Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Only Believe" Reflections on Pentecost 5, Year B

Christianity started out as an outlaw religion—which is really kind of cool. I think we lost a bit of our groove when Constantine made us legal back in 325. Fortunately, in our so-called “post-Christian” culture, we have the opportunity to get back in touch with our radical roots and appreciate Jesus for the wonderful rule-breaker that he is.

In the story the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for Pentecost Five (Mark 5:21-43), we get a chance to see Our Lord smash through some barriers and love some folks who shouldn’t be loving him.

The story starts out with a pretty important guy named Jairus who was a leader of the synagogue. Back in chapter three of Mark’s Gospel, if you’ll recall, religious leaders weren’t too keen on Jesus. They didn’t like that he healed on the Sabbath (3:6) and they even suggested that he was demonically possessed (3:22). So this dude really has no business getting involved with Jesus, except it seems that his little girl is deathly ill. At this point denominational and cultural differences go out the window. The guy is a parent, and as a good dad he’s willing to fall at Jesus’ feet, beg, grovel, and eat dirt off a rusty spoon if only his child can be made well. Jesus doesn’t hold the disdain of the other high muckety-mucks against Jairus, and agrees to go immediately to see the sick little girl. As always happens with Jesus, a big crowd tags along to see how this will play out.

While this parade is marching to Jairus’ place, a lady who has been suffering from hemorrhages for a dozen years takes this opportunity to sneak up on Jesus and try for a healing of her own. Any decent person reading this story today would certainly have pity for this gal. In the world of the text, she was already a second class citizen just because she was a woman, but layer that with the fact she’d been bleeding like stuck pig (making her ritually impure in Jewish eyes because she was in contact with blood), and the common belief that God obviously hated her guts because he punished her by making her bleed, and you have one very dejected lady. It’s no wonder she snuck up on Jesus from behind. I don’t think she’d feel as if the rabbi would even bother to give her a second look given her condition. So she reaches out in faith and desperation for the hem of Jesus’ garment and finds herself immediately healed.

The woman is pretty jazzed about her healing until Jesus suddenly whips around and asks, “Who touched my clothes?” The other disciples think this is a pretty silly question since there’s about fifty nosey looky-loos walking along the road with them, and people are crowding and touching him all the time. But Jesus knows something important has happened and so does the formerly bleeding woman. Knowing she’s an outcast who has just done something that’s just not done in her society, she falls on her face and confesses to Jesus. Jesus, however, does not chastise her. Rather, he praises her for her faith, telling her it is that very faith which has made her well. The outcast now becomes the heroine of the story, which is pretty cool if you ask me.

Just as things look to be going well, messengers arrive from Jairus’ house to tell the party that the little girl has already died and that Jesus need not be troubled by going any further. Jesus’ response? “Do not fear, only believe.”

At Jairus’ house the Jews are doing what Jews do in a moment like this—they’re weeping, wailing, and generally making one heck of a fuss over the death of this little girl. I have to say, having been to a Jewish funeral, Jews really know how to mourn. Nobody tries to hide their feelings. They just get it all out in the open—tears, snot, screams, moaning, rocking back and forth, the whole nine yards. Personally, I think this is rather healthy. But I digress.

At this point in the story Jesus stops the carnival that has been following him and takes only his closest buddies, Peter, James, and John, with him to the house. Even these guys he leaves outside the child’s bedroom, taking only mom and dad with him. He then takes the daughter’s hand (another outlaw act against the purity code if you believe she was already dead) and says, “Little girl, get up.’ To everyone’s amazement, the child revives. Jesus tells her parents to feed her, which is what parents are supposed to do—nourish their children in all things. Including faith.

