Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Doubting Thomas Hungering for Belief (Reflections on Easter 2 Year C)

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29)

Belief and doubt seem to be the theme of this week’s lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary. The First Lesson (Acts 5:27-32) tells the story of a pretty darn gutsy Simon Peter defiantly and courageously breaking the law by preaching about the resurrected Jesus. Juxtapose this with the fraidy-cat disciples cowering in a locked house and the doubting of Thomas depicted in the gospel lesson. How cool would it be if all of us had the energized zeal we see in Peter in that lesson from Acts? But, alas, if we’re going to identify with anybody in these lessons, it’s probably going to be poor old Thomas.

This poor guy gets a pretty bad wrap. Anybody who questions anything now gets called a “Doubting Thomas,” but I’m not sure he deserves the opprobrium we’ve dumped on him over the years. I mean, isn’t a healthy amount of skepticism actually a good thing at times? (Especially with all the crap that’s getting spewed during America’s political season!)

I’ve always seen Thomas as being the realist, but not really the pessimist. Back in chapter 11 he encourages his fellow disciples to journey with Jesus into Judea where the natives are definitely hostile and wouldn’t mind stoning Jesus and his followers to death if given a good opportunity to do so. Thomas knows going there is a bad idea, but he must believe something about Jesus if he’s willing to die with him.

Don’t you find it kind of encouraging that Thomas does not desert the movement after Jesus is crucified? Okay, so he wasn’t at roll-call when Jesus first appeared to the disciples in 20:19, but a week later (v. 26) he was right back with the boys. Still, even the testimony of his friends can’t quite get him over the hump of his doubts about the resurrection. Personally, I think this guy is just like us—he really in his heart wants to believe this, but he just needs some empirical verification to seal the deal.

Now admit it: don’t you ever feel just like him? Wouldn’t you like a little bit of unimpeachable evidence to bolster your belief in the resurrected Jesus? (And are you ever disappointed with me that I can’t give it to you?)

Maybe this is a scary question. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of “cheap grace,” but I wonder if we don’t often settle for “bargain basement theology.” That is, we were told in Sunday School that Jesus was resurrected and that believing this was the ticket to eternal life. So, as impossible as this sounds, we say “okay” to it, file it way in our brains under “dogma,” and then just never think about it too much for fear our contemplation might lead us to doubt.

But here’s the cool thing: that fear of doubt might actually be our true faith at work. Like doubting Thomas, we can’t bring ourselves to desert the movement. There’s something in our faith tradition for which we hunger. In a place in our hearts only explicable by the Holy Spirit we really want to believe. We yearn to believe, and, I think, this yearning is God at work.

Of course, the next question might be why? Why do we want to believe so desperately? Maybe we just have a tribal need to hold onto our culture and not discard the faith of our ancestors. But I would hope that our hunger has a deeper cause. We hunger for Jesus. We hunger for his unconditional love, for his merciful forgiveness, and for his promise of eternal life.

The great Christian apologist C. S. Lewis suggests this theory about our spiritual yearning:

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for paradise proves that I will enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world. (C.S. Lewis “The Weight of Glory”)

I think Lewis makes a very good point. The fear of our doubt is the result of our yearning for faith. That yearning itself might be the indication that the thing for which we yearn is something which we already believe. This yearning—unsatisfying as it may feel to our rational minds—is already evidence of our existing relationship with Jesus.

I pray we would learn to treasure and love our hunger until the inevitable day when it will be satisfied. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Post-Easter Rant About Donald Trump, the Pope, and ABC's The Bachelor

Sometimes I just feel like blowing off steam about stuff that bugs me. The opinions expressed here are those of your Old Religious Guy, and aren’t necessarily those of my congregation or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—although they ought to be!

Last weekend my wife and I were watching C-SPAN and heard Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz address the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee gathering. From the rhetoric of both candidates one might conclude that a Trump or Cruz presidency would amount to a declaration of war on Iran. Gotta be honest here—this kind of talk scares the crap out of me. BUT, I am an old religious guy, so maybe I should confine my opinions to religious topics. For some time I’ve been thinking about a comment made by an older and more religious guy about our presidential contest.

