Thursday, July 28, 2016

Bigger Barns (Reflections on Pentecost Eleven, Year C)

Image result for images of large American Homes
I like my neighborhood in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia, but I’m a little curious about my neighbors. You see, we live in a “55 and Over” community. That is, the neighborhood is restricted to people who have hit double nickels in age and who, I suppose, don’t want to live around a bunch of little kids anymore. No one under eighteen is supposed to be a full-time resident. I guess I can understand that, but what I don’t understand is why most of my neighbors have such big freakin’ homes.

The home my wife and I bought is a modest one-half of a duplex with two bedrooms and one bath and it’s just big enough for the two of us and our shih-tzu dog and still comfy if our daughter wants to come and spend the night. Many of our neighbors, on the other hand, are living in virtual palaces which range from 1,724 square feet of living space to a whopping 2,731 square feet. My question is: Why do you need all that room? You don’t have kids at home anymore, folks! If you’re downsizing in your old age, just what the heck did you live in before—Windsor Castle..??!

I’ve also noticed that my neighbors have garages stuffed with so many boxes that they can’t fit their cars in them. “We’ve been here almost a year,” one of them told me,” and we just haven’t managed to unpack everything yet.” Now my philosophy is: if you haven’t used it in over a year, you don’t need it. Give it to someone who does.

Bigger barns. More stuff. Just like the guy in the gospel lesson assigned for Pentecost Eleven in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 12: 13-21). He’s got so much more than he will ever live to need. You have to wonder why he doesn’t solve his storage problem by giving some of it away. I guess it’s because he feels a need to be in control, and the idea of praying only for “daily bread” and not for a month’s supply makes him feel weak and vulnerable. In a 1955 letter to an American friend C.S. Lewis wrote:

“For it is a dreadful truth that the state of…’having to depend solely on God’ is what we all dread most. And of course that just shows how very much, how almost exclusively, we have been depending on things. But trouble goes so far back in our lives and is now so deeply ingrained, we will not turn to Him as long as He leaves us anything else to turn to.” (Original emphasis)

The problem is of course, things, barns, bank accounts, and the like can’t protect us from cancer, heartbreak, or our own mortality. I don’t have to tell you this. You already know it. I don’t suppose any of you want your epitaph to read “He/She was the wealthiest person in town.” You’d much rather have it say “He/She was a good person who loved God and was loved by all.”

So what does it mean to be rich toward God? (v. 21) I’d have to say that one is rich towards God if one has an active life of prayer, a heart full of compassion, a love of the scripture, a passion for worship, a vast capacity for forgiveness, and a joyful faith in God’s goodness. And, even though I believe these are gifts of the Holy Spirit, like any other talents they need to be nurtured and exercised. We need to be constantly re-investing in our relationship with God. This is a hard habit to get into—even for me.

Down the street from where I live is the local mega-church. They’re just finishing building their new worship space. It’s half as big as Rhode Island and I can’t begin to guess how many Christians will fit inside it. My own little urban Lutheran church is pretty pitiful in comparison. I’m sure the folks who worship in this big barn are good people who love God and their neighbor, but I can’t help but wonder what their fellowship might be like if they didn’t build this new barn. Could they have chosen to hold more worship service in their previous, smaller space and given all the money they’ve spent on new construction and the upkeep of this humongous facility to the poor? Would they be richer in the things of God if they did? I’m just asking.

Thanks for visiting, my friends!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Saint of the Month: Augusta Gudhart

Image result for images of Augusta Gudhart
Some weeks ago I received a phone call from a neighbor named Karen who needed help obtaining a wheelchair. I sent out a few emails and, by golly, somebody in my parish had a wheelchair they were happy to donate. I wouldn’t have thought more about this except that Karen proudly informed me that she was the great niece of a once-legendary but now mostly forgotten heroine of Lutheran ministry named Augusta Gudhart.

Augusta Gudhart, RN was born in Eastern Europe (whether Poland or Russia I can’t say. The data is inexact) in 1884 and came with her family to America in 1900. She graduated from nursing school in Pittsburgh in 1910 and in 1912 she heeded a call to join the Lutheran Oriental Mission and set out for the Middle East to bring aid, medicine, and Christianity to the Kurdish people.