If Jairus had believed the report he heard, he would be burying his daughter. Instead, he had hope in Jesus Christ for the salvation of his child. On this Fifth Sunday of Pentecost in 2015, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton has called for a day of repentance and mourning following the June 17th racially-motivated killings in Charleston, South Carolina. I think it’s always a healthy idea to take a page from our Jewish brothers and sisters’ book and openly mourn when life is taken senselessly. But what I will be repenting on this day—in terms of race relations in America and many other issues—is a sinful lack of faith. In my fifty-five years of life I have seen much progress in racial relations in our country. I also see that much more of the journey to justice and equality is yet to be taken. What must be repented is our fear that we cannot go the distance, that things will never change. If we stifle our hope and believe the reports of the world, we will bury many more of our children. In Jesus Christ, who broke the barriers and brought life and healing and forgiveness, we have hope of victory.

I pray for the members of Mother Emanuel AME of Charleston, who exemplify that hope and are teaching us all how to be Christians. Do not fear, only believe.

Thanks for stopping by.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Reflections on Charleston

Jacob’s Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Mount Laurel, New Jersey is a tiny white building hidden on a back road between the mini mansions of ex-urban subdivisions. You’d drive past it and never know that it was once a stop on the Underground Railway. Some years ago, my wife and some friends and I were welcomed to Jacob’s Chapel on a warm late afternoon to attend the funeral of one of the church’s few Caucasian parishioners—a woman whose name and precise relationship to our party I cannot recall. I announced to my bride that I would like to don a necktie for the occasion, knowing how formal and dignified black churches often were. Marilyn suggested that this might be unnecessary, but, not wishing to be disrespectful to either the deceased or her congregation, I changed back into my “work clothes”—my clerical black and dog collar.

I had, unfortunately, forgotten the rules of hospitality of historically African American churches. No sooner had we entered the humble building but I was escorted from my wife and friends and introduced to Jacob’s senior pastor. This distinguished gentleman immediately invited me to take a place of honor in the chancel alongside the other worship leaders, deacons, and visiting clergy, and to open the service with the invocation. This request required some fast thinking on my part. I suddenly recalled that it was the hospitable tradition of such denominations to honor visiting pastors by including them in the worship service—and that it was considered highly impolite to refuse such an invitation. Unfortunately, I had never met the deceased and knew precious little about her. Nevertheless, I prayed as best I could and concluded my orison to a chorus of murmured “Yes, Lord. Yes, yes. Amen, Lord Jesus” from the grieving congregation. I felt a sense of gratitude and respect from the folks of Jacob’s Chapel which, quite frankly, I don’t always feel from my own parishioners. Their hospitality was remarkable.

Many years earlier, when I was a first-year seminarian, a field education assignment found me and several other white students at the New Bethel AME Church on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia. When white folks enter an AME church the congregants figure out pretty quickly that they are visitors. The welcome I and my classmates received from that huge congregation was unlike anything I’d experienced in any other church. There were smiles and handshakes and words of welcome. We were addressed as “brothers,” and we felt like family. When it was mentioned that we were seminarians, we were immediately invited to join the pastor for dinner in the church basement after worship. Following a two-and-one-half hour service, we were treated to a delicious meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and other assorted delicacies home-cooked by church ladies especially for us. It was the most amazing display of welcome to the stranger I have ever experienced.

AME congregations seem to take Jesus’ words from Matthew to heart:

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of theses who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:35c, 40)

On June 17, Emanuel AME of Charleston, South Carolina welcomed a stranger to their Bible study. I’m certain the welcome given to Dylann Roof was as loving and open as the ones I experienced at New Bethel and Jacob’s Chapel. In obedience to the gospel, the people of Emanuel welcomed this strange young white man into their church as if they were welcoming Christ himself.

Days later, after Roof had been arrested for murdering nine of Emanuel’s members, the survivors of those slain spoke words of forgiveness to the gunman at his hearing. If you watch the video of that hearing online, you’ll hear the survivors speak forgiveness as Christ himself did from the cross.

The issues brought about by the tragedy in Charleston are impossibly complex and well above my pay grade to comment on. I don’t know what I can intelligently say about racism in America, gun control, mental illness, or the Confederate flag. But I do know that the love of God is present in the welcome of a stranger. I know that we are called to see Christ in others and to be Christ to others. And I’m certain that this violent episode will not dim the joy of the welcome strangers will receive at Emanuel AME of Charleston. Nor should it dim the welcome anyone should receive from those who confess Jesus as Lord.