A few weeks back, Pope Francis was asked his opinions on Donald Trump. The Pope said—if I’m quoting him correctly—that a man who talks about building walls and not bridges is not Christian. (Please forgive my lack of citation here, but I’m pretty sure you can Google this!). There are two schools of thought about this comment. The first would be questioning whether any human being—even the Holy Father—has a right to declare who is or is not a Christian. After all, none of us are God, and none of us can see into the human heart and know what our brother or sister believes. Therefore, none of us really has a right to judge the faith of another.

On the other hand, however, I am reminded of the evangelical preacher Jim Wallis’ thoughts in his 2005 book God’s Politics which suggest that we American Christians have watered down our understanding of faith to a simple assent to doctrinal teachings. That is, if we say, “I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior,” we are then “saved,” and granted a free pass on our earthly behavior. As a Lutheran pastor who preaches the doctrine of justification by God’s grace through our faith, I’d have to agree that such a confession is, indeed, salvific. But another Lutheran pastor, the martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, might call such an understanding “cheap grace.” That is, such a confession of faith may pay the minimum amount of lip service necessary to acknowledge God’s gift of eternal life, but ignores the call of Jesus to true discipleship.

If Jesus really is both our LORD and Savior, then we are his vassals and subject to his command to love and serve our fellow human beings and the world the Father God created. In other words, if the faith of Jesus is really in our hearts, than Christian IS as Christian DOES. We are all called to serve the least of our human family as if we were serving Jesus himself. If we arrogantly assert that we can ignore the poor for the sake of a balanced budget, place free market values over a child’s welfare or the health of the planet, ignore Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies and work for peace, marginalize an entire section of our demographic, or equate virtue with wealth and victory, then the Pope is right—we aren’t Christian.

Okay. Here’s another rant. What’s with ABC-TV’s The Bachelor? The ancient Romans used to have the Colosseum in which spectators could watch gladiators fight to the literal death and Christians and other criminals tortured to death or torn apart by savage beasts. The ancient Romans were really into this stuff. They got their jollies watching others suffer. Today, we Americans have The Bachelor, a TV show which allows us to watch twenty-five young women develop a crush on one dude just so twenty-four of them can be disappointed and get sent home in tears. Isn’t this cruelty as entertainment? Just asking.

And Bachelor TV weddings really set my teeth on edge. Seriously. The last happy couple to be wed by Disney Entertainment had show host Chris Harrison officiate the nuptials in a lavishly produced ceremony. Okay. Forget for a moment my natural aversion to Mr. Harrison’s bullshit Universal Life Church mail-in-your-boxtops ordination which makes him legally qualified to preside at weddings in the state of California. Just consider that in the entire ceremony broadcast on national television there was not a single prayer, blessing, or even the use of the word “God.” There was no reference to any faith tradition whatsoever. There was, however, an opulent setting, expensive clothing, and a pyrotechnic display as the happy couple marched toward their reception. To me, the message seems to be that weddings are not about God’s gift of love between two human beings, but, rather, how spectacularly and extravagantly such a union can be celebrated. Such displays seem to me to be self-aggrandizing and in very poor taste.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Believing in Resurrection

Easter Sunday is always a challenge for a preacher. I know good and well that I’ll be preaching to folks I probably won’t see again until Christmas, and I feel under pressure to say something extra profound. The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever had an originally profound thought in my life. Fortunately, I don’t have to have one for Easter. I can just fall back on the creed of our faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Last year I used the gospel lesson from John (John 20:1-8) which I really like because it’s kind of sweet with Mary Magdalene weeping in the garden and so overjoyed to see Jesus alive that she practically leaps into his arms. This year, however, I thought I’d switch it up and use the Luke gospel (Luke 24:1-12). As I re-read it, it seems to me that the primary theme seems to be belief versus doubt.

A detail I like about this story is the fact that no one seems to believe that Jesus will be raised from the dead. The two men in dazzling white who appear in the tomb have to remind the women who have come to anoint Jesus’ corpse that Jesus had told them he would rise. Apparently they remembered hearing something about this, but it doesn’t look like they really believed it would happen. Sometimes it’s just hard to believe good new—or even the promise of good news—when life looks to be circling the toilet bowl.

The women may have caught on to what God was up to, but the men they tell it to don’t believe them at all. In the world of the text (which was a pretty sexist world), a woman’s word was never considered to be reliable. I guess the apostles find it easier to embrace fear and misery than to embrace the gift of God’s mercy. At least Peter makes an effort to check out the story, but the scripture only tells us that he was amazed—not that he believed.

