Thursday, July 30, 2015

Saint of the Month: Dr. Karoline Lewis (Reflections on Pentecost 10)

Image result for dr karoline lewis

I don’t know Dr. Karoline Lewis personally, but I must say I really appreciate her ministry—even though she shames me as often as she inspires me. The Reverend Dr. Lewis is a professor of homiletics (that means preaching in “church speak”) at Luther Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is also a regular contributor to the “Working Preacher” website, one of the sites where I go to borrow ideas for my Sunday sermons.

What I appreciate about Dr. Lewis’ approach to preaching is her insistence that the gospel text itself will always provide all the relevance needed to feed the hearts of those in the Christian assembly and prepare them for the further adventure of being human beings living in Christ. Whenever I get the urge to indulge my show-biz vanity and adorn my sermons with pithy anecdotes or rely on my celebrated skills as a raconteur, I suddenly get a mental image of this brilliant red-haired academic lady wagging a scolding finger at me and saying, “Cut the crap, Owen, and give the people the gospel!”

There is a saying that if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change. Dr. Lewis has made me change the way I look at what I have heretofore considered the punishment inflicted on preachers by the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary—those five consecutive weeks in Year B dealing with Jesus as the “Bread of Life.” I used to think, “Okay. Just how much can you say about bread?” I also considered these lessons, coming as they do in the height of summer, provided a good excuse to go on vacation and let someone else preach on bread. But Karoline Lewis, in a very thoughtful “Working Preacher” post, has suggested that just maybe the compilers of the RCL actually knew what they were doing when they stuck us in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel for five weeks. Maybe we should really take some extended time to absorb this message.

Just what the heck does “Bread of Life” actually mean, anyway? For Martin Luther, in his explanation to the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “bread” is “Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright members of the household, upright and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.” (Small Catechism)

So, okay, Dr. Luther. I’ll accept this symbolism and think of Jesus as the necessity and nourishment of my existence. This would mean that I can’t get along without Christ any more than I can exist without the other good things catalogued here. I guess it’s up to me to cultivate a correct and respectful attitude about this “bread” which, clearly, the characters in our gospel lesson don’t have. I may not know how to relate to Jesus as the bread of life, but the gospel points out how not to do it.

I get a kick out of the way John tells this story (vv.26-7). The crowd pestering Jesus greets him with a smarmy and disingenuous, “Rabbi! When did you come here?” when they knew all the time that Jesus was on his way and they were lying in wait for him to hit him up for more goodies. Jesus calls them on their B.S. right away. Maybe he’s also calling us on ours too, you think?

Do we want Jesus—or find him necessary—only when we feel we are deprived and wanting? Is he our counselor for our time of trouble and not our guide in peace and prosperity? Is he only as good as the last favor we attribute to him? (v. 30)

To the credit of the crowd in our story, they do ask Jesus how they can perform the works of God (v. 28), but we are a little suspicious of their motives. Is this a genuine desire for a relationship with God or a superstitious plea for prosperity? Do they believe discipleship is the key to earthly success, like some happy-clappy TV evangelist who promises, “Follow Jesus and you’ll be as stinkin’ rich as I am?”

No. There has to be more than this. This “bread” is what gives our life meaning and identity. It is necessity and nourishment. It is daily living, breathing, eating, drinking, waking, and sleeping belief in God’s presence, love, and grace. It is seeking Christ in every circumstance and being fed by the search with the peace that passes our understanding.

So thank you, Dr. Lewis, for changing my attitude and asking me to take a deeper and less jaundiced look at these gospel lessons. I may not be able to glean everything out of them (or even the most obvious messages), but I welcome the challenge.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Hey! Check out Dr. Lewis’ post on preaching this series by clicking here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Grace, Abundance, and a Little Bit of Fear (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year B)

The gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Nine (John 6:1-21) is familiar to most of us, I would think, from back in Sunday School days. Still, I’m going to try to see if I can squeeze a little more juice out of it than just an obvious reading of, “Oh, yeah. Right. Jesus performs miracles because he’s the Son of God.” I can’t pretend to get into the evangelist John’s head and tell you exactly what he was thinking when he wrote this tale down, but I’m finding that it speaks pretty loudly to me when I think about our needy world.

