I’m not smart. I don’t know my Bible. I don’t speak well. I’ve done some less-than-perfect things in my life. I’m in a toxic relationship. I’m unemployed. My kids are a freakin’ mess. I cuss too much and I like beer. My dad’s in prison. I’m an addict. I’m angry and resentful.” 

But God has noticed you. God has seen you in all of your weakness and doubt and craziness. God has seen you and chosen you. How will you bear Christ? Once you believe that you are chosen, the how will make itself known.  

But first believe. Do not be afraid. For you have found favor with God.

PS - If you wish to notice and acknowledge folks who seem to be invisible in our culture, check out www.midnightrun.org.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Grain Proclaims (Reflections on Lent 5 Year B)

Wheat close-up.JPG
Cinny was a cute blond with almost terminal cheerfulness. Seriously. The girl was just adorable and she lit up every room she was in. You couldn't help but like her. She was like everybody's kid sister. She was a classmate of mine in the Theater Arts Department at California State University about a million years ago.

One day the instructor of our Theater Management class decided to start his lecture by asking us students to share the single most positive thing going on in our lives. I had just returned from San Francisco where I'd had a screening audition for a professional showcase. I had done brilliantly at the audition and was set to perform for the casting people of several regional theaters. When it came my turn to share, I proudly announced my accomplishment to my classmates. When Cinny was asked to share, she told us, “I'm a Christian, and my faith brings me joy!”

I don't know what the other students thought when they heard Cinny testify, but I felt like a complete jerk. I was a Christian, too, but I had just selfishly blown an opportunity to do the thing which all Christians are called to do—proclaim Christ and glorify his name.

In the gospel appointed for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, John 12:20-33, we read about some foreigners who are longing to see Jesus. John calls them “Greeks,” a generic name for anyone who spoke that language and was not an ethnic Jew. Philip and Andrew might not know if it's quite kosher to bring these gentiles into the presence of their rabbi, but they don't deny them access either. John doesn't give us the whole story, but he does have Jesus tell us that he has come to “draw all people to myself” (v.33), so I'm thinking the Greek guys got the audience. Jesus is inclusive like that.

I guess the reason that I like this passage is because it's one of the appointed passages to be read at graveside. I'm called upon to do lots of funerals, so I read this passage several times during a year. I try to clarify to the mourners that the reference to hating one's life in verse 25 doesn't mean acting like a petulant fourteen-year-old girl (“OMG! My life soooo sucks!”). Rather, “hate” in this context is probably best understood as the antonym of “love.” It might better have been translated as to be “unconcerned” about the things of this life, thereby freeing oneself to be concerned about eternal things—things which will live on after our mortal bodies have stopped functioning.

In this story, Jesus knows his time is growing short. Maybe the fact that these foreigners have taken an interest in him tips him off that his fame has reached the point where the powers that be just have to stop him. Who knows? But I find his simile very apt. If you hold on to a grain of wheat, all you have is one grain. If it falls into the earth and “dies,” it bears much fruit (v.24).

There's an old saying that the learning doesn't start until the lesson is over. That is, once the teacher isn't around to tell you what to do anymore, you either know what to do or you don't. If you do, it's because a part of that teacher is living in you. The seed is planted and bearing fruit in your life. What's more, it's bearing fruit in the lives that your life touches and in the lives touched by everyone who was influenced by that teacher. When Jesus was with us, there was only one of him. When he was “lifted up” on the cross, his message grew in the hearts of his followers, influencing them and, ultimately, the entire human race.

When I preach this at graveside services, I ask the listeners to think of the things their departed loved one taught them and to do those things in remembrance of the deceased. For Christians hearing this message, I think the seed that is planted is the glory of God. As Jesus glorified the Father through his obedience, we are called to glorify Jesus through our proclamation. There are hearts in this world which hunger to see Jesus, and they need to see Jesus in us.

The challenge in this gospel lesson is how bear the fruit. It's pretty easy for a guy like me who walks around in a black suit with a clerical collar. Whenever I consecrate the Eucharist, I proclaim Jesus. People expect this of me, but for lay people it might be a challenge to wear faith so openly. But if we see Jesus in others, it's easy to be Jesus to them. Proclamation can take the form of charitable work, speaking out against intolerance and prejudice, a welcome to a stranger in worship (even if you've seen that same “stranger” for years!), or simple kindness and decency. It might be something as simple as my old classmate's declaration, “I'm a Christian, and my faith brings me joy.”

