Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pondering Independence Day (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year C)

I love the Fourth of July. When you’re in Philadelphia, it’s kind of hard not to feel patriotic this time of year. When I was a little kid the Fourth was  a big deal because it was my grandmother’s birthday. We’d always have a special party with hot-dogs and the like on the afternoon of Independence Day, and at night our neighbor would put on a highly illegal fireworks display in the street in front of our house. All the neighborhood kids would come out, and it would always be fun. There are tons of great memories I associate with this holiday.

Now, however, I guess I try to think more about the purpose of the celebration. I don’t want it to be just an excuse for a cookout or a glorification of “America’s great and all the rest of you countries suck.” I want this day, for all of its fun and hoopla, to be a cause for reflection.

This week I’m drawn to the Hebrew scripture lesson appointed for Pentecost Seven, Isaiah 66: 10-14. It’s a call for the people of Jerusalem to rejoice over their homeland:

Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her— (v. 66:10)

Isn’t this what our national holiday is about? We rejoice for our homeland because we love her, even though we might also mourn over her.

In Isaiah 66 the Hebrew exiles have returned (although most of them had never been to Jerusalem before, they were born in Babylon and only learned about it from their parents) to their ancestral homeland to find it pretty jacked-up. The great temple of Solomon was in ruins, and the city had not been repaired since the Babylonians had torched the place a generation before. There was plenty to cry about. BUT, there was also God’s promise that they were still, in spite of all the mistakes they had made and all the rotten things which had befallen them, God’s very own people. This desolated homeland would become like a mother to them. The place would offer comfort, become a refuge, and be a land of prosperity.

I wonder if the early American patriots felt the same way about their new land when our war of revolution was over. After all, they had pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honors, and a lot of what they’d pledged was lost. The war claimed about 25,000 American lives (most died of disease while in the military), cost millions of dollars and ran up a national debt while destroying homes and farms, and led to some very dishonorable behavior towards fellow citizens in the form of retaliation against loyalists as well as riots and desertions. I try to imagine what those first Americans thought when the dust had cleared out and they were left with the responsibility of making a nation out of the wreckage. Did they sense the need to rejoice as well as to mourn?

On this national holiday, I feel a need to do a little of both. I may not believe that the United States is exactly the New Jerusalem, but I’m still pretty jazzed and feel darn lucky to live here. And I still feel that there is great promise in this land. Granted, we’ve done some pretty stupid things in the recent past, and we have some big messes we need to clean up. We are still mourning forty-nine people massacred in Orlando by a lunatic with an assault rifle. Homes are being destroyed and lives lost by floods in West Virginia. Huge parts of this nation are strangled by massive unemployment while heroin use soars. The so-called Global War on Terror continues to take our young people to Afghanistan, and our wounded veterans’ needs are overpowering the ability of the VA to service them. Income inequality is eroding our democracy and turning us into a feudal state, and the hyperbolic rhetoric of this current presidential election isn’t helping the national mood a friggin’ bit.

Rejoice? Mourn? Love? All of the above.

Like those Hebrew exiles who returned to a devastated Jerusalem and those early Americans who tried to carve a nation out of the rabble of thirteen war-weary, debt-ridden, and culturally diverse former British colonies, we in the US can rejoice that we are not abandoned by God. Granted, I don’t expect the Almighty to rescue us from the consequence of our own idiocy, but I don’t believe we have been left destitute either.

One of my favorite quotes in recent political history comes from former President Bill Clinton: “There’s nothing wrong with America that can’t be cured by what’s right with America.” We are still a democracy. We are still rich in resources—the most powerful of which is the imagination of our citizens. We still enjoy fundamental freedoms of expression and of belief, and we don’t have a war raging on our home soil. We are fortunate people, indeed, when compared to many on this planet.

I believe that God is always good to us, just as a parent continues to love a disobedient child. My bishop, Claire Burkat, said when she accepted the episcopal position that she knew God would provide her with everything she needed—no more, no less. The seventy disciples Jesus sends forth in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost Seven (Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20) are sent with only the clothes on their backs. They take no extra provisions for their mission. They must move ahead in the faithful belief that God has already given them everything they will really require to proclaim the Kingdom.