The first cool thing I notice about this story is that Jesus seems to anticipate the need before anyone else does. He and the disciples have gone to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, and, being the rock star that he is, he is once again mobbed by hysterical fans who want to see him cure their sick, work some miracles, and teach them some cool stuff. But before anyone else mentions it, Jesus picks up on the fact that these folks are going to need to be fed (v.5). It looks like the Second Person of the Holy Trinity understands our need before we understand it ourselves. So what does he do? He asks his faithful follower Philip to tell him how the need should be met. Think about that. Isn’t God always asking his faithful followers—that would be us—that same question? How are we going to care for the needy?

The passage says that Jesus asks Philip as a test, because he already knows the answer himself (v.6). Poor Phil, however, doesn’t score too high on this oral quiz. Granted, he’s known that God gave Moses manna in the wilderness, that Elijah miraculously kept the widow’s pantry full even in time of famine, and that Elisha stretched out twenty loaves of barley to feed 100 people. But in spite of this history of God’s goodness, Philip still doubts that God’s creatures can be fed. At least, he doesn’t believe that he has the wherewithal to provide for them. His buddy Andrew points out that some smart lad in the crowd has packed a lunch, but he’s sure that such meagre resources can’t stretch to cover the overwhelming hunger. Isn’t that just like us?

But Jesus takes what’s on hand and gives thanks to God for it (v.11). This action cuts through the anxiety and insecurity. Jesus isn’t complaining about scarcity, but giving praise for blessing. A faithful relationship with the Creator God requires no less. Just imagine: the crappiest day you’ll ever have in your life will still be filled with more blessings than you can name. That day you drive home from work pounding the steering wheel in frustration because of the idiots you work with might be the day you recognize that you still have a steering wheel to pound, a home to go to, and a job where you encountered those idiots. Faith teaches that God’s love is abundant, and our lesson illustrates this by saying that all were satisfied, leaving twelve baskets of leftovers (v.13).

Unfortunately, God’s abundant grace is a concept which seems to be lost on the crowd in this story. Yup, they figure out that Jesus is a prophet, but they also start to see him as their meal ticket. Jesus doesn’t want to be their earthly king (v.15) who pays off like their personal ATM machine every time they think they need something. He sees these folks acting like entitled brats who think they’ve hit the lottery. They’re like prospectors who’ve found a vein of gold and think they deserve its riches just because they’ve discovered it, forgetting it has been formed by God and lain in the earth for millions of years before they ever came along. They don’t deserve to be fed—the beauty of the story is that they are fed out of God’s goodness even though they are undeserving. Jesus is no king in their way of thinking, so he makes himself scarce in a hurry.

The second part of this story has the twelve disciples heading home in their boat without Jesus. I’m going to look at this tale allegorically, and say that the rough sea of verse 18 is the ancient world’s symbol for chaos. In the swirling torrent of the world’s mess, the disciples see Jesus walking toward them, and they’re scared out of their freaking minds (v. 19). It’s only when they really recognize him that they want to take him into the boat, and as soon as they have that desire—it doesn’t even say that Jesus got into the boat, just that they wanted to take him in —they are safely home (v. 21).

Like the disciples in the story, we are always adrift in a storm of the world’s chaos. We see needs which seem too great to satisfy, and so we are frightened, preoccupied with scarcity, and curved in on our own abilities and resources. We fear the real discipleship relation with Jesus. It might cost us. It might make us lose our groove. It might bring ridicule or offend people we know. It might actually require sacrifice on our part. It might cause us to risk resources we don’t think we can spare or face challenges we believe to be too huge. But once we really recognize Jesus in our lives and recognize our need for him, recognize his love, forgiveness, sacrifice, gratitude, and the peace which comes from understanding our life is eternal and our problems temporary, we will want him in our lives. And just maybe, in the wanting, we will come home to ourselves at last.

