Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Tears for the Living (Reflections on All Saints Day)

"Raising of Lazarus" Duccio, 14th century

Eddie was killed last week. He was forty-two years old, and his mom called him a big kid who never grew up. He was a part-time heavy metal roadie, a sometime chef, and full-time party animal. He and a buddy were riding on a motorcycle, and some idiot ran a light, struck them, and drove off. A hit-and-run.

I preached his grandmother’s funeral about a month ago, so the family asked me to say some words for Eddie. The trouble is, I can’t quite go to the usual scripture verse like “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live (John 11:25)” because I don’t have a stinkin’ clue what Eddie believed. He was never baptized, and, as far as I know, never darkened the door of a church. So what do I say?

Fortunately, I’ve been looking at the scripture for this Sunday’s All Saints Day mass, John 11:32-44. This is the story of the raising of Lazarus. I’m not planning on raising Eddie from the dead, but I find that the beauty of our scriptures is so often in the tiny details the writers have sewn into the fabric of the narrative.

“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.” (John 11:33-35)

Jesus began to weep. 

Is there another verse in scripture which tells us so much about our God?

But why is Jesus crying? Surely he knows, if anyone ever does, the oneness with the eternal God. He knows the soul is in God’s hands. He knows the mercy of the Father. And yet he weeps.

I don’t think he’s crying for Lazarus. Why would he shed tears for the friend he loved who is now at peace? No. He’s not weeping for the dead.

Jesus is weeping for the living, because grief is a contagion which infects all who love with open and generous hearts. We weep when others weep because we are powerless over their hurt. Not even Jesus can take another’s pain away—not that he’d even want to. Pain is the price of love, but it is always worth it.

That is how our God loves us—through our pain. He washed in the dirty bath water of our baptism, walked the long and hungry roads with us, wept with us at the loss of friends, and finally—on the cross—endured our helplessness, shame, physical deterioration, loneliness, and death.

This is what I have to tell Eddie’s friends and family: I believe in the Christ of Compassion. I believe that in their tears for Eddie and for one another they are coming near to the heart of God, of God who IS love. I believe that they have the chance through their sorrow to come to know this Jesus who weeps with them, and that they will find comfort in this love.

And I believe that Eddie is in God’s merciful hands. There is no need to weep for him. They can unbind him and let him go.

Peace be with you, my friends. Thanks for reading.

P.S. Just another thought about the assigned readings in the RCL for Sunday, November 1st: The Hebrew scripture lesson is from Isaiah 25. It speaks of the things God will do when God's people are finally delivered. It was probably written as comforting prophecy for Hebrew exiles in Babylon. The phrase I really love the best is verse 8b: "...and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth..." Isn't that the coolest thought? Our disgrace will be taken away! The guy who dropped the fly ball which lost the championship, the alcoholic and the junkie, the kid who never "made anything of himself," the bankrupt, the homeless woman, the victim of sexual abuse--all their disgrace will be taken away. We will be washed clean of every unkind word we thought or said. Our neglectfulness will be forgotten. Our sins will be forgiven. How blessed we are to live in that promise! (Updated 10/29)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thoughts on Reformation Sunday

Portrait of Martin Luther by Cranach

“So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)

“Ecclesia semper reformanda est.”
(Trans: “The church is always reforming.” Quote attributed to theologian Karl Barth, 1947)

This Sunday is that peculiarly Lutheran holiday we call Reformation Sunday. It’s the Sunday which falls either on or immediately before October 31st—the day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, setting off the Protestant Reformation. For almost 500 years we Lutherans have made a big, hairy deal out of this anniversary. For me, as much as I love celebrating great events of the past, Reformation Sunday serves as a reminder that the reformation isn’t over. Rather, it’s an on-going event in which Christians can rejoice that we have the freedom in Christ to reinvent and recreate our witness and our spiritual practices and do whatever it takes to reach the world with the message of God’s love and grace.
For lots of Lutheran churches, this day will be celebrated with the re-telling of Luther’s story and the singing of a rousing chorus of Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” There will be red paraments and the feeling of smugness at not being a Roman Catholic. I’m not entirely sure Luther himself would approve of all of that, however. I sometimes think that if that great reformer were to drop in from heaven today he might well ask us what we are doing to advance the gospel in this needy secular age, and be less impressed with our mummified homages to the past.

So! In the spirit of Reformation, my parish has elected to celebrate this day with as short a worship service as possible, immediately followed by a day of service to our neighborhood. Some of us are going to visit nursing homes and shut-ins and bring the Eucharist, music, and prayer. Some will be standing on the sidewalk offering prayer to passers-by. Some will be making care packages for homeless Philadelphians. Some will take to the streets with garbage bags and clean up some of the ubiquitous Philadelphia garbage which perpetually blows through our part of town. All of us will be priests doing God’s work.