In verse 26 Jesus tells his friends, “Whoever serves me must follow me.” Fertilization and cultivation of the seed of Christ's glory requires that we follow him. That means we do the things the teacher taught us—we pray, we sacrifice, we give thanks, we endure suffering with patience, and we unashamedly believe in the goodness of God. These are the things which will bear fruit when we ourselves are gone. If we do nothing else in this life, let us proclaim Christ.

God bless you, my friends. Do some proclaiming this week, okay?

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Lifting Up Death (Reflections on Lent 4, Year B)

I got a bittersweet present in the mail last week. A long-lost friend from my days in high school Lutheran youth group wrote me a letter. Yup. An actual letter. Remember those? You wrote with a pen on a piece of paper in your own handwriting—sometimes even employing complete sentences with punctuation and everything—and then sealed it in an envelope, put a stamp on it, and sent it to someone via the United States Postal Service. Quaint, don't you think?

Anyway...this missive from a friend of forty years ago was, for the most part, a pleasant surprise. Unfortunately, said epistle—although filled with much good news—also made mention of the death of one of our contemporaries. This is now the third time in the last year that I have lost someone who was close to me in my younger days. It makes me wonder if I am now entering that time of life in which such news will become more and more commonplace. Inevitably, some day the news will be that I have passed on. I may not like to think about that, but there it is.

The dark subject of mortality is the light of the lessons the Revised Common Lectionary assigned for the fourth Sunday in Lent. In both the Hebrew and Greek scripture lessons we are confronted with the paradox that seeing death brings us life. In the gospel (John 3:14-21), Jesus tells Nicodemus,

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.” (John 3:14-15)

In this Christological discourse, Jesus' death on the cross is likened to the tale in Numbers 21: 4-9 in which the Israelites, wandering in the desert and whining about the rotten food, are punished for their sniveling ingratitude by being bitten by poisonous snakes. In order to heal the repentant complainers, Moses fashions a bronze serpent and puts it on a tall pole. Any snakebite victim looking at the bronze snake on the pole will be healed.

We could take this story as just a fluffy magical fairy tale and an indictment against the hyper-critical among us, or we could see its darker allegorical side. What is it about this bronze reptile which brings about healing? I'd say that, first off, the snake is an image of the peoples' sin. How do these critters kill? With poison from their mouths. What is the sin of the people? Poisoning their fellowship with their despairing, self-centered, and contemptuous talk. Serves 'em right, don't you think?

But the snake is also a symbol of death itself since snakes are what are killing the people. Confronting their finite lives should bring the people back to a deeper sense of their purpose, a deeper gratitude for being alive, and a deeper awareness of how good God has been to keep them going up to this point. The knowledge of death brings them back to real, authentic (as opposed to shallow) life.

But what do we see when we see Jesus lifted up on the cross? Have you ever thought of what it would be like to die by crucifixion yourself? Just ponder that for a moment. Can you feel the nails piercing your hands? Can you contemplate the utter state of helplessness? You are impaled, trapped. You are in pain but can do nothing. You are naked to the world but cannot hide. You can't shield your eyes from the sun or even swat away the flies that now feed on your festering wounds. You soil yourself. You scream for help, but no help comes. Onlookers view you with disgust. Your only desire is to die.

Think about that. About dying in such a way. And realize that for millions of people in hospital beds and nursing homes, impaled with IV needles and trapped in restraints, this is exactly the way they will die—alone. You yourself might also die in such a way.

We may think of this as a dark subject, but it leads us to the light of understanding. To see Christ lifted up on the cross is to understand the depth of his love for us. It is to be grateful for the blessings with which God showers us every moment of our lives. It is also to live in the faith that

...if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)

Seeing the crucified Jesus calls us to believe. In the Greek the word for believe (pisteuo) does not mean simply to assent to a dogma. It means to have confidence in this, to trust in this. The Old English word from which believe derives actually means to have desire for something. In the Son of Man lifted up we are to trust in both our mortality and our immortality. To shun this image is to escape into the blindness of our own comfort zone—a very feeble refuge from fear. We can't make John 3:16 into a bumper sticker slogan, forgetting the depth of the word “believe.” We are called every day to look to Jesus crucified. We cling with confidence, trust, and desire to this image. It is God with us in death and in life.