As Americans, blessed with overwhelming material wealth and prosperity, we still have a mission to spread some of this prosperity abroad and try to contribute as best we can to peace and compassion around the globe. As God’s church, poised as we are on the brink of fiscal doom, we can remember that we are no worse off than those seventy disciples who set out with nothing to proclaim the Kingdom. As individuals, we will know in our hearts that we are beloved of our Creator, and that on our worst day we will still be the beneficiaries of more blessings than we can count. We have God and we have each other. And it is enough.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Formal Apology to the Turkey Vulture

Dear Brother Turkey Vulture,

First, let me apologize for calling you a buzzard. I know that’s not your correct name, and I’m sorry I used it in my blog post of June 2, 2016 titled “Unclean Love.” I used you as an example of touching the dead and I called you repulsive and disgusting. That was very unfair of me. I’m sorry. I also ask your forgiveness for saying that you’re ugly. I’m sure that to bird lovers and other vultures you’re very attractive. Your friend “Anonymous” wrote to tell me not to be too hard on you. I won’t be. You see, I think we might just have a lot in common.

I, too, live off of the recently deceased just as you do (although I don’t eat them). In my time as an urban pastor I have been called on to officiate over 400 funerals—most of which have been for people I’ve never met. Local funeral directors call me and pay me a fee to do these memorial services. I’m very thankful for this as my parochial income isn’t gigantic, so a few extra bucks here and there really helps me out.

Here’s the weird thing: Just like you, I don’t seem to suffer any real ill effects from dealing with the dead. I’ve buried auto accident victims, drug overdoses, suicides, and even a murder victim. Yes, it’s a little hard to do at times—especially if someone dies way too young. Once I had to bury the infant son of a couple whose wedding I’d performed. That was tough. Even harder was the time I presided at the service of an eleven-year-old boy who died suddenly of a brain aneurism. From all accounts, he was a vibrant, polite, smart, and just plain nice kid. I think the worst thing ever is for a parent to have to bury their child. You don’t ever get over that.

When I was in seminary I had to do this thing called CPE. The letters stand for Clinical Pastoral Education, but we used to joke and call it “Cruel Perverted Experience.” I spent three months—over 500 working hours—as chaplain on the cancer wards at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Sometimes I’d have to do “on call” hours. My last on call was a Sunday morning. I remember it was raining enough to make you think of building an ark. I mean really coming down. As I was preparing for the Sunday chapel service, I got paged to the trauma bay. It seems this guy had gotten himself knifed in the groin on a street corner in West Philly. It was, we thought, probably a drug deal gone bad, but I don’t think I ever found out the real story.

The policewoman who accompanied the victim to the Emergency Department described the scene on the street as an ocean of blood with the victim’s blood turning the rain puddles scarlet. She asked me to bless her, which I did. The trauma team was hard at work when I got to the bay, but there was blood everywhere. The guy’s femoral artery had been cut, and blood poured out of him as fast as the IV bags could pump it in.

A real trauma bay is nothing like it is on TV. It’s actually much quieter and calmer. The trauma team wear protective gear that makes them look like they’re ready for deep sea diving, and the attending physician stands quietly behind the precaution tape on the floor in white lab coat with goggles around his neck like a WWII general. He serenely directed the proceedings, calmly rotating the residents, giving each an opportunity to save this life. The paddles were brought out and the patient was repeatedly shocked to restart his heart.

I looked down for a moment to make some notes for the Trauma Chaplain who would follow up with this patient and his family. When I looked up, I saw that the team had opened and cracked the patient’s chest cavity. A resident’s hand was manually massaging his heart in an attempt to get it to pump. For a moment, the scene became surreal. The hand in the chest looked for all the world like someone stuffing a Thanksgiving turkey (no offense to you, I hope). It had lost its humanity, and it was an effort for me to remember that this strange thing was an actual human being. But I came back to myself and began to pray for this man’s life.

This was the only time I was ever paged to the trauma bay at HUP when a patient did not survive. The attending quietly said, “I’m going to call it,” and announced the time of death. The team covered the body quietly and professionally.

Soon afterwards the victim’s family arrived, and, after the attending delivered the sad news, I asked them all into the small consult room for prayer. When I left to preside at the chapel service that morning it occurred to me that I had not fainted or vomited at the sight of the wounded man whose body had been torn apart in an effort to save his life. I was much more wounded by the grief of his family. But I knew at that moment that I could do the job of ministry.

