Thursday, April 23, 2015

Touchdown in the Name of Jesus (Reflections on Easter 4, Year B)

I guess the big news around Philadelphia this week is the decision by Coach Chip Kelly to sign the deeply pious if somewhat inaccurate Tim Tebow as a new quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles. The 27-year-old Heisman winner is renown for the reverential posture he takes upon those occasions (and there actually have been some) when he completes a touchdown pass. The quarterback will drop to his knees, bow his head, and point upwards as a sign that he is giving God the glory. Granted, there are some who may find this display of zeal a bit excessive or maybe even a tad on the ridiculous side. After all, doesn't God have more important prayers to attend to than Tebow's pass completion? In fact, some makers of Philly's signature snack, the soft pretzel, have begun to twists pretzels into the shape of a kneeling Tebow--a creation which I somehow doubt is meant entirely as a compliment.

But giving God the glory or performing any act in the name of Jesus is just the subject of the first lesson in this week's Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 4:5-12). Here we see the apostles Peter and John who have just scored a pretty big "touchdown" by healing a man crippled from birth who has been begging at the gates of the Jerusalem temple all of his life. This act of healing not only brings the man from dependence to self-sufficiency for the first time in his life, but also raises him out of the shadow of being an outcast--one believed to be cursed by God with his affliction--and places him back within the community. Naturally, the two disciples give God the glory and proudly announce that they have performed this wondrous act in the name of Jesus. The crowd (about five thousand people according to verse 4) goes wild.

Unfortunately for our heroes, this acclaim manages to attract the attention of the ruling elite who promptly have  the two miracle-workers arrested and see to it that they spend the night in the slammer. The following day the boys are interrogated, and Peter--filled with the Holy Spirit as the scripture tells us--proclaims to his captors that he and John have done their work by the authority and in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

"...for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved." (v.12)

This intelligence sits uneasily on the authorities. They're perfectly okay with beggars getting healed, but just not in the name of Jesus. They let the boys go, but order them not to do any more miracles or preach anymore in that particular name. Peter and John promptly ignore this injunction, of course, but you can read the rest of this story later. But for now, let me talk a little about the authority of Jesus' name.

Just what is it about acting in Jesus' name? I'd have to say that Jesus' name carries ultimate authority because it is the name of the Good Shepherd (Yes! I finally got around to the Gospel lesson, John 10:11-18) who "lays down his life for the sheep." This act of sacrificial love--the most passionate and honest type of love there can be--differentiates the authority of Jesus from any other authority.

In the world of the text which John's readers would clearly understand, the word "shepherd" was another synonym for "leader." That is, a shepherd of the people was charged with leading the nation but also with its ultimate welfare. In the tenth chapter of John's Gospel Jesus notes those who only come to abuse the sheep for their own purposes (the "thieves" in verse 10) and those who may not seem abusive but don't really care about the welfare of the sheep as much as they care about their own interests (the "hired men" of verse13). In the hired men analogy, the religious leaders of Jesus' time would surely have recognized themselves. They were so busy preserving the sheep pen--the religious institution--that they forgot about the sheep it was meant to serve.

Recently, I officiated a funeral for a very devout Roman Catholic lady who, in spite of her religious zeal, refused to allow a Catholic priest to preside at her memorial. She had grown disgusted after the sexual abuses scandals of recent years by priests and church officials who seemed more interested in protecting the church from lawsuits than in defending and healing the wounded sheep. Indeed, if we act in the name of the Good Shepherd and accept its authority, we must also accept the responsibility which goes with the name. We can't be selfish, fearful, angry, bitter, or vindictive in Jesus' name. Rather, we are called to do all things in the spirit of loving sacrifice which his name evokes. As our second lesson for this Sunday reminds us,

"We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help?" (1 John 3: 16-17)

Our challenge is to do all things in Jesus' name. What would it be like if we started the day by praying, "Lord Jesus, let me live in your name today?" Try it.

And if Tim Tebow wants to throw footballs in the name of Jesus, I say more power to him. I'd rather look silly for Jesus than anyone else. Wouldn't you?

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts this week. Please drop by again.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Too Good to be True? (Reflections on Easter 3, Year B)

“While in their joy they were disbelieving…” (Luke 24:41a)

I don’t know about you, but I frequently find myself living in a state of denial. Here’s an example. Back in my show-biz, Hollywood days I was rehearsing a play at a small theater in Burbank. I was called from the set by the arrival of two guests—my buddy Rich (who was visiting with me at the time from Wisconsin) and my neighbor and brother-in-law Bruce. These two had rushed to the theater and interrupted my rehearsal because they had important news to tell me that they figured I should hear without any delay. 

