Thursday, February 25, 2016

Talking Crap (Reflections on Lent 3, Year C)

People talk a lot of crap sometimes in the name of religion, don’t you think? Remember after 911 when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreed that thousands of Americans died in bloody terrorist attacks as a sign of God’s judgment against America because we are too lax with pagans, feminists, abortionists and gays? That was sure a load of crap.

And what about the Westboro Baptist Church? Remember those idiots? They loved to picket funerals of our war dead or victims of other tragedies, claiming that such untimely losses as the Boston Marathon bombings, 911, battlefield fatalities, or random acts of gun violence were signs of God’s righteous wrath visited on a nation which allowed same gender marriage and abortion.

Like the “frenemies” of Job, lots of folks try to come up with religious explanations of why really awful things happen to otherwise good people. Personally, I can’t buy into that. Who are any of us to judge? I mean, sometimes, bad stuff just happens. Sure, wicked people do things which harm innocent people. And sometimes God chooses not to protect us from the consequences of our own stupidity. But sometimes we’re just victims of gravity.

My feeling is that we are all in heavy boots walking through a mine field whenever we try to speak for God and offer an explanation to the “why” of tragedy. When it’s all said and done, our spiritual walk is not about what happens to us—it’s about how we choose, in faith, to embrace the happening. If we think that living a good and virtuous life will be rewarded by God with nothing but good and virtuous stuff, then we’re not really worshiping God—we’re worshiping Santa Claus. It’s superstition to think that we can influence God. Religion is when we let God influence us.

In the gospel lesson appointed for Lent 3, Cycle C (Luke 13:1-9), Jesus makes it pretty clear that tragedy is not to be assumed to be the punishment of God for sin. Here Jesus is answering questions about two really rotten local events. It seems that Pontius Pilate has slaughtered some Galilean pilgrims for reasons which aren’t clear to us. No other historic source records this event, but these sources do record that (to paraphrase a great quote from Raymond Chandler) there are 175 different ways to be a bastard and Pilate knew every one of them. Galileans weren’t his citizens, and he’d have no trouble ordering them killed if they got out of line. Jesus’ response to this is pretty clear:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” (Luke 13:2-3)

Jesus has a similar response to the victims of a collapsing tower (13:4). Sudden tragedy is not a punishment from God. It is, however, a reminder that life is dangerous and we’d best consider how we live it. Every loss or tragedy is a call to repentance—a call to reassess our lives, priorities, relationships, and our faith. Contemplation of fragility can be a valuable gift which calls us back to our relationship with God, and a very real reminder of the deep sorrow of having died without really having lived.

To illustrate his point, Jesus tells a parable about a fig tree which doesn’t produce the fruit for which it has been planted. The orchard owner has been patient with it up to a point, but it can’t go on using up the ground forever. Sometimes we are given more “second chances” than we know or deserve. But what good is it to live to be 90 if all you love or care about is yourself? Better a short life lived in God’s purpose than a long and meaningless existence.

Here’s another thought about this week’s gospel: Luke glues Jesus’ call to repentance occasioned by the two local tragedies to the fig tree parable found only in his gospel. If we use what smart Bible scholars call “canonical criticism,” we assume that the two parts of this lesson, the theology lesson and the parable, inform each other. That is, Luke had a reason for sticking them together (unless someone was standing behind Jesus with a steno pad taking down everything he said as he said it, which is not real likely). But, the smart guys of the Jesus Seminar seem to think that the parable, which is similar to parables in the rabbinic tradition of the time, might just stand on its own.

In Jewish tradition, a fig tree was often a metaphor for the spiritual health of the people. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus finds a barren fig tree and curses it for not producing fruit. We could assume that Jesus is either embarrassingly short tempered whenever he can’t get a snack, or that the story is a metaphor meaning that a society, church, or individual which doesn’t produce according to God’s loving desire is doomed to wither up and die. I like the second choice better. Nevertheless, if the parable stands on its own, it could be open to multiple interpretations.