And I keep doing this. I believe, you see, that grief can be a holy thing. We cannot mourn without first being able to love. Maybe that is why we Christians worship before the image of a dying man. We know how beautiful life and love are when we acknowledge how painful it is to lose them. I also believe that every human life—even that of the dullest person you’ve ever met—is in some way epic. We are all part of God, all connected by the Holy Spirit, and we all have the potential to know tremendous moments of joy and horrible moments of loss and despair. We are all connected, and every loss has the potential to make us either more or less human, depending on how we are willing to embrace it.

I also believe that in the odyssey of every human life Christ is in some way revealed—in love, in sacrifice, in faith or (but not often) in the lack thereof. So I will continue my association with the dead if only to fulfill the purpose of pointing to Jesus Christ.

So thank you, dear Turkey Vulture, for taking care of the dead in your way. I find it an honor to take care of them in mine.

Pastor Owen

Let It Go (Reflections on Pentecost 6, Year C)

Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:62)

Note: I am publishing this a week early as I will be on holiday the week of Pentecost 5.

You know who my very first celebrity crush was on? Diana Rigg. When I was a kid, I thought she was the prettiest thing on two legs. Today she’s Dame Diana, one of England’s most honored actresses and one of the stars of the TV series Game of Thrones. Although I will always remember this celebrated talent as Mrs. Peel in the 1960’s TV show The Avengers and as James Bond’s bride in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, my favorite Diana Rigg performance was in a 1975 television movie called In this House of Brede.

The movie was based on a 1969 novel by Rumor Godden. It begins with an early middle-aged Rigg entering an English pub and ordering a huge glass of wine. She sits at a table and smokes an entire pack of cigarettes. Then we see her leaving the pub and entering the gates of a convent. Her character has had one last taste of worldly vice, but is now leaving it all behind for the sake of the Kingdom. It’s a very moving story.

Renunciation. That’s kind of what both the Hebrew Scripture and Gospel stories in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 6 Year C are about. When we decide we’re really going to get serious about a life in the Christian faith, there are some things we’re just going to have to give up. I was an actor—and a very unsuccessful one, I might add—before finally realizing that God had other plans for me. I didn’t have too hard a time letting my memberships in the various theatrical unions lapse when I entered the seminary, but, just before I accepted the call to my parish, I was cleaning out some junk in my basement and found my old make-up box. I hadn’t touched the paints and tools inside it for years, and, by the time I discovered it, it was probably just a big hotel for germs. Nevertheless, it felt like amputating a limb to toss it in the trash. But I did. I had become a different guy from the one who used that box, the guy who loved nothing better than to smear goo on his face and pretend he was someone else.

Jesus is pretty darn severe in the appointed Gospel lesson (Luke 9:51-62). He warns a would-be follower that discipleship will mean renouncing the comforts of home (v.58). He doesn’t even give another potential disciple a chance to go to his dad’s funeral (v.60). If we’re serious about our journey, we have to recognize discipleship—changing our lives to draw nearer to God’s plan for us—is going to mean jettisoning a few things. It will start with dealing with addictions. No porn or gambling or drug and alcohol abuse. It will mean letting go of some previous ideas about our own identity. It might mean parting ways with some people and toxic relationships in our lives. It’s most certainly going to mean re-prioritizing the way we look at our time and our financial resources.

In the Hebrew scripture lesson for this Sunday (1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21) Elisha gets tapped to be the apprentice prophet to the Jewish people and the successor to Elijah. He kisses his parents good-bye, and then gives away all of his wealth. He’s in a nomadic society which values livestock as currency, so he kills all his oxen, barbecues them by setting fire to the equipment used to drive them, and gives away all of the meat. I imagine this story might have inspired Saint Francis of Assisi when he gave his father back all of his clothing and walked naked into the wilderness to live a life of faithfulness to God alone.

Now I grant that it’s still pretty hard for most of us to renounce the world when we still have to live in it. We’re not all going to sell all we have and give the money to the poor to follow Jesus. But I would hope we look at these lessons as a caution against the idols of this world. We will be freer and happier people when we learn to unbind ourselves from things which draw us away from God.

A detail I particularly like in this Gospel story is how Jesus has no time for the disciples’ societal prejudice against the Samaritans (52-54). The Zebedee brothers are all set to have God avenge a slight they feel they’ve received from their long-time rivals. Jesus, however, doesn’t have time for this. He’s set his face to Jerusalem, and figures that obedience to God demands that you just have to let some stuff go. I wish we all could get behind that.