It seems that Rich had been snoozing on my sofa when he heard my phone ring and the answering machine pick up (Remember answering machines? This was about twenty-five years ago, so younger readers may not know what I’m talking about). The voice which recorded a message belonged to my agent, who was calling to tell me that I’d just gotten a recurring role on a network soap opera and that I should return the call immediately. Rich, good pal that he was (and still is), ran next door to my sister and brother-in-law’s apartment. Rich didn’t have a car, so Bruce drove him to the theater to proclaim my good fortune.

I should have been overjoyed by this news, but, instead, I acted like a total jerk and accused the lads of making this story up just to jerk me around. Like Doubting Thomas I insisted upon proof before I could rejoice. This was the career move I had longed for, but somehow I just couldn’t believe that it was really coming true. I called my agent, who confirmed it, and then apologized, to my friends whom I had wronged.

In this Sunday’s appointed Gospel in the revised Common Lectionary, we have that beautiful juxtaposition of both joy and doubt. The disciples just can’t wrap their brains around the goodness and power of God. Eternal life, eternal love, the ongoing soul living forever in the mercy and forgiveness of God just sounds too good to be true, so Jesus has to jump through a hoop to convince them.

Funny, but I still face a protective sense of denial with my congregation in Northeast Philadelphia. God has been overwhelmingly merciful to us over the last fifty-five years, but I just get the feeling we don’t really believe it. We seem to take a pusillanimous shelter in our low expectations, and we say dumb-ass things like, “If we give more outreach money, we’ll fall short on our bills,” or “Young people just don’t want to come to church,” or “People don’t feel comfortable going to Bible study,” or “Our people can’t give any more in offering than they do already,” or “Nobody wants to volunteer anymore.” We seem to find a bizarre form of comfort in our sense of powerlessness.

But aren’t we denying the power of the Holy Spirit and the Gospel to change our lives and our stagnant culture? I mean, c’mon, folks..! We either believe the promise of Scripture or we don’t. If we believe, we should challenge ourselves and others a lot more than we do.

Okay. I’ve already admitted it. I’m as much in denial as anybody else (which, considering the life I lead is not a particularly good thing!), but faith still teaches me this:

Christians are called to be simultaneously joyful and believing. How can we live if we are not?

I hope this was little food for thought this week. Thanks for dropping by, friends.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Thomas' Beautiful Doubt (Reflections on Easter 2, Year B)

Doubting Thomas painted by Caravaggio

Don’t you dig Thomas? He’s a pretty straight shooter if you ask me. He’s one of the few apostles who emerge as a personality in the Gospels. Actually, if I’m accurate, he emerges as a personality in John’s Gospel and he’s only a name in the other three. But he takes center stage on this Sunday after Easter when he earns his nickname of “Doubting Thomas.”

We see Thomas’ character break out in John chapter 11 when Jesus declares that he’s going back to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. The other disciples advise the Lord against this trip as the Judeans haven’t exactly embraced him with love and kisses. In fact, they were perfectly willing to stone him to death as a blasphemer. Seeing that Jesus can’t be talked out of this journey, Thomas rather fatalistically tells the rest of the posse, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11 v.16) Now, this is either some pretty brave talk from a guy who looks forward to being remembered as a martyr, or a darn rational assessment of what loyalty to Jesus really means. Either way, it’s straight talk and you have to admire the guy for speaking his mind.

In John 14, Thomas pipes up again when Jesus informs the twelve that he’s going to the Father, and they know the way he is going. (Jn. 14:1-7) I imagine Thomas shaking his head with a big “Say what..??” kind of look on his face. He takes this saying of Jesus’ very literally. “Lord, we don’t know where the heck you’re going. Do you really expect us to know how to get there?” But Jesus, of course, is speaking about the spiritual way, the process of being, which draws us to reconciliation with God. I love that Thomas doesn’t seem to get it, but, again, you have to love him for speaking up. He doesn’t just nod his head and look like he’s digging it when he doesn’t understand. He’s simple, but he’s honest.

And so, we can’t blame Thomas too much when he can’t seem to wrap his head around the news of Jesus’ resurrection in this week’s Gospel lesson (Jn. 20: 19-31). Stuff like this just doesn’t happen in his world view. And why would he want to believe something which sounds good but could only lead to more of the hurt he’s already experienced should it prove not to be true? So I respect the old boy for his doubts.

