Thursday, May 28, 2015

Speaking of God (Reflections on Holy Trinity)

I have to wonder just what the freak was going through John the Evangelist’s brain when he wrote the story we have for our Holy Trinity gospel lesson (John 3:1-17). I’ll bet he was really getting his jollies with this scene. It’s kind of vintage John—people talking with Jesus who don’t have a stinkin’ clue what Jesus is saying to them. Of course, old John probably figured that his readers would get the joke when Jesus talks about living water to the woman at the well or tells Thomas “You know the way where I am going,” and Thomas replies, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, how can we know the way..?” It’s sort of like the classic Abbott and Costello “Who’s On First?” routine. We in the audience understand that the characters in the story don’t understand.

But this begs the question of whether we really understand any of this ourselves. I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and guess that the reason the compilers of our Lectionary (whoever they were—I guess that’s another Divine Mystery!) chose this passage for Holy Trinity because the three persons of our Godhead all make appearances in the conversation between this seemingly well-meaning Pharisee and Jesus.

There is, of course, reference to “God” and to Jesus as one who has “come from God.” I’m guessing that we’re talking here about what we Christians call God the Father. There is also reference to God sending his Son, and Jesus talks about being born of the Spirit. But what the heck do we do with this passage? What does it really mean to us?

Okay. Here’s my take. The older I get, the more I appreciate the gift the Council of Nicaea gave us in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity (And remember: John was writing hundreds of years before Nicaea, so this doctrine reflects stuff Christians had already been kicking around for a long time). To me, the Trinity expresses the completeness of our experience of God. God the Father is both creator and creativity itself. It is our experience of being, of existence itself, of "IS-ness." God told Moses “I Am.” When we try to ponder the source of all that exists or answer the question of why there is something and not nothing, we eventually take a leap back to the Creator God. God is the source. But God is also the reason and purpose.

Could we know God if we did not comprehend relationship? In Jesus—in his suffering and death as an act of sacrificial love—we see the ultimate reason for being. We see love that transcends self-preservation. And this is something we can relate to. We know God not only because we experience the wonder of being or creation, but because in that being we experience love. And Jesus is the ultimate expression of love.

But the experience of love also lives within each of us, and this experience is transformative. This is what makes us mature and wise and compassionate. The spirit—the living presence—of God’s love in Christ works power within us. It’s what allows us to say a big, fat “Yes!” to verse 17 in this gospel lesson, or to agree with the anti-Nazi Lutheran theologian Martin Niemoller who said, “It took me a long time to realize that not only did God not hate my enemies, he didn’t even hate his enemies.”

So we—along with the early Christians—put all of this together and call it God: God in existence, God in the love of Jesus, and God in ourselves. If we miss any part of this, we are missing out on the whole.

Does your brain hurt yet? I love what Jesus says to Nicodemus in verse 12:

“If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?”

Contemplating the Trinity or the nature of God is as taxing as doing equations in calculous or studying theoretical physics. But because we aren’t going to tie it all up in a neat little package of understanding or analogy doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it, pray about it, and talk about it. Maybe the coolest thing about this gospel story is the very idea that Nicodemus—whether he gets it or not—comes seeking answers about Jesus and God. Isn’t that our job, too? Let’s keep wrestling with the mysteries of the faith and not just reduce them to the jingo of “church talk.” Let’s see if we can find a way to speak of what we believe in that will touch and transform the hearts of a wounded humankind.

May God bless you all in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Hot Heads (Reflections on the Day of Pentecost)

A typical Western image of the Pentecost. Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308) Tempera on wood.

Pentecost is a kind of weird holy day. Just think about how the story starts: the disciples are together in a house and suddenly there’s this indoor windstorm and flames of fire appear on each of their heads. I don’t know about you, but I’d be a little freaked out by that. I mean, can’t you just imagine Bartholomew turning to Simon the Zealot and shouting, “Dude!  Your head’s on fire!” It certainly gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “hot head,” don’t you think?

Bad puns aside, I’d like to give a shout-out to those early hot heads. When we use that term, what do you think of? Usually someone who is angry and very easily provoked. It’s not exactly a compliment. But God bless the hot heads of this world. They get emotional because they have a passion for something.