When it comes to God’s power to heal and resurrect, I find I struggle with unbelief myself. There’s a pretty darn thin line between being realistic and being pessimistic, between acknowledging the dark side of living on this planet as opposed to actually settling for it. But sometimes, I get a little unexpected boost.

Yesterday, I was driving back from visiting an elderly shut-in who lives in an assisted living home about thirty miles from my church. I was listening to NPR’s “All Things Considered” on the radio and I heard a story which sounded like a pretty decent Easter illustration. That morning, ISIS terrorists had attacked the city of Brussels, Belgium. News like that blackens our hearts and makes us wonder if this insane asylum of a world will ever embrace peace. But just as thoughts of Muslim extremists were filling my brain, NPR broadcast this tale of a Palestinian Muslim who is actively campaigning to create love and harmony between Jews and Muslims.

Bassam Aramin was five years old when he witnessed a cousin being beaten by an Israeli soldier. He grew up hating those whom he saw as the occupiers of his homeland. As a teenager, he actively provoked Israeli troops, often throwing stones and joining in anti-Israeli demonstrations. When some of his buddies began using live ammunition against government patrols, Bassam was rounded up with them and spent seven years in an Israeli prison.

One night during his prison term, Bassam was shown a film about the Holocaust. Unexpectedly and against his very nature, he found himself being deeply moved—even to the point of tears. For the first time in his life, he began to see the hated Jews as human beings and fellow victims. Upon his release from custody, he determined to continue working for Palestinian liberation through non-violent means.

His pacifism was deeply tested many years later when his ten-year-old daughter was killed by an Israeli soldier as she walked to a friend’s home. Bassam recognized that revenge would not bring his little girl back. His pain would be never-ending. His greatest challenge, however, was convincing his teenage son that retaliation was meaningless. It took considerable effort on Bassam’s part and truly tested the relationship between father and son, but eventually the boy came around. Today both father and son actively participate in a group Bassam has founded called the Parents’ Circle-Family Forum. This organization brings together families—both Israeli and Palestinian—who have lost family members in the ongoing cycle of terrorist acts and official retaliation which is the reality of  life in that corner of the world.

In Bassam Aramin I see the truth of Jesus Christ and the truth of Easter. Although it seems impossible to believe, out of outrage and tragedy, peace, hope, and love can grow. This is the message of the cross and empty tomb. Life—abundant life—is God’s will for us and always has been from the beginning. How can we look at the Easter story as an idle tale, when daily God is raining down on us stories of resurrection? It only calls for us to believe.

A blessed Easter, to you all. Christ is risen!

PS-Be sure to check out Bassam’s full story by clicking the link here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Saint of the Month: Archbishop Oscar Romero (Reflections on Palm Sunday)

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the king   who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven,   and glory in the highest heaven!’ Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’ (Luke 19:37-40)

When you think about it, it must’ve been a pretty pitiful parade. Here comes Jesus on a colt (or a donkey depending on which Gospel you’re reading) looking ridiculously oversized on this puny beast. No mighty war horse here. No red carpet, either. Just the tattered garments of peasants thrown in the road before him. No magnificent standards waving in the wind to announce his royal office. Just a few scrawny palm branches. The elite 1% of the time would never give him a second thought—at least not until the peasants started making noise. And some voices just can’t be silenced.

I like Palm Sunday as I really enjoy the sacred reenactment that is our Christian practice during Holy Week. Note, I say Palm Sunday, not Sunday of the Passion. I’m a bit old-fashioned that way. In my parish we won’t be reading the Passion narrative for those who don’t want to come to worship on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday. If you really want the Passion story, you’ll just have to come and act it out with us during the week. But, in spite of the palm-waving enthusiasm marking the start of Holy Week with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, I think there needs to be a note of foreboding on this day about what is to come.

If we read on in Luke’s Gospel beyond the part of the Palm Sunday story appointed for today (vv.28-40), we hear the rest of the story. We hear Jesus making a dire prediction about the fate of the society. He already sees the destruction of Jerusalem and the pain inflicted on the people who choose violence over peace (v.42). He then takes a dangerous stand for the oppressed by driving the corrupt money-changers and merchants out of the temple, denouncing those whose greed preyed on the poor and the stranger. It’s no wonder those in power wanted him dead (v. 47).