I suspect Augusta was an old-fashioned type missionary who sprinkled her compassionate aid to orphans and others with liberal doses of doctrine in an attempt to save souls from what she feared was the pitfall of Islam. Today’s missionaries are a bit more open-minded in their thinking, dispensing compassion while respecting the religious traditions of those who receive it. In Augusta’s day, however, Lutherans and others burned with a zeal to make converts. They must’ve been successful as small pockets of Christians remain in the Middle East today, descendants of those who first received the faith from American and European missionaries.

Augusta, along with her fellow American Lutheran missionaries, established an orphanage and clinic in an area in the Ottoman Empire, most likely part of modern-day Iraq. For over two decades off and on she taught, nursed, delivered babies, tended wounds, and loved Kurdish people. She often faced privation and, upon occasion, terrible danger.

Many of the mission’s efforts were frustrated by the violence and changing power structures of the First World War. In October of 1921, the town where Augusta served, Souj-Boulagh, was besieged by Kurdish marauders who believed it to be an outpost of Persian troops. Augusta survived artillery shells, but encountered blood-thirsty brigands who stripped her of her clothing and beat her. The mission was looted of all valuables, save those which Augusta had cleverly buried in a cellar and camouflaged with fire wood. The Lutheran pastor was shot dead and died in front of his wife. Augusta appealed to the brigand chieftain, whom she had known previously, for safety. She and a handful of other women were granted safe passage to Persia, but not before she witnessed the mass execution of Persian prisoners. Her trek to safety was accomplished largely on foot across rocky terrain.

Augusta recorded her witness of the siege of Souj-Boulagh in an article for the Atlantic Monthly in 1922 entitled “The Blood of the Martyrs.” In spite of the violence she witnessed, Augusta returned to the Middle East and served an additional eleven years. She bore no animosity towards the Kurds. She later returned to Pennsylvania and continued in her calling as a nurse and midwife well into her maturity. She died in 1985 at the age of 101.

America’s involvement in the Middle East has always been a perilous undertaking. In the current political climate, with civil war in Syria, the rise of ISIS, a far-from-stable Iraq, questions over Iran’s nuclear intentions, al Queda, Hamas, etcetera, it’s easy for us to dismiss the region as a hotbed of our enemies—barbaric, medieval fanatics bent on our destruction. For Augusta Gudhart, however, there were no enemies. There were only God’s children. She and so many like her ventured to distant lands to obey Jesus’ call to “Feed my sheep.” Her memory serves to remind us that we live on a very small planet, and our differences can never be solved at the point of a gun. She is a witness to the words of the old gospel hymn:

“For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums,
But deeds of love and mercy the heav’nly kingdom comes.”

You can read Augusta’s account of her ordeal at Souj-Boulagh online by clicking Augusta.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Thy Kingdom Come (Reflections on Pentecost Ten, Year C)

“Thy kingdom come.” How many times have we prayed that? And what do we mean when we pray it? Are you praying for the end of time when Jesus will return and establish his kingdom on earth? Or are you praying for a world worthy of Christ’s sacrifice, one in which the love of God is the motivation in all of our actions and relationships?

I guess we pretty much know what Jesus’ disciples thought when Jesus first taught them this petition. The poor guys whose supplication inspires Jesus’ teaching in the lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Ten (Luke 11:1-13) were looking forward to a glorious earthly kingdom. They were waiting for Jesus to bring back the kingdom they’d heard about when they were kids—the one in which their ancestor David kicked the snot out of all of their enemies and established Zion in glory and victory before the nations of the earth. They must’ve been praying for the rescue of their country from Roman occupation and the restoration of their national pride. Maybe they contemplated making baseball caps emblazoned with “Thy Kingdom Come!” or “Make Israel Great Again!”

But what does this phrase which Jesus tells us to pray mean for us?

I always wonder why the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary marry certain Bible stories together. This week Jesus’ injunction for us to be in continual prayer is wedded to the story of Abraham beseeching God to be merciful to the city of Sodom (Genesis 18:20-32). If you remember from last week, Abraham has just shown pretty impressive hospitality to some wandering strangers. This story is juxtaposed with the disgusting and shameful way the Sodomites treat the foreigners in Genesis 19 (And please note: the context of this story is not a condemnation of homosexuality. The threatened rape of the visitors is more like a prison rape—an act intended more for violent domination than sexual gratification).

Interestingly, God does not actually tell Abraham that He plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but old Abe assumes that God’s righteous anger will be pretty bad news for the town where his nephew, Lot, is living with his family. Abraham, out of family devotion, begins to pray to God for mercy for Lot—even if it means showing mercy to some xenophobic, violent, bigots who probably deserve the family-sized can of whoop-ass he’s certain God will open on them.