Passion. Remember that? When was the last time you felt it? Is it just my perception, or do American Christians not get passionate about our Pentecost heritage? Have we reduced this festival to a day to recall a bizarre, one-time event which involved some guys speaking in different languages but which really has no relevance to our lives today? Is it just a nice day to see the kids make their Confirmation, throw them a party, and reward them by telling them they never have to come to church ever again? Is it an event culturally insignificant when compared to the three-day marathon of barbeques, beach outings, and department store sales occasioned by its coinciding with the Memorial Day Weekend?

I sure hope not.

I don’t want to celebrate an event on Pentecost. I want to celebrate the passion—the deep, burning, life-filled feeling of belonging to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Like the American secular holiday we observe this same weekend, Pentecost should be a type of Memorial Day. I guess it’s pretty easy for those who will spend this weekend lazing in their back yards or screaming on the rides at Morey’s Pier to forget that once upon a time, some people believed enough in the concept of self-determination, democracy, and egalitarianism that they were willing to fight a war for independence and die for those ideas. Ever since those hot heads took it into their brains that the world could be made a better place with religious liberty and human dignity, young Americans have donned uniforms and offered up their lives to give other human beings freedom from tyranny. We’d do well to remember that such sacrificial passion also characterizes our faith. And it’s not just the early Christians being fed to Roman lions. Oh no. As I write these words, millions of Christians throughout the world are risking their lives and liberties for the sake of the Gospel. Just think about this: According to the Christian organization Open Doors, there are actual reports of people in Syria—right in the midst of bloody civil war and the murderous encroachment of ISIS—actually converting to Christianity. Consider the passion they must have for the Word of God!

So what do we have? In the crucified Jesus we have the most profound expression of love—love that is willing to give up everything, endure rejection, humiliation, torture, and death. In this Jesus is the truth of who we are as selfish creatures, but also the truth of God’s power to forgive. In the resurrected Jesus we have the promise of eternity, the promise that we can be changed and reclaimed and made into new beings. Isn’t this enough to rouse our passion? Can we become hot-headed over this, and burn with the desire to nudge the world in the direction of compassion, healing, equality, and justice? Pentecost is not a one-time event, it is the sign of the living church of God through which blows a heroic spirit of love and change.

So let’s get off our butts, shall we? Let’s stop thinking of the church as the place where we go to meet friends and feel good. Let’s reclaim what the Bible declares is an amazing, astounding, and perplexing power to touch human lives.

God bless you, you hot head!

PS-If you’re interested in following how Christians are enduring persecution for their faith, you can click on

Thursday, May 14, 2015

What's In Your Wallet? (Reflections on Easter 7 Year B)

The Seventh Sunday of Easter comes right on the heels of one of the holiest days in the Christian Calendar, the Feast of the Ascension. Here at Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia we have historically observed Ascension Day by doing sweet bloody nothing at all. I mean, c’mon. It’s on a Thursday for cryin’ out loud, and most folks aren’t going to take off work for a holiday which Hallmark doesn’t recognize.

Nevertheless, the Ascension is key to the last two Sundays’ lectionary readings. For the first three Sundays of our Easter season we’ve been astounded by appearances of the resurrected Jesus. But by Easter Four we start to look at just who Jesus really is to and for us. In these last two weeks we get ready to say a permanent good-bye to the earthly Jesus as the Lord’s followers make the transition from being disciples—students of Jesus—to being apostles—ambassadors for Jesus. Last Sunday, Jesus gave us our orders: love one another as he loved us. In this Sunday’s gospel (John 17:6-19) we get his prayer for those who are left here to complete the mission. He asks the Father to keep us safe and keep us together—a rather tender prayer which any parent would wish for his or her kids if time on earth were growing short. We won’t have Jesus with us physically any longer, but we will have his mission and, in this prayer, we will have his love.

There’s something kind of sentimental about this, don’t you think? I wonder if we don’t often recognize how important someone is to us until they’re not here anymore. Yet tiny little incidents, scraps of music, a familiar expression, a day of the year, the smile of a stranger, bring the departed person back into focus unexpectedly, and we recall tons of ways in which that absent soul blessed our lives.

Have you seen that bank card commercial where Samuel L. Jackson—with a vast amount of attitude of which only Mr. Jackson is capable—demands to know “What’s in your wallet?” Do you carry a memory in your wallet? A picture of a lost loved one? A ticket stub? A poem? Something which reminds you of people and places which have made you what you are?