Glad you stopped by this week. God bless you.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Healing on the Fringe (Reflections on Pentecost 8, Year B)

I have a young friend named Michaela who, in addition to being one of the coolest teenagers you’ll ever meet, happens to be a wicked tap-dancer. She goes to a fine arts/performing arts magnet high school around the corner from our church. This past spring I ditched the evening session of my Synod Assembly (Sorry, Bishop!) and snuck out to enjoy watching Michaela and her dancing classmates in their year-end recital. Michaela had a tap/jazz solo, and, I gotta tell you, I was pretty proud of the kid. In fact, I really enjoyed the heck out of the whole concert.  

I was little surprised, however, by the rowdiness of the audience. It’s not that they weren’t appreciative, but they just seemed a lot louder and more demonstrative than I remember high school audiences being in my day. They seemed like they were watching a football game, not an indoor theater performance. (Maybe we were just as obnoxious in my day, but somehow I don’t remember it like that.)

I mentioned my impression of the audience behavior to Michaela after the concert. “Yeah,” she said, “they were pretty rude. Especially the parents. They kept calling our names and it made it kinda hard for us to concentrate on stage.”

The parents..? You mean the adults? The GROWN-UPS..??!!

You would think—wouldn’t you?—that adults would know how to behave themselves in a theater around other concert-goers. You would think that they knew the rules of civility and that they would have respect for the performers and the other audience members. You might even think that they had a responsibility to model correct decorum for their children. You would think that, right? But you’d be wrong.

This Gen X generation of parents does not seem to have the same code of courtesy with which your Old Religious Guy was raised. How can they, unless someone teaches it to them?

In the Gospel lesson for the Eighth Sunday of Pentecost (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56) Jesus is dealing with a pretty rowdy public. Here he is, trying to take his buddies away on a little weekend boating trip so they can relax after the hard work of preaching the gospel and casting out demons, and this rude swarm of needy people won’t leave him alone. Obviously this gang has no respect for boundaries or Jesus’ personal time (Pastors will understand this!). But Jesus—being Jesus—doesn’t scold them or shoo them away. Instead, the scripture tells us, he has compassion for them, because they are like sheep without a shepherd (v.34). But he does not immediately begin to lay hands on them and cure their illnesses. Rather, he begins to teach them.

I think this is key. Healing is not just the absence of disease or injury. It has to include the renewing of the mind too. How can these hungry, sick, needy people know what wholeness is unless someone teaches them?

The only assumption we can make in a hungry and broken world is that people will be hungry and broken. We can’t assume anyone knows what it means to be a Christian. We have a responsibility to talk about our faith, to learn and relearn it, and to be teachers. Faith, Saint Paul tells us, comes from what is heard (Romans 10:17).

(Quick note: You may have noticed a big gap in the continuity of this week’s gospel pericope. The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have cut out verses 35-52 which is the story of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on water. They’ll give us the feeding story next week and then link it to four more weeks about Jesus being the Bread of Life. I don’t know who the compilers are, but they will have to answer for this on the Day of Judgment!)

There’s a detail I really dig in verses 53-56. This part of our lesson, I would think, is about faith and hope, but I also see it as an image of our human longing and the abundance of grace found in the smallest details of our faith journey. The people again swarm Jesus, and are hungry for the healing he can give them. Even touching just the fringe of his cloak (v.56) brings them to wholeness. I like this. It says to me sometimes just the tiniest touch can abound with blessings.

Can I share a little confession? When I was a senior in seminary, I liked to sleep in on Sunday mornings. I knew I should honor the Sabbath, but seniors were not required to do field education, so, unless I was engaged to be a guest preacher somewhere, I just shut off the alarm clock on Sundays. After all, I rationalized, I had been to chapel and compline every stinkin’ day of the week. Being a single guy, I could go out clubbing on Saturday night and dance ‘til the proverbial bovines returned without having to worry about church the next day. Also, the Sunday services at our chapel really sucked. The congregation which used our chapel on Sundays was uncomfortably dysfunctional, and the interim pastor was a nightmare. She was a manuscript preacher who had no ear for liturgy, read in a monotone, and seemed to be working out her own personal issues through her excruciatingly dull sermons. So I’d stay in bed and plan to watch those Sunday morning news shows pastors never get to watch.