There are two beautiful take-aways in this story, I think. First, Thomas wants to see Jesus’ wounds. This may seem like cruel voyeurism, but it’s not the same as slowing down to look at a car wreck on the freeway. I don’t think we ever really know someone until we’ve seen them hurt. When we see others’ wounds and realize that they suffer just as we do, we grow in empathy for them, and that makes us love them more. Perfection is just not relatable. A perfect, impervious god is just too far away from us for us to know how to love him. We love Jesus because he gets us—he’s suffered every way we’ll suffer. He knows us, and when we see him on the cross we know him, too.

But the real beauty of this story might be the importance of doubt. We should be grateful to old Thomas for simply voicing the question we all have: Is this real?

Here we see Jesus at his most tender. He’s willing to prove things to Thomas, but he gently takes him to task by saying that those who have no proof of the resurrection are even more blessed when they believe it.


Because those who have not seen but move forward anyway have true faith. Faith requires a level of uncertainty.

Without faith, we take no chances. We only rely on what we know in certainty. And how boring is that..? Look at the Hebrew Scripture lesson assigned for this week, Acts 4:32-35. Here those whacky early Christians take a kamikaze plunge into a radical way of living. They actually give up all of their earthly possessions in the belief that they can change the world through loving generosity. They trust the apostles to redistribute the wealth in a way which will preach love and compassion. They brazenly walk away from the traditions of their people and their own families, and they even embrace complete strangers and outsiders with love. They stand against the culture of their time, and openly embrace the possibility of death for their actions and beliefs. Thomas, in fact, is said to have forsaken his homeland in order to spread the word about Jesus to Parthia and India. Church tradition holds that Indian priests reacted to his missionary activities by killing him with a spear.

And how did these early believers know that their actions wouldn’t all be for nothing?

They didn’t.

They had faith.

Without doubt, we have no faith. Without faith, we take no risks. Without risk, we have no growth. Without growth, we have no life.

Oh Wounded God, thank you for giving us both faith and doubt. Help us all to believe in the promise of Eternal Life. Help us step forward in hope and courage. You also have known our moments of worry. Teach us your obedience. May we, like Thomas, be honest, loyal to you, and always seeking your way, Our Lord and Our God. Amen.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Saint of the Month: Archbishop Mark Shirilau

 Archbishop Mark Steven <I>Shirey</I> Shirilau

I think I can safely say that, barring the outright mentally deranged, Mark was unquestionably the weirdest dude I’ve ever known.

I first met him when I was a teenager and he was about twenty years of age. It was at St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Long Beach, California in the mid 1970's. My family had just joined the congregation, and the pastor introduced Mark to me as the Chairman of Acolytes. He was a chubby, mincing blond young man with a waistline which seemed to magnetically repel shirt tails. He seemed paradoxically precise about every movement he made, and yet totally unconcerned about his personal appearance or the impression he made on others. He was at once exacting and sloppy. Indeed, I never knew him to have a decent haircut as he always gave the impression of having had some thirteenth century monk trim his lank locks by putting a bowl on his head. Mark’s most remarkable feature in those days, however, was his high-pitched, squeaky voice which made Wayne Newton sound like Richard Burton in contrast. This mouse-like soprano would often explode into hysterical, ear-piercing giggles whenever Mark was amused—which he was frequently.

As I got to know Mark, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was dealing with an extraordinary intelligence. His vocabulary, academic achievements, and span of interests were vast. His greatest love—and the thing which made him stand out like a nun in a strip club in our middle-class, suburban Lutheran parish—was his obsessive love of Christian liturgy. In a congregation that was anything but high church, this odd young man was in the habit of genuflecting, making the sign of the cross, bowing reverently as the processional cross was carried, using Latin phrases, and dating correspondences by the feast day of the appointed saint. He fussed over paraments, lamented that the worship assistants were not properly consecrated as deacons, and lobbied for the use of incense and processional torches.

In the summer of 1976, Mark was chosen to be one of two adult sponsors for my high school youth group’s trip to the first All Lutheran Youth and Adult Gathering in New Orleans. The pastor, two sponsors, and ten rambunctious teens (myself included) traveled from Long Beach to Louisiana in a two-car caravan consisting of the pastor’s Ford station wagon and a Commander motor home. Mark scrupulously recorded all data on the travelers—up to and including the serial numbers of our traveler’s checks. I do not have the space to go into detail about the perils of his driving, but suffice it to say that having Mark behind the wheel of a motor home added another layer of adventure to our trip.

One night, between Pecos and San Antonio, Texas, Mark and I were assigned to drive the graveyard shift. I was to ride shotgun and monitor Mark as he drove through the wee hours to our next destination. If you’ve ever ridden in a motor home, you know that they produce a great deal of banging and background noise when they’re rolling. Yet over the din of the wheels and the rattling of the oven door, pots, pans, etc., I could hear Mark’s squeaky voice lifted in song. He wasn’t singing a pop tune or an old camp song. He wasn’t even singing hymns. He was chanting the liturgical canticles of the service of Holy Communion—in English and Latin!