The LCD sign in front of Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia reads, “ALL are welcome.” I can only pray that the people of my congregation will truly embrace this message and see in the actions of the saints of Emanuel AME a genuine model of Jesus Christ’s love, grace, courage, and forgiveness. I pray that a desire for security never overtakes a commission to welcome, accept, and love the stranger. Should this commission ever be neglected, we will cease to be the Church.

Lord Jesus, comfort the people of Emanuel and all victims of gun violence. Grant peace to the hearts of the family of Dylann Roof and all who grieve the inexplicable actions of those they thought they knew. Awaken in your holy Church the spirit of openness and willingness to embrace all of your people. In your precious name, Amen.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Reflections on Pentecost 4, Year B

Water is fickle stuff. We’re all born in it, living the first nine months of our lives in amniotic fluid and having our nativities heralded with the alarming cry of “My water just broke!” As adults, it makes up 60% of our bodies. We need to drink it, and we need the plants and animals we eat to drink it, too. It gets us clean when we’re dirty. It’s wonderful for transportation, and it’s also cool to swim in and boat on and generally recreate around. Plus, there’s stuff in water that we can eat such as fish or a rich variety of tasty crustaceans and mollusks (should such fare appeal to your pallet).

But the darn stuff is also deadly dangerous. We drown in it. It escapes its banks and floods our homes and wrecks our stuff. Ships go down in it. Ever see that movie The Perfect Storm or hear that great old Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald?” Water can be pretty scary at times. To the ancients (and you know how smart those guys were!) it was a symbol of chaos and uncertainty. It gives us life, but it also kills us.

I’m thinking that’s why in our gospel lesson for Pentecost Four (Mark 4:35-41) we have this tale of a storm at sea juxtaposed right after Jesus’ baffling parables about the Kingdom of God. The nature of God and God’s activity confuses the living daylights out of us. Just when we think we have a grasp on it, it turns into something else—just like water to our ancient ancestors. The Sea of Galilee looks calm and peaceful enough when the boys in our story get into the boat. In fact, there are a bunch of other guys out there boating, too. But out of nowhere the wind kicks up and the peaceful water cruise becomes a potential death trip.

I have to say that one of the things I love about this story is its spontaneity. Jesus has been preaching all through chapter four of Mark’s gospel, so I guess it’s only natural that he wants to take a little breather. He’s just finished a sermon and, out of nowhere it seems, he tells the guys to get into the boat and cross over to the other side of the sea. Oddly, no one has an issue with this. They don’t ask where they’re going or what they’ll be doing. They just go. Jesus then stretches out in the stern for a little nap (And, by the way, preaching really can be a very exhausting activity. I’m just saying). When a sudden storm blows up, he’s still catching his z’s. It doesn’t seem to bother him that the vessel is filling up with water!

It’s freaking out the disciples, however. This surprises me since they’re supposed to be fishermen and guys used to being on the water and handling these types of situations. Maybe this is Mark’s way of telling us that this is a really bad storm—the type that even experienced sailors dread. They wake Jesus in a panic demanding, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

For some reason, that particular verse always gets to me. Do you not care? Maybe this is the big temptation we always face in the chaotic storms of our lives—to think that it’s all about us, that we’re all alone in it, and that we’ve been abandoned by God and by all those well-meaning folks who say they care but who really can’t appreciate the horrible depth of our situation.

Jesus makes pretty quick work of all of this. He rebukes the storm and it dissipates—as all storms dissipate. He then asks two questions; “Why are you afraid?” and “Have you still no faith?” The Bible does not tell us what happens from there. It seems that this ends the conversation between Jesus and his panicking shipmates. The guys go on and talk among themselves in awe and wonder. Maybe Jesus went back to sleep. Who knows?