God seems perfectly willing to forgive the guilty for the sake of the innocent and accepts Abraham’s first offer. Personally, I think God is just jerking Abraham around. God’s actually willing to be much more merciful than Abraham believes, but he really makes Abe sweat to know this. Abe keeps praying, wheeling and dealing with God for more mercy. I don’t think Abraham’s begging is changing who God is, but God is changing Abraham by teaching him mercy—even for enemies who are outside God’s righteousness.

This, I think, is why prayer is so necessary. We are what we pray, and if we pray for grace we will become gracious. Jesus teaches us to pray for God’s kingdom to come. Martin Luther always taught that God’s will and God’s kingdom will certainly come without our praying for them, but we are taught to pray that this kingdom might be acceptable to our selfish hearts. Again, the prayer doesn’t change God, but rather we are asking God to change us.

Unfortunately, I suspect—especially after watching a week of the Republican National Convention—that our idea of the coming kingdom is much more in line with what Jesus’ disciples were hoping for and much less in line with the kingdom of mercy and righteousness preached by our Lord himself. God’s kingdom is not a superpower which glories in its superiority over other nations while worshiping wealth, military might, and victory over others. Neither is it a socialist utopia. Both of these ideas have been tried on this planet, and both have been miserable and painful failures.

The kingdom of God must come from a place of mercy—even for those whom we despise. I must confess that this is tough for me these past few weeks. Terrorist attacks, the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police who seem to have used excessive force, and the utterly insane “retaliation” of sick individuals which has resulted in the murder of eight police officers have not brought as much puss into my heart as has the vitriolic rhetoric of the RNC. This vitriol has made me want to respond with vitriol of my own. My sinful reaction is poisoning me and drawing me further from the cross of Christ, further from the crucified God who proclaimed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

As much as anyone else, I need to pray the way Jesus taught, and keep on praying. The prayer our Lord gave us encapsulates everything for which we need to pray: for obedience to God’s rule of justice, mercy, and compassion; for provisions sufficient for our needs and not for a selfish surplus; for forgiveness and the willingness to forgive others; and for safety from all which draws us away from God. Jesus teaches us to pray this from our hearts, and to pray unceasingly.

God will not be changed by our prayer, but perhaps we can be changed into the kind of people who will create the kingdom God has intended for us.

Thank you for visiting, my friends. Pray for me, will you?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Some Thoughts on Exile

“By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”                   (Psalm 137:1)

 Some years ago I encountered a wonderful book by the Biblical scholar Marcus Borg called Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. One of the lessons I took away from Dr. Borg was how our Christian Bible is divided into three major narratives—the Exodus Story (Moses and the Red Sea and all that happy jazz), the Exile Story (the children of Judea as hostages in Babylon), and the Priestly Story (the sacrificial atonement of Jesus.)

As a Christian, I’m obviously drawn to the story of Jesus. The other two stories don’t seem to figure too strongly into our theology. Granted, the Exodus story has always resonated with Americans, and not just because ABC-TV likes to run The Ten Commandments in prime time every Easter night. Our immigrant experience commiserates with that of the Hebrew children who crossed through the waters into the Promised Land of religious freedom, milk and honey, and all that. Our African American brothers and sisters also hear their own slavery experience resonating in this tale of escape from bondage.

But what about that other story, the Exile Story? I’m not sure we ever think too much about that one. That’s strange as this narrative takes up almost a third of our Bible. The Hebrew Scripture history books from First Samuel on through Esther tell the tales which involve or lead up to the Exile, and the prophetic books deal almost exclusively with this theme. So what is it?

Historically, this event took place in 587 BC (or thereabouts) when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire and the elite “brain trust” of the Hebrew people were rounded up and deported to Babylon. There they remained, lived, had children, and died until the Babylonians got creamed in a war by the Persians in 539 BC. (By the way, the Babylonians were the ancestors of the modern-day Iraqis, and the Persians were the early version of Iranians. Those guys just can’t ever seem to get along, can they?) The Persians allowed the displaced Jews to be repatriated, and so they returned to Zion to pick up the pieces from their defeat fifty years earlier.