My wife always feels sorry for the fig tree. She suggested that maybe the tree wants to bear fruit, but the environment, time, or circumstance just don’t permit it. This gets me to thinking that maybe we need to take a little more crap (v. 8) before we can really blossom.

Let me know what you think. Thanks for dropping by. God love you!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Mother's Pain, God's Love (Reflections on Lent 2, Year C)

God bless Sue Klebold. I really mean that. I heard her interviewed this past week by the brilliant Terry Gross of WHYY radio’s “Fresh Air” series, and I was deeply touched by this mother’s painful story. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be the mom of a boy who turned out to be a mass murderer.

You’ll recall—and I doubt any of us who were around on that horrible day in 1999 will ever forget—that Mrs. Klebold’s son Dylan was one of two teenaged gunmen who went on a murder-suicide rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killing thirteen human beings before taking their own lives. For almost two decades Mrs. Klebold has tried to keep a low profile—haunted by the terrible deeds of her emotionally unbalanced son, guilt-ridden for not seeing the signs of danger in Dylan’s behavior, blamed by the parents of Dylan’s victims, and yet deeply grieving the loss of the boy to whom she had given birth.

Sue Klebold’s story seems to mirror the themes in our Gospel for the Second Sunday in Lent Year C (Luke 13: 31-35). Here is both violence and compassion. The tyrant Herod would have Jesus killed. So would the political rulers of Jerusalem, because killing God’s prophets is what they have always done. And yet Jesus can look at these murderers as a mother looks to her erring children. In fact, Jesus even employs a maternal image to describe his compassion:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (v.34)

As a mother, Mrs. Klebold feels the double pain of shame for her boy’s vicious and senseless crimes, but also compassion for the mental disease and spiritual pain which led him to commit those crimes. Perhaps this is how God sees us? Perhaps our God—like our mother—grieves that we are so far from pursuing righteousness, so often full of anger, despair, selfishness, and hatred. And yet this same God loves us with a passion that surpasses all of our evil inclinations.

Perhaps this is what we must see whenever we look to the cross of Jesus—our own capacity for senseless, wanton, and indifferent cruelty juxtaposed with God’s desire to love us anyway and suffer for our sake.

At any event, as a clergyman, I find something holy in the sorrowful witness of Sue Klebold. I pray for her comfort and healing and for the healing of all of those who are victims of violence.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Temptations (Reflections on Lent One, Year C)

There’s a lot of temptation in the Gospel lesson appointed for the First Sunday in Lent in Cycle C. The biggest temptation, I guess, is to make this story something about us—sort of an object lesson in a “Just Say No” campaign. We might be tempted to look at this tale as a reminder that we must resist bad things and wing a few Bible verses at the Devil while we’re at it. But I’d like to suggest that this story is, in actual fact, really about who Jesus is. It’s a teaching story that reminds us that we’re in relationship with Christ because he chose to be like us—subject to every human inclination to ignore God’s grace, love, and purpose. And why did he choose to be like us? Because it is impossible for us to be like him.

(Well, duh!)

Sometimes I wonder why we pray “Lead us not into temptation.” We don’t need to be led into temptation—we’re in it up to our armpits every minute of every day! And it’s tempting for us to try to redefine the word to make it less threatening to us. We might think of temptation (especially as we enter Lent and the time of fasting, abstinence, and self-denial) as our natural desire to indulge in really good stuff. I don’t know about you guys, but I’d really be tempted to turn stones into pastry and water into Starbuck’s dark roast if I could! But indulgent appetites always have a dark, sinister side. There is a thin line between indulgence and addiction. And if you’re an addict, “Just Say No” and a few Bible verses aren’t going to cut it. Temptation means coming to terms with our own powerlessness and weakness.

Really, if we look at it, we’re all subject to the oldest temptation in the book (That would be the Book of Genesis. See chapter 3, verses 4 and 5). We all, on some level, want to be God. We want to put ourselves and our feelings above God’s Law and God’s loving desire for us. We want to be important. We want others to notice us. We want to withhold forgiveness and retaliate against those who have wounded us. We want to strangle the gnawing feelings of terror within us by claiming authority and dominating others. Sometimes we are able to conquer these temptations and rein in our behavior (See the last blog post about my young friend Jeremy), but we can never quite conquer the lurking thoughts that are inside us.