Until about 10:30. Then my conscience would get the better of me, I’d drag myself up, shave, put on a clean shirt, and go to church. I’d sit in the pew criticizing in my mind just about everything. Yet, somehow, something in that morning would touch me. I would, metaphorically speaking, brush against the outer garment of Jesus and realize my own hunger for the sacred. There would be a word in the lesson, a hymn, the taste of the Holy Supper, or even something profound which miraculously escaped the lips of that impossibly bad preacher which fed me with the morsel I didn’t even know I was hungry for. I always left the service glad I had gone.

A little bit of Jesus can go a very long way. There is a, as a seminary classmate of mine liked to say, a God-shaped hole in each of us. But it takes only a small brush with grace to fill it.

Thank you again for reading, my friend. May you be the fringe of Jesus’ cloak to someone this coming week—or may that fringe touch you.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Saint of the Month: George Carlin

Yes, I mean THAT George Carlin. The foul-mouthed, irreverent, frequently offensive stand-up comedian who gave us “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”

Why, you may legitimately ask, am I including in my hagiology a known atheist and blasphemer whose soul—many fundamentalists may hope—is currently slow-roasting on a spit in the darkest circle of damnation? Here’s why:

In his last years, the cranky comic seemed to get a bit more philosophical and became more of a humorist. That is, Carlin didn’t seem to be so much intent on making us laugh as making us think. In the link provided below, he paints a picture of Christianity which, I don’t doubt, many take to be an accurate representation of our faith.

So okay. The guy was a comic and his chief aim was to be funny (which he certainly was). But if he ridiculed religion, don’t you think there’s a good chance he found something in it that’s ridiculous? To me, guys like Carlin keep guys like me honest. If I can see our faith as non-believers might see it, I am called to be a better apologist, a better preacher, and a better evangelist. It isn’t enough that I know what I believe. I can only be effective if I try to understand what non-Christians believe. My challenge, and the challenge of all of us who love Jesus, the gospel, and our Trinitarian orthodoxy, is to find a vocabulary which speaks the truth we feel in our hearts to a world that can’t accept Christianity as it has been presented to them.

Let’s let our guard down a little, okay? Let’s really listen to the secular world. Let’s not try to win an argument, but find an expression of the peace and love we have found in Jesus which speaks a coherent language to those searching for meaning.

I’d like to suggest that you listen to this routine by George Carlin and then think about how you might intelligently respond. Try it as an exercise in your own faith.

To hear Carlin’s famous rant, click here.

WARNING: This link contains EXTREME language which some might find offensive, and ideas with which you will not agree. Watch it at your own risk.

Scandalous Preachers (Reflections on Pentecost 6, Year B)

Jesus Commissions the Disciples, Ghirlandaio, 1481
How can any American not love Independence Day? Isn’t this a great holiday? I mean, where but in America do average people have the right to get roaring drunk and set off incendiary devices? Ya gotta love it!

Okay. Your Old Religious Guy is rambling a bit. I guess I’m trying to jump-start my brain into coming up with a really clever way to compose a cogent essay which will glue together two thematically different stories from Mark’s gospel. For the Sixth Sunday of Pentecost the Revised Common Lectionary gives us Mark 6:1-13. Marrying verses one through six to verses seven through thirteen would be hard enough, but I’m sure the folks in the pews will expect me to say something about the Fourth of July, too. My church is in Philadelphia after all, and, since we have Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell and the church sits on land which was once owned by a signer of the Declaration of Independence (pretty cool, huh?), I think I’d be remiss if I remained strictly liturgical in my preaching and failed to mention our nation’s birthday.