This past week I was bringing communion to Bill, a parishioner whose been rather under the weather lately and unable to make it out to church. He told me that he keeps the torn half of a dollar bill in his wallet. Bill, you see, is a Korean War combat vet. When our GI’s went “in country” during that conflict they had to surrender their US currency. Bill and his buddy took one of their greenbacks and tore it in two, each keeping half. They promised that they’d get back together after the war, reunite the two halves of the bill with tape, and buy themselves a couple of beers to celebrate their friendship (“A buck went a lot further in those days,” Bill reminds me.) But Bill’s buddy never made it home, and Bill has carried that torn half of a dollar for over sixty years. It reminds him of his comrade, and of honor, courage, duty, and hope. Mostly, he says, it make him thankful for his life each and every day.

People come into and out of our lives for different reasons and different seasons. We should never, however, underestimate the power another’s life can have to bless our own. In the First Lesson for this Sunday (Acts 1:15-26) Jesus’ apostles have lost the earthly Jesus, but he is becoming even more a part of who they are than if he were standing right in front of them. Granted, they’re still a bit confused. They don’t know what they’re supposed to do for the world yet (that will come next week), so they strengthen each other. They make the administrative choice to move on and replace the treacherous Judas with a worthy follower who will help them proclaim Jesus when the time comes. It’s the first thing they do without Jesus having to tell them.

I wonder if they are keeping that prayer Jesus prayed for them in the backs of their minds. I would hope they were strengthened and encouraged that Jesus was praying for their protection:

“And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11)

I think it’s kind of significant that Jesus pointedly does not pray for the “world.” Rather, he prays for the ones who are to be healers of the world. It is through the church that people will meet the resurrected Jesus. That scrap of Jesus living in us will bear fruit in the lives which our lives touch. We are encouraged to go on with our mission of loving the world with the love of the one who is absent but always with us.

May Christ be with you, my friends.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

My Favorite War Movie (Reflections on Easter 6, Year B)

The Bridge on the River Kwai poster.jpg
Like lots of guys, I dig war movies. My all-time favorite..? David Lean’s classic The Bridge on the River Kwai. Now, before I go on, I have to make a disclaimer about this choice. My wife and I have a dear friend named Howard who is a ninety-five year-old World War II naval veteran who spent three years of his life in Japanese POW camp working as slave labor on the railroad depicted in this epic film. He points out three glaring inaccuracies in the movie:

First, the Japanese Howard knew would immediately and unhesitatingly execute anyone who refused to work. Second, the friendly natives who rescue William Holden in the movie were in real life confederates of the Japanese. These were the guys who sold out Howard and his USS Houston shipmates to their captors. Finally (and most obviously), the bridge, which—spoiler alert—is blown up at the end of the movie, is actually still standing to this day.

Giving Howard his due (and God bless him for his patriotic duty to our country), I still love The Bridge on the River Kwai and I watch it whenever it shows up on the classic movie stations. I just get a chill during that famous scene where the British soldiers, ragged, bleeding, and militarily defeated, march in perfect formation into the jungle prison camp while whistling the jaunty “Colonel Bogey March.” Even as they approach the prison where death awaits, they maintain dignity and a bit of frivolity.

I also love the character of Colonel Nicholson with his bulldog-like tenacity. This soldier is determined to abide by a gentleman’s civilized code even when surrounded by a nightmare. When the whole world has gone insane, a sane man seems crazy. Yet Nicholson sees beyond the chaos and maintains a code of discipline and hard work in order to save the morale of his men. He has them build the bridge as an act of pride and service for a post-war generation, even though in doing so he is aiding the enemy.

A dogged devotion to the code of Jesus Christ might seem equally out of place in this frightening world. How do we love and love sacrificially when our own world is falling apart? How can our joy be complete when we hear about riots in Baltimore, seven thousand dead in Nepal, a refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, and terrorist attacks in Texas?

How? We just do it. We stand up straight in the jungle of racial tension, depression, economic uncertainty, family squabbles, and general dysfunction, and march on to the direct order given to us in the Gospel lesson (John 15: 9-17) by obeying the code:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)

For the sake of the greater cause, we are willing and empowered by the Holy Spirit to love our enemies and sacrifice our own grievances, irritations, and indignities. It is at the times when our lives are the most chaotic and uncertain that some defiant and irrational joy is called for. Faith does not determine if or when we are rescued from life’s jungles. Faith determines how we march through them.

Jesus in John’s Gospel reminds us:

“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…” (John 15:10)

We are called to march lovingly and joyfully in the assurance that we abide in Christ—the one who chose us.

God’s love, peace, and joy be with you all. Thanks for reading.

PS-If you'd like to see the scene I've referenced above, just click here.