Even when we admit our weakness, we are tempted to succumb to the luxury of despair. It’s that comfortable feeling that nothing can be done—at least not by us. When faced with tough choices, we can be tempted to say we’re only human, and choose our convenience over our conviction and our comfort zone over our zeal for the Gospel. The notion that God will do nothing or expects nothing from us is also a temptation. And this temptation leads us to separation from God.

But the Gospel lesson we read on this Sunday should impress on us how very much with us God in Christ is. Luke’s telling of the wilderness temptation (Luke 4:1-13) ends with the ominous sentence, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (v. 13) Like us, Jesus was never far away from the time of testing. Later, we will hear him pray in Gethsemane, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)

Jesus gets it. He knows our weakness, our weariness, our frustration. He’s been at the end of our rope. He’s felt it. And because he has, we can be free to feel it too, to confess our faults, and to turn back to him for strength, courage, and assurance.

A blessed season of Lent to you all. Thanks for reading. Drop me a comment if you have the time. I’d love to hear from you.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Saint of the Month: Jeremy Tobin

I love this kid. Jeremy was in my Confirmation class a few years ago. He always reminded me of Jerry Matthers in the old “Leave It to Beaver” TV show (Dang! I’m really showing my age now!). He has a goofy, slightly overshot smile, a face full of freckles, jet black hair, and wears huge, black-framed glasses. He loves to greet you with a fist bump, but he would always politely inquire about my wife’s state of health or about the well-being of members of the church. Rarely have I seen such conscientious compassion in so young a person.

Jeremy’s sport is ice hockey. Although he is rather small in stature (Or at least he was. He might be six foot ten by now. I don’t know. I’ve not seen him since last Easter!), he excels at this fast-paced, often brutal competition. Because his hockey games were often scheduled on Sundays, Jeremy could never stay to attend our 11:00 AM contemporary mass at Faith Lutheran. Instead, his dad would bring him to the early, Roman ordo-and-organ-music mass at 8:15. He was one of the few people attending that service who still had his own gall bladder (It tends to be a rather mature crowd at 8:15). All the same, Jeremy remarked that he actually preferred the traditional mass. It was quieter, he said, and he felt closer to God in that stately liturgical service than he did at the more raucous contemporary mass. I began to realize that, in spite of Jeremy’s sly sense of humor, there was something deeply spiritual about the lad.

After Jeremy made his Confirmation, his father told me a tale which, had I known it before, I certainly would have shared with the congregation when Jeremy affirmed his baptism. It seems that this diminutive young gent was the only player on his hockey team to skate an entire season without a penalty called against him. Jeremy takes sportsman-like conduct very seriously, and, even though his size made him an easy target for more aggressive players, he never committed a foul in retaliation.

In Jeremy’s last game of the season (if I’ve got the story straight), a larger opposing player bullied him with a thudding body check. Between periods, Jeremy’s father came rinkside and suggested to his young athlete that, having firmly established his credentials as a fair, honorable, and sportsman-like player, it would not be thought amiss should Jeremy, in his very last game, choose to exact a small amount of revenge in the next period of play. Indeed, a well-placed stick to the aggressor’s blade—even if it should land Jeremy in the Penalty Box—might have the effect of establishing him as “one of the guys,” and would certainly raise the ticket prices at the “Mess With Jeremy Tobin” window.

Jeremy declined the suggestion. It was not for him to do anything to violate the rules of the game.

Non-violence is not merely cowardice in the face of possible retribution. To be truly non-violent, one must first be ready and able to inflict violence on others. Then one must actively choose forgiveness.

“But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…” (Luke 6:27-29a)

Every once in a while, your Old Religious Guy gets the almost unquenchable urge to get in the face of some imbecile who has really pissed me off and chew them out a new anal sphincter (metaphorically speaking). When I get this urge, I remember the admonition of Jesus, the logical fact that my tirade will neither solve a problem nor heal a relationship, and the example of Jeremy Tobin.