Thank you again for stopping by. I hope you're all having a wonderful Lent. Please remember the poor in your prayers and in your giving.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Cleansing Our Temple (Reflections on Lent 3, Year B)

I have a weird love-hate relationship with the Gospel of John. If you're looking for the historical Jesus, most Bible scholars believe you aren't going to find him in John. This Gospel, the “Bad Boy” of the four canonical gospels, was written around the end of the first century of the Common Era—some seventy years after the time of Jesus. The really smart guys of the Jesus Seminar don't think hardly any of the quotes in this gospel attributed to Jesus are authentic. That said, however, the Fourth Gospel is pretty darn poetic and an excellent look at what the early Christian church really believed. Most of our theology about Jesus comes out of John. It's pretty good stuff, too.

In trying to figure out what I should preach this Sunday, I looked up an excellent commentary by Karoline Lewis, the senior professor of homiletics (that's preaching, by the way) at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Karoline notes that there's a big difference in this week's Gospel story (the “Cleansing of the Temple,” John 2:14-21) between John's account and those of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In John, the cleansing story takes place at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. In the others it happens at the end of the story and seems to be an act of social protest which gets Jesus crucified.

John's account also differs in the reason why Jesus gets so pissed off by the merchants in the temple. In the three earlier Gospels Jesus seems to be reacting against the injustice of the system. The temple market and money exchange was yet another way to squeeze more cash out of the peasants in this occupied and oppressed nation. The prices of sacrificial animals and the exchange rates were rigged and created a greater burden on an already mistreated population. But in John's Gospel, Jesus reacts to the shear impiety of the commercial enterprise.

He told those who were selling the doves, 'Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!'” (v.16)

The temple was supposed to be the place where God and humanity connected, yet the temple activity Jesus sees is more about economics than a relationship with God. I get that. It's so easy to get caught up with the institution and forget why that institution exists in the first place. I know I spend a lot of time talking about church, but much less time talking about God. Maybe the reason I'm uncomfortable with John is that some of his stories really convict me of my sin and shortcomings.

Truth be told, although I've been a pastor of this parish for sixteen years, I still don't think I could tell you what the majority of my parishioners know about Jesus or what they really believe. Sure, we do lots of good works here at Faith Lutheran, but are we really meeting Jesus? Is this a place where we inspire people to be more loving, more forgiving, more whole, more Biblically grounded, more filled with hope, more emotionally centered, and more overjoyed with the capacity to be healers of the world?

I recently asked my congregational council to devote the first half hour of every monthly meeting to prayer, worship, Bible study, or discipleship building. This suggestion was greeted with resistance by those who felt that we really needed to use this time for the “important business of the church.”

This begs the question, of course, of just what IS the important business of the church? Are fund-raisers, repair jobs, and fellowship events more important than creating a relationship with the resurrected Jesus? What are we here for, anyway?

What do we need to do to cleanse our temples? Institutionally, we need to toss out the notion that the church is a business. Our “success” must not be measured by butts in the pews or dollars in the plate. We are to ask ourselves only if we are creating a community of people who live the Gospel.

And what about our own lives? What are we getting hung up on that's keeping us from being people who live the Jesus kind of love? What commerce is going on in the temple of your heart? Is it a toxic relationship? An addiction? A need to impress? A fear of failure or rejection? A self-image which has been handed to you but doesn't reflect who you really are?

John wrote his version of the cleansing of the temple at a time when there was no temple left to cleanse. That awesome structure had long since been demolished by the Romans as a punitive measure following an unsuccessful attempt at revolution. The pitiful rubble of that once-great symbol of Israel's identity could be a painful reminder to some who were mired in the memory of a past which could never be recaptured. For others, it was a statement of the impermanence of human institutions and a reminder that the place where God meets humanity is only found in Christ crucified—and that place is found in repentant and loving hearts.

Thanks again for for reading, my friends. I hope you are finding this season of Lent a blessing.

P.S. - Please check out Karoline Lewis' commentary by clicking on her name.