I like to speculate—which is probably a dangerous thing for a preacher—on what Jesus might have said to these boys. I imagine him saying something like this: “Well, guys, I would care that you were perishing if you actually were. But you’ve been safe all along. This storm was going to blow over because all storms blow over. Oh, and by the way, my Heavenly Father makes the wind and the rain and the storms, and He would not send us on this mission just to watch us perish. No. There’s stuff we need to do on the other shore, and it’s important that we get there. Of course there will be storms. You guys are fisherman and you should know that. The weather is totally out of your control. But I’m counting on you to face whatever comes with faith and devotion to the job you signed on for. Now wake me when we get to shore, will you?”

My take-away from this story is two-fold. First, this world will always be a mystery, but God is still in control. We can never be 100% prepared, and to think that we are—that it’s all about us—is actually a form of self-idolatry. It will only lead to neurotic frustration. We are always living by faith. Secondly, faith is quite different from blind, wishful thinking. When the storms and chaos rain down on us, we can’t just close our eyes and hope it all goes away. Rather, we seek Christ. Secure in the knowledge that all storms end and anything is bearable if you understand that it is not forever, we look for God’s will and direction and go on accordingly.

Take courage in the chaos, my friends. It’s temporary. And thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Mustard Seed Church (Reflections on Pentecost 3, Year B)

"With what can we compare the kingdom of God..?  (Mark 4:30)
Being an old religious guy, I naturally love churches. Ecclesiastical architecture fascinates me—particularly Gothic churches. Not too long ago I finished reading an opaque morass of verbal prolixity called The Ambassadors by Henry James (Warning: If you think I’m hard to follow, don’t even attempt James. The guy was incapable of writing a single, simple declarative sentence. If you can get to the end of this book and still know what the plot was about, you deserve a medal! But I digress).

There is a captivatingly romantic scene in this 1903 novel in which the hero, Lambert, finding himself with time to kill in Paris, decides to visit the cathedral of Notre Dame. Although not a Catholic and really barely a Christian, Lambert is fascinated and transfixed by the glory of this enormous structure. The vaulted ceiling draws his focus upwards, and he is inspired by the centuries of human effort immortalized in the stonework.

If you can’t get through The Ambassadors (and I don’t advise you to try), Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth is a sensational read which centers entirely on the construction of a medieval cathedral. Tom, the builder, wants to construct this church simply because, “It will be beautiful.” There’s a great passage where he painstakingly drives a spike into the earth to mark the point on the horizon where the sun will rise, a sun which will eventually shine into the church over the altar through an elaborate rose window which would, “seem like a huge sun exploding into innumerable shards of gorgeous color.”

I’ve never personally seen the great cathedrals of Europe, but when I look at the pictures of these majestic buildings, I think of the love of God which must’ve been in the hearts of those who were willing to spend decades in labor to produce such works of grandeur.

And then I come to my own humble chapel here in Northeast Philly. Plain bricks, vinyl siding, ugly cinder blocks. A low ceiling in the worship space which doesn’t exactly inspire the kind of awe experienced by Henry James’ hero in The Ambassadors. No towering works of art, no magnificent carvings, lousy acoustics, and eight steps leading up to our worship space which weekly challenge the elderly and disabled.

But then I think, “We are the mustard seed church.” (See this week's gospel in the RCL, Mark 4: 26-34)Yes, we are small, but God—who gives all the growth—is at work here. Granted, a mustard plant isn’t even that spectacular. It’s not a tree, but, rather, a little shrub. Yet the birds that nest in it don’t care about its size relative to other species of horticulture. They are just grateful to find shelter in its branches.

My little mustard seed church has been shelter now for three homeless families through Northeast Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network. Because this congregation said, “yes” to the plea from IHN, other churches here in the Northeast have opened their doors to the homeless. A small spirit of compassion is making an enormous difference in the lives of people who so desperately need a place to lay their heads. And the presence of these temporarily homeless birds here in our little mustard church has softened our hearts and made us better ambassadors for the forgiving and generously welcoming love of Jesus Christ.