Of course the OLD religious guy in me still wants to honor the traditions, so next Saturday night we’ll do some old-fashioned Lutheran things—we’ll have a German-inspired pot-luck dinner, we’ll sing “A Mighty Fortress,” and we’ll screen the 2003 MGM bio pic, Luther. (We’ll stop short of nailing anything to the door of the near-by Catholic church. That might be overkill.) We’ll also take time to review a few things which, in spite of our changing world, will remain the same for us:

*      We are put in a right relationship with God only through our faith in God’s loving grace.
*      We are all priests: We can all do God’s work and are all called to be intercessors for one another.
*      God has given us the sacraments of Baptism and Communion. We don’t do God any favors when we make use of them. They are instituted to help us.
*      We are all 100% sinner and 100% redeemed by God’s love all the time.
*      The Bible is God’s Word, but not a god itself. Not every word is literal, and some portions—those which lead us to a relationship with Christ—are more important than other parts.
*      God’s law will always condemn us because no one is perfect, but God’s unconditional love will always forgive us.
*      We meet God only through Christ on the cross, for on the cross Jesus entered into all of our suffering. When we feel lost and helpless, we are still close and dear to God’s heart

With this faith to guide us and this tradition to support us, we are free to go into the changing world and be a presence for Christ in new and exciting ways.

A blessed Reformation Day, to you, my friends. Go reform something! 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Why Joel Osteen Irritates Me (Reflections on Pentecost 21, Year B)

Did you miss me?

I haven’t been posting for a couple of weeks. I’ve been away on vacation and, prior to that, I just sort of let stuff get away from me. I was in a pretty nasty car wreck earlier last month. My ride was totaled, so I had to do a lot of running around to the wrecking yard and meeting with insurance folks and things like that. Then my church was broken into and vandalized by some neighborhood punk. I know it was a neighborhood punk because any self-respecting junkie would’ve stolen the microphones from our praise band. This burglar just stole some religious articles after trashing my office, ripping the crucifix off the wall of the narthex, and scrawling incomprehensible graffiti in our entrance way. (The graffiti was incomprehensible because the “F word” was the only word spelled correctly.)

Oh..! Then I caught a nasty cold. While I was busy sniffling with that, I learned that the insurance company is dropping the church’s coverage because of too many claims, and the new coverage will cost over $3,000 a year more while we’re already running a serious deficit and will probably have to lay off some staff next year. Then I got a call to do a funeral for a 26-year-old victim of a heroin overdose.

Do you miss me now?

I’m such a whiner I can hardly stand myself. No. Really. I’m sorry I unloaded all this crap on you. After all, you never did anything to me. Forgive me my trespass. Forgive me for crossing over onto your property when you have more than enough crap of your own to deal with.

Whoever said being a Christian was going to be easy? (I think it was Joel Osteen). Truth be told, if we think living a good and virtuous life will give us nothing but good and virtuous things we’re really kidding ourselves. In last week’s gospel (Mark 10:17-31), it seemed like old Peter was looking for some kind of compliment or reward from Jesus because he’d left everything and embraced an uncertain life of poverty and persecution to follow the Lord. But Jesus didn’t play his game. He told him that the only thing he could expect to be rewarded with in this life would be more persecutions.

In this week’s lesson, James and John still think there’s going to win some Publisher’s Clearing House prize for being followers of Jesus. They don’t quite get this crucifixion thing Jesus has been talking about, and they really think there will be an earthly kingdom where they can be Vice President and Secretary of State when Jesus reigns in glory and splendor (In Matthew’s gospel, they don’t ask Jesus for this reward: their mom asks for them. I think that’s kind of sweet, don’t you?).

All Jesus can tell these ambitious lads is that they are going to suffer as he will suffer, but he can’t guarantee them any prize for doing it (vv. 39-40). All he can do is exhort them to lives of service and humility.

I guess some happy tooth fairy of a TV evangelist can promise Christians great riches and rewards, but to me that is more superstition than religion. Thinking we can influence God is a false belief. True faith is believing that God influences us—even when we must sometimes drink from the cup of sorrow. God owes us no favors, and our humble acts of service are not what makes God love us. They are the result of knowing that God already does love us. They are the response to Christ suffering along with us out of pure love, and knowing that—on our worst days—God has not stopped being good just because we have chosen not to look at God’s goodness.

It is good to have you visit, my friend. May you feel God’s blessings this week.