But what does that have to do with you or me? Dr. Borg points out that God had mercy on the exiles, and never stopped loving them even when they were homeless and despairing. Today we are living in a world full of refugees, homelessness, and feelings of alienation. Perhaps this story of God’s mercy will inspire us to remember that God is God of the homeless and the stranger and will move us to compassion in our public policy. For us at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia, it is a call to solidarity with the homeless families who are sheltered in our basement during the month of August. As people in political discourse in a land of freedom and opportunity, it might encourage us to look with kindness towards the millions of Syrians who are fleeing an unending and barbaric civil war and searching for any kind of shelter they can find.

Marcus Borg points to another sort of Exile experience which never occurred to me. He suggests that many of us native-born Americans simply do not feel at home in our own lives. Our daily struggle can be a battle with alienation, feeling flat and estranged from that which gives us vitality and joy. We long to be reunited with the land of our youth—the time when we felt energized, excited, and optimistic. Perhaps our current experience is similar to that of the exiles in the scripture. We have run after false gods, and now we are paying the price. We are called to repentance, a “change of mind,” and a renewed search for the true God of our salvation.

What always struck me about the Exile Story as opposed to the Exodus Story is the fact that the exiles in Babylon, unlike the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, suffered through their own fault. The prophets warned that they had turned away from God by cheating and ignoring the poor, by worshiping idols, putting their faith in military strength rather than in God’s justice, and relying on purity rituals which honored the letter of the law but ignored its spirit. Their arrogance weakened the nation, and they refused to listen to the prophet’s warning to seek peace rather than war.

Yet God did not cease to be God even though His children went astray. True, God refused to protect them from the errors of their ways and the consequences of those errors. Nevertheless, God was always willing to rescue them and welcome them back home. Today things in America and the world seem to be going crazy. I don’t doubt that there are some who wish they could roll the clock back to a time when things seemed simpler than they do now. Politicians may promise us they can do that, but we know that only God’s will brings us home to ourselves. However our current political contest turns out, God will still be God, and God’s will is done either through us or in spite of us. This divine will supersedes our circumstances, and knowing this gives me peace.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Better Part (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year C)

If I do say so myself, my wife is an excellent hostess. She knows how to set a table and make hors d’oeuvres and create an elegant environment when we have guests in our home. She really gives it a lot of thought and prepares well in advance. She always has some wine and snack food on hand just in case one of our neighbors drops in unexpectedly.

Of the two of us, my bride is definitely the “Martha” character from this week’s Gospel lesson in the RCL (Luke 10:38-42). Me? I’m the “Mary.” I’m the one who sits down with the guests and chatters away while my poor spouse is still slaving in the kitchen, shooting me arch glances which unmistakably say, “When are you going to get off your butt and come help me..?!”

I’ll admit it’s pretty unfair. She does all the work and I garner all the enjoyment. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate all of the elegance which my beloved puts into entertaining our guests, but I sometimes think that all the effort which goes into good hospitality draws us away from the reason why we invited folks over in the first place. Don’t we just want to enjoy their company? Don’t we just want some time for some human interaction, to hear their stories, to be drawn deeper into their experiences, and to share a little of our own?

In the world and culture of this Gospel text, good hospitality was certainly expected. Look at the companion text from the Hebrew scriptures (Genesis 18:1-10a). Abraham practically writes the book on being a good host. He sees three wayfarers coming across the desert. The Bible never tells us whether he knows they’re God in Trinity or angels or what. I don’t think it matters to Abraham. Travelers across the dry wilderness will be tired, hungry, and thirsty. At several points in his life, Abraham was just like them. He entreats them to stop, promises them a snack, and then goes and prepares a huge feast for them (Okay. He actually has Sarah and one of the slaves prepare it. Typical dude. He makes the Little Woman do all the heavy lifting while he kicks back and shoots the bull with the guys.) In response to his mercy and kindness, he and Sarah are promised a child.

If she was inspired by the example of her ancestor Abraham, Martha must’ve been stoked to have the rabbi Jesus as a guest in her home. I imagine she cleaned the place from top to bottom, busted out the good china, and started cooking while the rooster was still snoring. She was making so much fuss for Jesus that she had no time to experience Jesus. Sure, she couldn’t do enough for him, but there’s a big difference between doing for someone and being with someone.

When I visit people in my parish, they often offer me something to eat or drink. I appreciate this, but it means that part of the visit is going to be spent with my host in the kitchen occupied with food prep. There’s one elderly couple I see regularly who I don’t think have ever offered me anything, but whose company and conversation I enjoy immensely. They make me feel at home just by showing that they’re glad I came.

