Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Letter v. the Spirit (Reflections on Pentecost 14)

I was recently talking to my nephew Adam, a high school senior in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was telling me about a lad in his study hall who is challenging the school administration on the grounds that his civil rights have been violated. It seems that Adam’s classmate took it upon himself to start a Christian Bible study group during his free period. About six or seven youngster would gather together for a quiet and respectful look at the scriptures. The students were courteous enough not to disturb the other study hall students. No shouted hallelujahs, no hymn singing, no exorcisms. Just a few kids talking softly about their shared faith.

Unfortunately—yeah, you guessed it..!—the school administration ordered the study to disband on the grounds that Bible study on public school property violated the historic separation of church and state. (Personally, I’m a little surprised at this as Colorado Springs is practically the Vatican for Evangelicals!) Adam’s friend is challenging this order, arguing that his Bible study took place during a free period, was not part of the school curriculum, and did not involve school employees. I wish the young man luck.

As much as it brings the barf up into my mouth to admit it, I actually do have to agree with Donald Trump on one point—political correctness has reached the level of the ridiculous in some cases. Madeline Murray O’Hare’s personal aversion to all things spiritual seems to have turned us into a nation of whiners who have forgotten that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. Somebody always has to make an issue out of something, and it looks like we just can’t get away from the risk of a tongue-lashing from the terminally touchy among us.

This brings me to our gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Fourteen (Mark: 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23—and aren’t you glad we’re finally out of John 6?!) The story opens with the scribes and the Pharisees giving Jesus a hard time because they don’t like the disciples’ table manners. These high muckety-mucks of religious authority are ticked off, claiming that the disciples’ not-ritually-washed hands are an affront to the Law of Moses and the tradition of the elders. This criticism gets Jesus’ back up, and the Lord lays into them by saying,

“You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (v.8)

And ain’t that always the way? It is an unfortunate characteristic of our humanity that we will cling like a deer tick to the letter of the law while completely avoiding the spirit. Inexplicably, the RCL once again cuts out a key element in this story, verses 9-13 in which Jesus hurls the hypocrisy of his critics back into their smirking teeth. It appears that some of these good religiously observant and pious individuals have dedicated some of their wealth to God (This could be either an offering of livestock as in Leviticus 1:2 or a monetary offering given for a specific purpose as in Numbers 7:13). In and of itself, I’d say this is a pretty darn good thing; however, the Pharisees seem to think that this grand gesture exempted them from looking after their aging parents (an exemption which was specifically reversed in the Mishna after the time of Jesus). Jesus scolds these guys for using a pious motive to neglect a humanitarian imperative to serve the needy.

I’d say that we sinners are still prone to come up with pious reasons to serve our own selfishness. When it comes to making excuses for our prejudices, laziness, and greed, we’re all religious jailhouse lawyers.

Yes, I’d agree that it’s impious to wear cut-off jeans and sports jerseys to church, but it also misses the mark to judge other people by their clothing and forget to welcome them as brothers and sisters in Christ.

It is immoral to take the life of the unborn. It is equally immoral to subject the post-born to poverty, to deny them adequate shelter, or to refuse them access to healthcare.

It was certainly a sign of piety and respect to allow prayer and Bible reading in public schools, but it is an insult to God to underfund public education, overcrowd classrooms, and cancel school lunch programs.

It is a hallowed constitutional right to allow Americans to defend their lives and property with firearms, and yet it is an outrage to witness endless acts of gun violence without making some attempt to end it.

In this lesson we encounter Jesus as the judge of our actions and attitudes. We can observe all the religious and societal rules we want, but if our hearts aren’t motivated by God’s love, all our judgmental attitudes do is defile.

The challenge in this lesson, as always, is to cast ourselves in the role of the Pharisees and ask what nit-picking rules or platitudes are keeping us from being authentic disciples. What excuses are we making to judge others, withhold forgiveness, or inhibit justice and mercy? The gospel always compels us to look inside. But here’s the good news: we have the gospel, and through it, the judgment of Jesus brings us to repentance, changes our attitudes, and frees us from the bondage of our sins.

Thanks for stopping in, folks. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

To Whom Can We Go? (Reflections on Pentecost 13, Year B)

Wow. I had the best darn time this past week catching up with an old buddy of forty years’ duration—my pal Mike who was a friend from Lutheran Youth Group back in the 1970’s. He was in Philly on business from his job in LA so he took me and my wife to dinner. Although I hadn’t seen him in a quarter of a century, we picked up our friendship as if we’d never been apart. In fact, I’ve recently been in contact with a whole crowd of lost friends from that Lutheran community which nurtured me as a teenager. We are scattered all over the United States now, but the bond of “family,” the communion of saints, knotted through our Christian assembly is as strong as ever.