It’s not just our own stuff we have to give the heave to, either. Collectively, the Church will have to put some things behind her, too. Maybe we have to give up the idea of full-time professional clergy (Ouch!), or giant buildings which cost so much to maintain. Liturgies and musical styles are always evolving with the times in an effort to reach new demographics. It might be swell to look back at the good ol’ days, but that won’t get us where we need to go.

God’s peace be with you, my friends. Keep looking forward.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Mary Chapin Carpenter, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus (Reflections on Pentecost 4, Year C)


Whatever happened to Mary Chapin Carpenter? I really loved this singer-songwriter. I thought she must have a beautiful soul. Her songs were full of poetic, heart-aching images, and I’d rather hear her sing “Down at the Twist ‘N’ Shout” than be a kid again at Christmas. I went to hear her in concert at Philadelphia’s Mann Music Center in the fall of 1997. The woman on stage looked a trifle heavier than the elegant blond who appeared on the liner of the CD I’d just purchased, and the long, golden hair was snipped shorter to accommodate the Indian summer heat. But none of that mattered once she began to sing. Her music had the same painful honesty I was expecting, and the voice was as pure as the night air.

Midway through the concert, as Ms. Carpenter paused to introduce a new song, an ebullient male fan shouted from the back of the stalls, “I love you, Chapin!” The singer was silent for a second, and peered out over the crowd. A sardonic grin spread across her face. “If you only knew what a slob I am,” she said. “We’d break up within a week, and then I’d have to write songs about you.” The audience howled with laughter.

If you only knew the real me. That seems to be the theme of this week’s gospel in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 7:38 – 8:3). Jesus finds himself being honored by a party-crashing woman who is behaving, to say the very least, erratically and probably inappropriately if judged by the rules of her culture. This “woman of the city, who was a sinner” is anointing Jesus’ feet, weeping, and using her unbound hair as a towel. It is an unseemly act of devotion. Jesus’ host, Simon the Pharisee, seems to think that if Jesus really were a true prophet, he’d know who this gal was and would never allow her to touch him.

There’s a huge difference between the image and the reality, isn’t there? The glamorous music star who sees herself as a “slob” or the pious supplicant who is seen as a “sinner” both represent us in some way. Our worldly image might be one of piety or cleverness or elegance, but inside we’re filled with anger and insecurity and depression. If the real us were on display, would anyone—even Jesus—want anything to do with us?

What we see in the woman in the Gospel story is a soul hungry for forgiveness, desperate for approval. It’s the image of one who has really taken a wrong turn in life—even though the Bible doesn’t exactly tell us what that wrong turn was. Was she a prostitute? An adulteress? Did she consort with the wrong kind of people? Just what did she do to make Simon the Pharisee despise her so much? Even Jesus is willing to admit that she’d done something. She’s got a stain on her which the world just won’t let her wash off.

But inside this woman is a heart which longs for Jesus and believes that the one who had pity on the widow of Nain and who was a “friend of tax collectors and sinners” (7:34) would find her worthy of his compassion. And she was right.

In this story we hear Jesus speak the words which are the cornerstone of our faith: “Your faith has saved you.” (7:50) To the world you may be a rock star, but to yourself you may be a slob. To Jesus you are both and neither. You are a beloved, if erring, child. It takes real faith to see this and understand it and internalize it. But if you can, it brings the peace that passes understanding.

I like to think that this story is not just about us as individuals. The contrast between the sinful woman and the scornful Pharisee also speaks to us collectively as the Church. Jesus loves the church in spite of our hypocrisy, pettiness, and tendency to be judgmental. If we have faith in this, we have the possibility to be compassionate and to be molded into the kind of community Christ intended us to be. If we’re willing to kneel at Christ’s feet and ask forgiveness for our institutional sins—which are many, by the way—we might find in his great forgiveness great love which will embrace this weeping world.
Mary Magdalene as seen by 17th cent. artist, Guido Reni

A final thought: Note the inclusion in this pericope of verses 8:1-3. I don’t think anyone who read this text with an ounce of common sense could ever identify Mary Magdalene with the “woman of the city” mentioned in 7:36-50. The idea that Mary was a reformed hooker comes from Pope Gregory the Great in a sermon he preached around the end of the sixth century. The old boy must’ve been getting into the communion wine, because Luke is clearly writing about two different women here. What is notable about Mary M., however, is that she was once demonically possessed—a fact which might be considered disqualifying on a seminary application. Nevertheless, she was a true disciple of Jesus, and God used her for his glory. Faith tells us that God can use any slob he wants—even the likes of me and you. Believe it.