As I think about Jesus in the temple, I am reminded of a 20th century saint whom the Lutheran church commemorates this week, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was martyred March 24, 1980. Romero was a fairly conservative Roman Catholic priest from El Salvador. He initially had no interest in politics until he began serving poor and rural communities in his home country. Deeply touched by the plight of the poor, the insensitivity of the Salvadoran government, and the brutality of the ruling elite which resulted in the murder of an activist colleague, Romero devoted himself to compassionate treatment of the peasantry and the end of torture and murder regularly employed against all who protested human rights abuses.
Image result for archbishop oscar romero
Oscar Romero 1917-1980

Romero was eventually elevated to the position of Archbishop of San Salvador. Although the oligarchs constantly pressured him to remain silent or neutral, Romero used the archdiocesan radio station to broadcast words of solidarity to the poor and condemnation to those who would be abusers. He also wrote US President Jimmy Carter to implore American aid in fighting human rights violations in El Salvador. This request was ignored.

On March 23, 1980, Romero broadcast a stirring sermon in which he called on soldiers to disobey orders to murder peasants. The following day, as he served mass in a hospital chapel, the archbishop was gunned down by an unknown assassin.

In Romero’s story I see the shadow of Jesus in the temple. Both Jesus and Romero felt deeply for the poor and outcast. Both lived and suffered under oppressive, violent regimes. Both denounced violence.

This Sunday we’ll wave the palm branches and hail Jesus as our king. I hope I can remember to be a good and faithful subject to this king. Doing so will mean embracing compassion for those less fortunate than myself. It will mean denouncing anger, prejudice, and violence. And it will mean that I, as a Christian, am called to put my faith into action every day.

A blessed Holy Week to you, my friends.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Smelly Devotion or Why Men Are Pigs (Reflections on Lent 5, Year C)

Modern illustration of Mary anointing the feet of Jesus. Artist unknown.
Recently, my wife filled a large crystal bowl on our sofa table with lemon-scented pot puorri. When I came home from church she asked me how I liked the smell. My answer? “What smell?” I had walked right past the bowl and never noticed the scent.

How come? Because I’m a dude, and, like most dudes, I’m pretty nose blind. Face it, men—we’re pigs. Just like our four-legged porcine brethren, we are capable of encountering a rich variety of olfactory experiences without paying much attention to any of them. We wear the same shirt days in a row. We take unwashed public lavatories for granted. We eat French fries in our cars. We never think of putting those scented plug-in doo-hickies in our work spaces.

But women are different. They feel with their noses. We try not to feel at all if we can help it.

In this magnificent Gospel pericope assigned for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (John 12: 1-8), a woman pours her heart out through a giant jar of perfume. You can’t really blame Mary for this extravagant act. Jesus has just raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. As both Mary and her sister Martha are unmarried, they were dependent in their culture on their brother for their very identity. The loss of Lazarus would’ve meant dependency or poverty or both. Jesus did more than give them back their beloved brother—he gave them back their lives.

In Mary of Bethany we see an overwhelming passion of love and gratitude to Jesus. It’s actually rather sensual—and, perhaps, a bit embarrassing to those who don’t understand it. Her gift of anointing Jesus (who is already considered “the anointed” as that is what the words Messiah and Christ mean) with perfume and then touching his feet with her unbound hair is a shameless act of devotion. Such an act could only come from a heart so full of adoration that it is blind and deaf to the restraints of the culture. As this woman humbles herself to wash her rabbi’s feet, the sweet fragrance of her love fills the room and touches all who experience it.

Judas can’t understand this outpouring of love. He sees only the economics involved. The perfume is expensive, and the money could’ve been put to more practical use.  Typical guy. And typical of Christians at times. We’re so often more comfortable discussing the church budget than we are talking about our love for Christ.

But when we have a real encounter with God, or when we encounter someone who has had a real encounter with God, we are changed. We may not typically notice the aromas which surround us, but when they are associated with a powerful experience the scent seeps into our cells and becomes part of who we are, part of our body, part of our very being.