My dad, rest his soul, used to say that belonging to our church was the best thing ever to happen to our family. He and my mother, my sisters, and I all found our individual niches within that family. The friendships, the spiritual lessons, and the sacred practices are still part of my life forty years later, bringing my heart a smile as I write this.

In the gospel lesson for Pentecost 13, Year B (John 6: 56-69) Jesus asks his disciples if they wish to continue following him even though his teachings are hard to accept or understand at times. Peter replies, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (v. 68).

Indeed, this is the existential question: If I did not have faith in Christ—faith in sacrificial love, forgiveness, life-renewing spirituality, and the promise of the immortality of the soul—to whom or what else would I turn? What other tie or association would be as meaningful to me as that which meets me at the level of ultimate reality? Where else would I find the love which has connected me to so many people through all these years?

This week’s reading strikes me as being rooted in ecclesiology—the study of the church as the body of Christ. We start by doing a little review from last week with verses 56 through 58, those yucky references to eating flesh and drinking blood. I can’t help but think that this is an obvious allusion to the practice of Holy Communion, and I’m guessing that the evangelist is telling us those who are in the Church—who share an intimate relationship with Jesus and a family connection to each other through the sacrament—are the ones who are living in the knowledge of grace, forgiveness, and immortality.

From here John points out that Jesus is making this assertion in a synagogue (v. 59), a place where the scholars might find Jesus’ teaching hard to swallow (pun intended!). They say in verse 60, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” The word John uses which we translate as “difficult” is in Greek sklhros (scleros), from which we get the term “sclerotic,” which usually refers to a body part which has hardened with disease. It’s not a nice term, and could be translated as “hard to take” or “unacceptable.”

I guess if any of us had been Jewish scholars in the synagogue of John’s day we’d find this teaching of Jesus hard to take too. We certainly can’t take it literally, and if we were hung up on ritual purity, animal sacrifice, or strict obedience to the law we’d have a pretty rough time digesting simple faith in God’s love. Indeed, as John has Jesus remind us in verse 65, we need God’s help too ingest the love which gives itself away as sacrifice for others. As Martin Luther put it:

“I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel…” (Small Catechism)

Face it: it’s pretty hard in this busy, dangerous, unpredictable, selfish, confusing, and sinful world to find the faith to abide in Jesus. Constantly to seek Christ in others and to strive to be Christ to others is a tough order. It’s hard enough to live in flesh and blood reality. No wonder the spirit so often escapes us.

There are those who just never try to wrestle with the relationship with Jesus. But where will they go? What will replace abiding in love, forgiveness, compassion, and the hope of eternal life in the spirit of God?

I kind of dig the fact that the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary have linked this gospel lesson with the lesson from the book of Joshua. Here is Joshua at the end of his time as judge and leader of the Hebrew people. He is filled with awe and gratitude for God’s blessings. He’s whooped all of Israel’s enemies, and now he calls the people together and issues a challenge:

“…choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the river or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24: 15b)

Peter and Joshua both challenge us on this day. To whom can we go and whom shall we serve if not the Lord? If our answer is “no one,” than we’d best embrace the nourishment of word and sacrament found in the church, renew our commitment to spiritual discipline, and live in the joy, gratitude, and blessed assurance of God’s love.

Glad you stopped by, brothers and sisters! 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Eating Jesus (Reflections on Pentecost Twelve, Year B)

I guess it’s time that we talk about the sacrament of Holy Communion. Either that, or we have to assume that the appointed reading from John’s gospel in this week’s Revised Common Lectionary (John 6:51-58) is referring to cannibalism.

In researching this week’s gospel, I took a look at the Catholic priest and former Temple University professor Gerard Sloyan’s commentary on John in the Interpretation bible series (John Knox Press, 1988). Professor Sloyan warns us about stampeding towards a sacramental understanding of verses 51-57 by reminding us that we really don’t know exactly what the heck the evangelist was thinking when he wrote these words. Nevertheless, the smart dudes of the Jesus Seminar (See The Five Gospels, McMillan Press, 1993) are pretty darn sure these verses are about the Sacrament of the Altar. Their commentary suggests that maybe these verses were added to the text of the Fourth Gospel in later editions, noting that the type of language used here occurs nowhere else in John and that John makes no reference to a new sacrament when he tells the story of the Last Supper in chapters 13 through 17. Of course, it’s also quite possible that John doesn’t mention the sacrament because everybody already knew about it by the time he got around to writing his gospel. Who knows?

(BTW: There’s a really cool explanation for the institution of the sacrament found in Bruce Chilton’s 2000 opus, Rabbi Jesus (Doubleday). I won’t go into it because I’ve already written about it three years ago in a post called “I Am the Bread of Life” which you can click on under “Popular Posts” on the right column of this blog. Chilton’s theory makes sense to me.)