Thanks for hanging out with me. Please drop by again, and don’t be afraid to leave a comment.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

"Unclean" Love (Reflections on Pentecost 3, Year C)

Altar Panel by Lucas Cranac

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’ This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. (Luke 7:11-17)

Did your mom ever tell you not to touch dead things?

Out where I live, in the quasi-rural ‘burbs outside of Philadelphia, we have these things called turkey buzzards. They are absolutely the most revolting animals you’ll ever see. Not only are they uglier than a bridesmaid’s dress, but they actually eat dead things. Whenever Bambi decides to cross the highway without looking both ways and gets splattered across the side of the road by a soccer mom in a Cadillac Escalade, you’ll see a whole convention of these disgusting birds having a smorgasbord meal on the deer’s carcass. When I consider that some of these dead deer have been rotting in the sun for over a week, I almost want to turn vegetarian when I see the turkey buzzards chowing down on a feast of reddish grey bacteria which once was venison.
Turkey Buzzard eating something dead.

Some things are just unclean. In the Gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 3 in the Revised Common Lectionary (see above), Jesus does a ritually unclean thing. He touches the bier of a dead man. Contact with a corpse was considered impure and would, in this culture, require an elaborate system of purification in order for someone like Jesus to be considered fit for society again. The guys carrying the dead guy’s stretcher just stop dead in their tracks when Jesus walks right up and touches this unclean thing. But Jesus couldn’t give a crap about that. He’s ready to touch the yucky things so he can do an act of mercy.

One of my favorite theologians, the Rev. Stephen Bouman (former Bishop of the Metropolitan New York Synod and one swell guy!), always said we should let Jesus teach us how to do ministry. What he teaches us in this story is the necessity of the Church to touch the dark and unpleasant things in life in order to bring healing and justice. Do you notice that Jesus isn’t so much concerned about the dead man as he is about the dead man’s mom? After all, the dead guy is dead. Nothing much worse is going to happen to him, but, in this culture, his mom is really up the creek in a chicken wire canoe. She’s a widow with no son. This means that she has no identity in the culture and no means of financial support. She’s just landed on the welfare rolls which, in New Testament times, meant living off the charity of some distant relative or begging in the streets. But Jesus has compassion for her, and he’s willing to get a little dirty, defiled, and socially objectionable in order to put her right.

Face it: We can never bring the light until we acknowledge the darkness. Outside my office is a meeting room where Alcoholics Anonymous groups gather six times every week. There’s a sign with the Twelve Steps which proclaims “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” That’s the first step to recovery. We can never have life until we face the sin that’s killing us. We have to go there and encounter it. As people in Christ we can’t be afraid to confront those dark places, to enter into places of poverty, loneliness, addiction, and grief. There is no Easter without Good Friday.

Every summer my parish hosts homeless families in our basement for a month. We welcome them, give them shelter, prepare dinners for them, play with their kids, and encourage them to get back on their feet through our partnership with Interfaith Hospitality Network. There are some in the congregation who complain that our guests are often messy, grumpy, rude, and their kids are totally undisciplined brats. I agree wholeheartedly with those church members, but I try to remind them that if our guests actually had their act together they wouldn’t need to live in our church basement. We exist to touch the hurting and the broken, not the clean and comfortable.

The really cool thing about this story is the fact that Jesus doesn’t get infected by touching the dead. The smell and decay does not rub off on the Lord of Life. Rather, his righteousness and justice and mercy rub off on the widow, her son, and all who witness this miracle. This is the counterintuitive promise of our faith—God’s righteousness can be just as infectious as decay, pessimism, depression, and panic. Knowing this fact lets us go into the places of sadness and despair and bring new life.

I have a recently retired colleague whose ministry always seemed to illustrate the Spirit’s infectious quality. Pastor Kevin never did anything really sexy in his ministry. That’s to say he didn’t start a new social ministry organization, didn’t make headlines by protesting social injustice, and didn’t serve an underserved population. He never wrote a book or published a column in a religious journal. He was just a darn good parish pastor in blue-collar Northeast Philadelphia. He kept a congregation alive and worshiping through his ebullient joy in the Lord. His love of Jesus and sense of righteousness rubbed off on the people, and they became infected with his love of the Gospel.

This is our challenge as Christians: To touch the dirty and the decaying with a spirit of God’s love, justice, compassion, and light, and to believe that we, too, are healers.

Get a little dirty this week, my dears. Thanks for stopping by!