I think one of the messages of this Gospel lesson is for us to learn to worship from our female side, to let ourselves be open to the devotion to Christ which transcends theology or doctrine, which transcends our need for practical explanations and opens us to the pure desire to be in love with God. As we near the holy days in which we remember our Lord’s suffering and death, let’s just experience the mystery of his great love for us and simply love for love’s own sake.

Yes, it’s certain that we will always have the poor with us. But how much better it would be to find first the Mary-like passion for Jesus in ourselves, and then to love Jesus through love of the poor.

May God bless and keep you during this holy time. Thanks for reading

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Oh, Quit Your Whining! (Reflections on Lent Four, Year C)

The Parable of the Prodigal Son as envisioned by Rembrandt 
So I’m trying to come up with a new idea to preach for this Sunday’s Gospel text (Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32), which is pretty much at the top of “Jesus Christ’s Greatest Hits.” It’s the parable of the Prodigal Son. We all know this story, right? The young son of the landowner asks for his inheritance early so he can go blow it on partying and hookers. When he’s flat broke and down on his luck he comes crawling back to his dad to beg forgiveness. His merciful pop rejoices to have the young idiot back again. After all, the kid is his son. Unfortunately, the prodigal’s faithful big brother gets his shorts in a wedgie (metaphorically speaking) because Dad is making a fuss over this sinful, wasteful, deadbeat brother but has never done anything special for him.

Jesus’ point?

“I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

And that moral is pretty obvious from the text. Maybe I should just read the Gospel and sit my overly loquacious butt down. Ya think..?

I mean, it seems pretty simple: God’s desire for us is for repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Period. But this story is loaded with so much family dynamic that I could probably go on forever parsing all the subtleties of this text. However, “going on forever” is not a very good idea for preachers, so I’ll just reflect on something which is speaking to me rather loudly in this American election year.

To me, the character of the elder son is an indictment against our constant, sinful desire to divide the world into “them” and “us.” Recently, I seem to be hearing so much idiocy being spewed by people either in the church or in politics about who is deserving and who isn’t.

In the parable, the elder son may think it’s all well and good for him to whine about his undeserving moron of a brother getting so much love from Daddy just because he repents, but this overgrown crybaby really doesn’t have anything to complain about. In the world of the text he will be the beneficiary of primogeniture—the practice of leaving the bulk of an estate to the elder son. By no merit of his own—just the accident of birth order—this kid is going to inherit everything when his old man kicks the bucket. All the work he does with his dad will ultimately be to his own benefit. You’d think with so much going for him he might be able to spare just a little bit of compassion for the rough road his brother has been on.

Unfortunately, as individuals and as a society we all just love to indulge in self-righteous self-pity. Here’s what I hear the Elder Son saying these days:

“No amnesty for illegals! Our parents came here legally and learned English. Why are we giving law-breakers a free pass?” Why? Because so many of these “lawbreakers” were kids when they came to the US. Their parents have done work we were not willing to do. They’ve grown up in our country, learned in our schools, paid our sales taxes, and have been willing to fight in our military. And our faith teaches mercy, compassion, and reconciliation.

“There’s a war on Christianity! Our religious liberty is being threatened!” If Christianity is under attack, why haven’t I been arrested? We Christians are still the largest religious tradition in the United States, and the largest religious tradition on the face of the planet. “They” (whoever “they” are) can take away prayer in public school and take the Ten Commandments off courthouse walls, but when the sun rises tomorrow the followers of Jesus Christ will still be the most culturally dominant force in the world. It takes nothing away from our faith that our Muslim neighbors are opening a youth center around the corner from my church. Our job as Christians will still be to reflect the love of Christ to everyone.

“Reverse discrimination!” Like the elder son, the accident of my birth makes me the heir to considerable privilege. I’m a white, heterosexual, male living in America. I did nothing to earn the privileges I enjoy. I do, however, have a Christian responsibility to see that such advantages can be shared by all people. It takes nothing away from me to see others get ahead—especially if they’ve been behind for a very long time.

Let’s face it: If we talk about sin, none of us are deserving of the grace we’ve been given. None of us deserve to live in a world which is as magnificent as the one God has created and generously sustained for us. It’s time we stop our whining and get on with our work—to repent, to forgive, and to reconcile.

Thanks for reading, my friends. Drop by again, won’t you?

PS- For another (and less topical) take on this parable, you might want to check out an older post I wrote by clicking here.