Time and again Jesus in the scriptures reminds us that God’s Kingdom—the ruling spiritual presence of God—is not like our earthly kingdoms which value size and wealth and power. The Kingdom of God comes with heart-shaking grandiosity hidden in simple, humble packages. It might be a small, urban church sheltering a mom and her children. It might be a sudden act of generosity performed in a time of doubt which causes a dynamic change of heart. It might be as simple as a word spoken to a child at just the right moment which changes a life that changes the world.

How, I wonder, can anyone who knows Jesus ever feel that they don’t matter? In the spirit of faith we go on scattering seeds of kindness, forgiveness, and mercy—never knowing if they’ll take root or not or what impact they may have. But we trust God to do the rest.

Thanks for dropping by.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Were Mary's Feelings Hurt? (Reflections on Pentecost 2 Year B)

“Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:35)

Back in 1999 CBS-TV aired a not-too-terrible made-for-television movie called—simply enough—Jesus. I have it on video and I show it to my Confirmation students when we study the New Testament. It’s not 100% biblically accurate, but it’s a lot less gory than The Passion of the Christ and the kids seem to like it. It’s good for stimulating thought—which is always somewhat challenging when one is dealing with adolescents.

There are also a couple of scenes in this movie that get me thinking. There’s this one scene that takes place right after Jesus says the line which I’ve quoted above. It’s a scene which does not appear in the scriptures, but I wonder if it didn’t really happen after all. In this scene Mary Magdalene (played as a prostitute by a smokin’ hot Debra Messing) approaches Our Lord’s mother (the ever-charming Jacqueline Bisset) and asks her if Jesus’ remark about ‘anyone who does the will of God is my mother’ has hurt his real mother’s feelings. If I were the Blessed Mother, I think I might be a little put out should my son say such a thing. After all, it wasn’t just anyone who carried him around for nine months in her womb. It wasn’t just anyone who had to have him bounce on her bladder during a seventy-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It wasn’t just anyone who had to give birth to him in a stable. It wasn’t just anyone who endured the societal scorn of being an un-wed teen mom. And it wasn’t just anyone who had to hunt his holy twelve-year-old butt down when he decided to stay in the temple in Jerusalem. And let’s not forget changing diapers, midnight feedings, and everything that goes with being a mother to the only begotten Son of God. Yup. I’d be pretty hurt by that crack.

Face it. It’s hard to be family. Sometimes the ones who should be the closest to us seem the most distant. So often we feel closer to non-relatives than we do to our own flesh and blood. And in this week’s Gospel pericope (Mark 3:20-35) it’s the home town folks—not the strangers—who accuse Jesus of being bonkers. Sometimes our deepest wounds come from the people who should be the closest to us. How very painful it can be when our house is divided against itself, when we don’t like the people we love!

Of course, I’d really love to believe that we are all family in Jesus Christ—in spite of centuries of denominationalism, holy wars, and the fact that they won’t let me take communion in a Missouri Synod Lutheran church! During my first day on campus at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia it somehow occurred to me that anyone I met on that pleasant, green city block of stately ecclesiastical real estate would be a fellow Christian. I was among family. Everyone was my brother or sister. When I noticed a family unpacking a U-Haul truck in front of my building, I volunteered to help them. They were my new relatives. We shared a lovely impromptu lunch together when the unloading was completed, and many happy hours together for years thereafter. At the recent Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod Assembly, ELCA representative Stephen Bouman, former Bishop of the Metro New York Synod, told a touching story of how he—a complete stranger—had been invited to the home of a poor Palestinian Christian family living in the Old City of Jerusalem and treated like royalty just because he was a fellow believer. It is possible for us to create such loving community. It’s just not always easy to maintain it.

Even in my small parish I know there are folks who don’t like each other. Sometimes, I don’t like them very much myself. We still gossip, we still complain, we still blow stuff out of proportion. But we are family, like it or not. The only way to keep the house from being divided is to do the will of God—putting God’s will above our own. No one says this will be easy, but in the effort we just might find ourselves, like Jesus, accused of being possessed. In our case, the possession will be by the Holy Spirit.

God bless you, my family! Thanks for reading.