Sometimes we get so busy doing church that we forget to be church. Yeah, it’s important that we discuss our budget and fund-raisers and property issues and event planning. I get that. But aren’t all of these issue secondary to hearing God’s word and experiencing Christ? Yes, the books must be balanced and the roof must be repaired, but why? The purpose of all of this is so we can be in relationship with Jesus.

Doesn’t your soul ever thirst for some good, human contact? Have you ever longed to ponder the ultimate questions of faith with someone with whom you feel emotionally safe?

There are a lot of great things about belonging to a church, but the better part is always meeting Christ—in the word, in the sacraments, and in each other.

God’s peace, my friends. Thanks again for visiting. I hope I’ve been a good host.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Outrageous Samaritan (Reflections on Pentecost 8, Year C)

The Good Samaritan - Aime Morot 1880

The parable of the Good Samaritan? Yeah, I guess we all know this one. This poor slob falls into the hands of bandits, gets rolled and has the crap beat out of him, and gets left lying in a pool of his own blood along the side of the road. Two very religious folks pass by him pretending they don’t see him or hear his whimpering for help. They don’t want to get involved. Then this foreign guy shows up, picks him up, gives him first aid, takes him to the local Super 8 Motel, and promises to take care of him—a complete stranger, mind you!—until he recovers. That’s a heck of a story.

In Jesus’ day this parable (Luke 10:25-37) would’ve been completely outrageous. Jesus make the hero of the story a Samaritan, a foreigner whom most Jews would consider to be an unclean heretic. This must’ve got a few of his listeners more than a little pissed off if they really enjoyed despising people who were “other” than themselves. Today, most of us have no real clue about the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, so we might try to figure out who would be an equally offensive substitute within our own context. Muslims? Illegal aliens? Donald Trump supporters? Who takes the place of that vile figure for us?

The problem is, focusing on the “otherness” of the hero in our politically correct environment tends to water down the audacity of the parable, don’t you think? I mean, don’t we all already know that God is love and that God loves all of God’s children regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation? Lesson learned among us decent, affirmative action, equal-rights-for-all folks, right?

But that doesn’t make the story any less outrageous. Why? Because the Samaritan actually stopped to help. He actually got involved and took a personal risk to do so because he had mercy and compassion in his heart. In the world of the text, he was taking a societal risk by a) helping a hated enemy and b) coming into contact with blood, thereby making him ritually unclean. You and I might not give a rip about that today, but consider that the Samaritan also put himself at physical risk by stopping in a place where murderous cutthroats were known to hang out. For all he knew, the wounded man might’ve been a decoy, a trap to lure a good-hearted soul into getting robbed himself! (Remember that scene in Silence of the Lambs where the girl stops to help a man with his arm in a cast load something into his van and the guy turns out to be a psycho murderer? It could happen. I’m just saying.)

But what’s really far-fetched in this tale is the fact that the Samaritan not only gives the guy first aid but actually assumes financial responsibility for him. He pays the inn-keeper the equivalent of two day’s income and promises to reimburse him for whatever he spends on the wounded man. What if the guy empties the mini bar? What if he runs up a huge room service tab? The Samaritan is willing to risk this out of pure compassion.

Would YOU be willing to do that for a stranger? I know I sure as hell wouldn’t!

To love our neighbor is to show radical mercy, and that’s a terrifying thing. It might ask us for a lot more than we are willing to give—financially, emotionally, and otherwise. We don’t want to get dragged into other peoples’ problems. Who knows? We might get sued. So we become the priests and the Levites of this story, coming up with ingenious ways of avoiding those in true need.

The lawyer in this story asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life. I think this is a lot more than just going to Heaven when we die. If our life really is eternal, shouldn’t we be living it now? When I consider this parable, I consider that the Samaritan represents someone who has truly gained salvation. He has been saved—rescued, really—from his societal prejudice and his fear. He lives in the truth of God’s goodness, providence, and merciful care. This allows him to take risks out of love.

The Samaritan’s pity is a sign of the eternal life within him. His good work did not produce his salvation. His salvation produced his good work.

Let’s all pray for our salvation in this world as well as the next. Thanks for reading, my friend.

PS-Want a good laugh? There's a spoof of this parable and political correctness on line. Seriously. It's pretty funny. Just click on the word Samaritan.