As bizarre as I found Mark’s obsession with all things liturgical, I have to admit that he is the one who sparked my interest in the subject and made me realize how we humans yearn for extraordinary time, the moment when we recognize the sacred in space, sound, and ritual. I guess if I admit it, one of the reasons which led me to ordained ministry was the influence of Mark Shirilau.

After New Orleans I saw little of Mark. I was involved with college and later moved to Wisconsin for graduate studies in the early ‘80’s. Mark left St. Luke’s for the richer and grander rituals of the Episcopal Church. When I returned to California to teach at a small college in 1986, my New Orleans buddies assembled for a ten-year reunion. I was greatly surprised by Mark’s appearance. He was tastefully dressed in a tan business suit and sported a gold wedding ring on his left hand. His squeaky soprano had deepened to a respectable baritone, but he was as nonchalant and witty as I remember him being. He was also quite openly gay and proudly announced his marriage to the love of his life, Jeffrey. This was a full thirty years before same-gender marriage was even a blip on the national radar.

Jeff, I should mention, was a thoroughly likable individual. I understood that he had been a former female impersonator, but, when not in a dress, he had remarkable skills with hammer and screwdriver. Jeff was able to do all the “macho” chores which his egg-head husband couldn’t manage. This endeared him to Mark’s parents, Ken and Marge, two of the sweetest and most sincere Christian people I have ever known. Jeff’s death from HIV complications in 1993 must have been devastating for the entire family.

In December of 1987 I attended Mark’s ordination to word and sacrament ministry at a seminary chapel in Claremont, California in the Los Angeles foothills. Only a small handful of family and friends endured the two-hour liturgy. It was unusually cold for LA that Sunday afternoon, and the chapel had not been heated. As the last “Go in peace, serve the Lord!” was chanted, my friend Julie seated next to me hissed in my ear, “I’m so f---ing cold..!!!” (I believe she went to the Lady’s Room immediately after the service and soaked her feet in hot water from the sink.)

It was explained to me that Mark would not be called to the rostered ministry of the Episcopal Church USA—not because he was openly gay, but because he was already a successful electrical engineer. It seems the Episcopalians didn’t need an engineer moonlighting as a priest when they had unemployed priests on their roster. So Mark elected to form his own denomination, the Ecumenical Catholic Church. He would later be ordained as the church's archbishop.

I only attended one service of Mark’s new communion. It was held in the spare room of the home where he and Jeffery lived in Santa Ana, California. A huge altar took up about a third of the floor space, but this was not a problem as only four or five people were in attendance. Friends from St. Luke’s would remark that it seemed as if Mark was “playing church.”

For Mark, however, nothing could be further from the truth. He took worship seriously, believing that where two or more are gathered, Christ is with them.

Little did I know that Mark would cross the continent proselytizing for his new denomination. His sole mission was to proclaim the love of Christ to those who hungered for authentic, historic Christian ritual but had been disenfranchised from the established church because of divorce or sexual orientation. Today there are ECC congregations all across the US and even in Latin America and Europe—even though the clergy, like Saint Paul, must rely on their own means to support themselves financially.

I look at pictures of Mark in full vestments—sumptuous copes and miters which would look over the top on the Pope—and I shake my head. I had mistaken him as a “character,” and one in love with the rituals of the past. Truth be told, Mark Shirilau was ahead of his time. Today Lutherans and Episcopalians struggle to catch up with the radical inclusivity and outreach Mark was showing back in the late 1980’s. Additionally, I must add that his “day job" as an electrical engineer focused on stewardship of the earth—sustainable renewable energy. Nothing could be timelier than that, and for that alone he deserves to be considered a saint.

Some weeks ago, an old New Orleans buddy wrote me and informed me of Mark’s death in January of 2014. Although I had not spoken with Mark in years, I thought of him often. It saddens me to think this eccentric, good-hearted soul is no longer with us in the flesh, but I rejoice that he has now joined the liturgy worshiping around the throne of God. On a shelf in my office is a book Mark gave me many years ago—The Manual on the Liturgy of the Lutheran Book of Worship. On the inside cover Mark wrote the following:

“The 4th Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 1979
To Owen –
Worship is our highest work and truly the joy of life.
God’s blessings forever.
Mark Shirey

Gratia Patris Dei,
Pax amorques Christi Dei Filii,
Et communion Dei Spiritus Sancti
Sit tecum semper.”

And to you too, my friend. Rest in peace.