And I am amazed and grateful for what a teenaged boy could teach me.

Thanks, Jeremy. Keep up the good work.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Unspeakable (Reflections on the Feast of the Transfiguration, Year C)

Okay. It’s time again for that really bizarre tale which always ends the Epiphany season—the story of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43a). Here’s Jesus with his buds James, John, and Peter up on a mountaintop. He prays, and suddenly his clothes become dazzling white like he’s in a commercial for New Tide with Bleach. Then two dead holy guys appear with him. Peter offers to pitch tents for all of them on the mountain (which is silly since dead holy guys don’t really need shelter), and then the whole scene gets covered by a talking cloud.

Just plain weird. I won’t even attempt to give a rational explanation of this yarn. I think it’s better we just take the story at face value and pick out of it what we can. As I look at this scripture this year, what strikes me in Luke’s version is actually what isn’t said. Check out the conversation which happens before this tale takes place back in verses 21 and 22. Here Jesus tells the disciples that he’s going to suffer and be crucified. How do they respond? The Bible doesn’t say. In Matthew and Mark’s gospels, Peter gets his shorts in a knot and rebukes Jesus for saying that he has to die. In Luke, however, the disciples are all silent on the subject. Didn’t they hear? Or are they just too afraid to ask?

In case the disciples missed what Jesus said in verses 22-3, Moses and Elijah bring the subject up again when they appear with Jesus during this miraculous mountaintop experience (v. 31). None of the three disciples on the mountain ever comment on it. Peter offers to pitch some tents, but he never says to Jesus, “Uhh, Boss..? We’re not sure we heard right. Did Elijah just say that you were going to Jerusalem to depart? What does that mean, exactly?”

That’s so like the disciples. It’s also so like us, don’t you think? Here these boys are having a wonderful worship experience in which they really seem to get to know the glory of Jesus. In fact, we might even interpret what Jesus says up in verse 27 as a promise that some of them would really get to see God’s glory in Christ. But they don’t seem to understand that this glory is only transient, and that they’ll have to come down the mountain and deal with the real dirty business of the world.

I also find it interesting that even after they’ve had their mountaintop moment, they don’t seem to want to talk about it (v.36). What are they afraid of?

The compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary link the story of the Transfiguration with the tale which immediately succeeds it of Jesus healing a boy with some kind of seizure disorder. The boy’s dad says that he took his son to the disciples, but they couldn’t cure the lad. This gets Jesus in one of his rare irritated moods. He accuses the powerless disciples of being “faithless and perverse” (v.41). Could it be that they actually had the ability to heal this child, but simply lacked the confidence or trust to do it?

If we read on beyond the assigned lectionary for this Sunday, there is a third reference in Luke chapter 9 to Jesus’ impending passion (vv.43b-45). This time Luke clearly tells us that the disciples didn’t understand this and were afraid to speak of it.

For me, I guess, the disciples in this chapter seem to resemble members of an old, established congregation who really love the worship experience, but just can’t seem to wrap their brains around the call to witness to a hurting world. They want to pitch that tent in the garden with Jesus, but they just don’t want to talk about it or deal with any of the aspects of the faith which might be troublesome or confusing. They’re ready to talk your ears off about petty things and personal gripes (see verses 46-50), but they can’t open up about how they experience Jesus, and they are afraid to take the leap of faith necessary to do a mission of healing for their community.

This is the challenge as we come down the mountain and set our faces with Jesus towards Jerusalem--towards the realities of sickness, injustice and hurt in this world. As we enter the holy season of Lent, will we open our mouths to speak our own faith? Will we be willing to tackle the tragedies of hunger and want that so cripple this planet? Can we believe that we have the power to cure within us?

But here’s the good news: Jesus used these poor, simple, dim-witted, pusillanimous boobs to bring his light to the world. It can be done even by the most simple, tongue-tied, confused, and shy among us. If we’ve known Christ’s glory even for a second, we can remember it for eternity and move forward in its promise.

Thanks for reading. God’s peace to you.