For my own part, I’m pretty sure these verses are talking about our Christian sacrament, and I don’t think we can ever go too far wrong in re-examining what this ritual means and why we continue to do it week after week. Professor Sloyan says that this passage and the whole notion of Jesus as the Bread of Life suggests that we take Jesus as our nourishment. “This nourishment,” he writes,” is a strong and intimate faith in the person of Jesus.” Indeed, we are being pretty intimate when we touch and smell and taste our Lord’s person. When we come to the table in faith we are accepting in our hands and in our mouths the brutality of the cross. Here are the gushing wounds, the torn flesh, and the spilt blood. Here is the betrayal, the abandonment, the physical agony, the carrying of the burden, the exhaustion, the helplessness, the indignity, and the inescapable knowledge of death—all of the things which are part of our human existence whether we choose to acknowledge them or not. And we eat them—we take them all in. That which was Jesus’ body is also our own. He who was born of God is one with us, in us, and always part of us. Abiding with us.

But there is so much more. Not only do we receive Christ in and of ourselves, but we recognize the same hunger, the same weak, frailty in all those who kneel before the table with us. We all hurt. We all are inheritors of suffering and death. We all share a part in the callousness which permits the obscenity of human cruelty—that cruelty so vividly on display when we look to the cross of Jesus—to go on in this world. We all make our mistakes and feel the curse of unworthiness. We all hunger for the words, “Father, forgive them.”

The miracle comes when we take into ourselves the truth of our weakness and the love of Jesus who chose to share it with us. We are nourished, strengthened, and changed. But this change requires the meeting of Jesus’ promise of full, abundant, and eternal life, with our faithful “Amen!”

Some Sundays, when I preside at the altar, I feel a sense of awe at the mingling of pain and joy which gathers around the table. There are those whose secret pain I know. There are those who will not meet my eyes as I pronounce, “The body of Christ is broken for you.” There are those who look up at me and smile with the joyful “Amen.” It is at this moment that I feel love most profoundly, and I am humbled by this.

In my parish I have made the liturgical choice to receive the sacrament after all others have received. Unlike the Roman tradition in which the priest receives first so as to be in grace when he dispenses grace, I know the beauty and power of this eating and drinking has nothing to do with me. It is an intimacy between Jesus and those who receive him. In the spirit of John’s gospel, where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, I feel I should be a good host and wait until I have served everyone else before partaking myself. It’s only polite.

There are few things in life more satisfying than a meal with loved ones. At Christ’s table, we are always well fed.

Thanks for dropping by, my friend. Join me for a meal this Sunday, won't you?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Breadcrumb From the Pope (Reflections on Pentecost 11 Year B)

White bread

“…anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37b)

On Wednesday Pope Francis made an alarming statement about divorced and re-married Catholics. The Pontiff said “People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way.” His Holiness stopped just short of saying that divorced and remarried Catholics would be permitted to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion.

Whew! I thought. That was a close one. Whenever Pope Francis makes a truly compassionate and Christ-like statement—which he seems perpetually in the habit of doing—I get worried. After all, if the Roman Church were ever to get its act together, what would be the point of being a Lutheran? I might be out of a job!

But, in all seriousness, the Pope’s remarks seem timely this week as I look at the third of our five consecutive “Bread of Life” gospel lessons from the sixth chapter of John. This week the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading starts with Jesus’ statement in verse 35, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It then jumps down to verse 41 where the “Jews” (read this, presumably, the Jewish religious leaders) get their shorts bunched up because Jesus has claimed to come down from heaven. Unfortunately, the RCL cuts verses 36 through 40 where Jesus actually makes that claim of heavenly origin. It also cuts verse 37 which I’ve quoted at the top of this essay—a radical statement from the early church about Jesus’ gracious inclusivity. Maybe Pope Francis was thinking about this when he made his announcement about divorced people. Jesus is not in the business of driving folks away if they come to him. And for good reason.

In verse 43 Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.” This seems to me to echo an earlier statement of belief from Saint Paul who wrote, “…no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3b) Both of these statements can be a bit uncomfortable if your favorite hobby is narrowly defining who is or is not a brother or sister in Christ.

In the gospel story, the Jewish leaders can’t accept Jesus’ statement that he has come from God. They know his mom and dad, and they know he came from Nazareth and not heaven. They don’t seem to be too open to the idea that the compassion, wisdom, healing, and atoning forgiveness of the Creator God could ever be present in this dirty peasant teacher from up in the sticks. Neither do they warm to his calling himself the “bread that come down from heaven.” This bread, as they understand it, can only be the providence God gave their ancestors in the wilderness in the time of Moses. And why did God give this bread..? Because, obviously, God likes people like them better than God likes anyone else.

But the true Bread of Life transcends time and culture and our petty taxonomy and our limited understanding. This bread feeds all who come with the hunger for it, understanding that the very hunger itself comes from God.

God bless you, my hungry friends. You can hear Pope Francis' statement by clicking on his name.