So here goes: The first six verses of Mark chapter 6 have Jesus and his disciples back in his home town of Nazareth where he’s teaching and preaching and generally creating quite a stir—which is kind of what Jesus always does. Now, you might think that Jesus’ fame would be a source of pride for the folks from Nazareth, but you’d be wrong. Even though the Nazarenes seem impressed with his wisdom and his ability to work miracles, they just can’t wrap their brains around the idea that this neighbor’s kid whom they’ve watched grow up has turned into something special. In fact, they actually resent being preached to by the hometown boy. The Greek (If you’re into Greek. Sometimes I just throw it in to look smart) literally says they were “caused to stumble” by Jesus. The New Revised Standard Version translates this “…and they took offense at him.” This “stumbling” or “offense” is also translated as “caused to sin,” and the Greek word eskandalizonto which Mark uses here gives rise to our English word “scandalize.” These folks were scandalized, offended, tripped up, shocked, appalled, and generally pissed off that this hick kid from their own neighborhood would have the audacity to preach to them—and do it meaningfully at that! How dare he..?!!

Personally, I think they were a little jealous. Or it just could be that they didn’t have enough faith in the goodness of God to believe that God’s word could really come from one of their own. They were trapped in a system and a mindset which told them that only priests or Levites or really important people like scribes or Pharisees and Sadducees could proclaim God’s truth legitimately. God certainly couldn’t speak through a poor blue collar dude from their neck of the woods. You can almost hear them asking, “So who does Mr. Smartypants think he is, anyway..?” (They also refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary,” which—since Jewish men were traditionally known as the sons of their fathers—might be a snotty little reference to illegitimacy.) Of course, the sad part is that whenever people are so locked in their opinions there’s not a whole lot Jesus can do (v.6).

If the working-class neighbor boy’s preaching wasn’t scandalous enough, verses seven through thirteen really make the organic fertilizer strike the air conditioning system (metaphorically speaking). Jesus commissions his disciples to go out and be teachers. Teachers..? Really..? These guys..? They were illiterate peasants, for cryin’ out loud! They were known to curse (Matthew 26:74) and have poor table manners (Mark 7:2). In the world of the text, these men had no freakin’ business teaching, casting out demons, healing, or exhorting repentance. That was supposed to be for the special people.

You see where I’m going here, right? In Jesus, there is true freedom and democracy. (Don’t you love the slick way I’ve tied this in to the Fourth of July theme?) All believers have what Martin Luther would call their own priesthood or priestly calling. There is no divine caste system, no spiritual aristocracy. Luther put it like this:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant to all, subject to all. (Freedom of a Christian, 1520)

What Luther was saying is that no one has the right to tell another what to believe. The same idea is the cornerstone of American religious freedom guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Similarly, we all are free to express our faith.

Unfortunately, in my own ever-so-humble opinion, American Christians don’t always seem to know how to exercise this egalitarian freedom. I don’t think the rise of secularism in America is causing the shrinking in churches. Rather, it’s the other way around. I think we in the church have been pretty lazy servants, wasting our energy on fluff and neglecting our freedom to be the dutiful servants that comes with our faith in Christ.

If the Ten Commandments are removed from an Oklahoma courthouse, God’s command to love our neighbor will still be empirical truth. If “In God We Trust” is removed from our currency, we will all still find ourselves living by faith in the face of a world which no one really controls. If “Under God’ is stripped from our Pledge of Allegiance, God will still sit on the throne of the universe. We are wasting our time fretting about symbols and neglecting the call to discipleship.

Look, folks, I may be an ordained clergyman, but my baptism in Christ is no more valid than yours. All I have is an administrative job within the Christian community. You have the freedom to read and proclaim the scriptures. You have the freedom to welcome the stranger. You have the freedom to be a voice for the environment, for the poor, for the marginalized. You are called to be healers and prayer partners. You are called to visit the sick and elderly. You are called to cast out the demons of racism, homophobia, and sexism. You. Sinful, insecure, overwhelmed, totally average you. (Scandalous, isn't it?)

The challenge of discipleship—and the challenge of our American religious liberty—is to be the best ordinary Christians we can be.

A happy and safe Fourth, everyone! Thanks for reading.