Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Challenged to "Hate" (Reflections on Pentecost Sixteen, Year C)

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Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:27)

I love horses. (I love dogs and cats too, but I can’t ride on them!) I used to do quite a lot of horseback riding in my younger days, and I’ve always been fascinated by the way horses communicate with each other. Recently, my esteemed colleague, Pastor Ben, shared with me a “horse whisperer” insight about the way horses welcome a new member into the herd. It seems that the “Alpha Horse” (and a horse becomes an “alpha,” according to horse expert Monty Roberts, by demonstrating a concern for the well-being of the rest of the herd) confronts the new critter by staring him down face-to-face. If the new horse acts submissive, the alpha will turn his head to the side as a sign of welcome. By repeating a little dance of alternating confrontation and welcome, the horses slowly create family relationships.

That’s kind of what Jesus does. When we encounter Jesus in the Gospels, he alternately confronts and welcomes us as a way of making us part of the herd—the family of God. In the Gospel lesson chosen for Pentecost Sixteen in the Revised Common Lectionary, Jesus is doing his confrontational thing, and it’s pretty uncomfortable stuff. I mean, what’s all this jazz about hating your parents, your family, and life itself in order to be his disciple (v. 26)? Who wants to obey that..? I know I sure as heck don’t!

So what do we do with this passage? The easiest thing might be to pretend it’s not in the Bible, or think that Jesus is just having a bad day when he says these awful things. The problem is, Jesus isn’t Donald Trump. If we’re calling ourselves Christians, we sort of have to take what Jesus says seriously. I’m choosing to deal with this by reinterpreting the word “hate.” The Greek word the Bible uses for “hate” here (miseo) can mean to despise intently, but my Greek Grammatical Analysis (1993 edition) suggests that the word is used here as an antonym of “love.” If love is to adore passionately, the opposite just means not to adore passionately. Miseo, according to my Greek-English Dictionary, can also mean “disregard” or “be indifferent to.”

Basically, Jesus is saying we need to consider the cost of discipleship. Following Jesus in the strictest and truest sense will mean placing our desire for righteousness above our identity as part of a family or a group. In the world of the text, it meant—quite possibly—alienation from one’s own nuclear family and potential imprisonment and execution. He’s confronting us by asking if we’re really willing to go the whole way with him. If we’re not, we’d better not pretend that we are.

In some parts of the world, following Jesus still means marginalization, imprisonment, or death. In twenty-first century America, there doesn’t seem to be much of a price tag at all. Or is there..?

Jesus is asking if we’re willing to surrender our lives to him, which means surrendering our time in faithful worship, Scripture reading, prayer, and volunteerism. Discipleship will mean we choose not to do whatever we want whenever we want to do it. Things which are ultimately hurtful to ourselves must be abandoned as signs of poor stewardship. Things which degrade others must also be jettisoned if we’re really serious about living out the Gospel. We have to look at all of our activities with the eyes of Christ.

Discipleship will also cost us in terms of our relationships. You will find yourself in conflict with people who put self-interest above love of neighbor. Others will avoid the “goody-two-shoes” Christian, thinking that you’ll be judgmental or fearing that your kindness and generosity only serves to highlight their selfishness. (I always leave wedding receptions early because people are embarrassed to party too hard in front of the pastor!) You might also find you have to cut off certain relationships with people whose behavior isn’t glorifying God. One of the teens in my congregation painfully dropped a friendship with a young person in the drug culture. A family friend quit his job because of his employer’s shady business practices. Such actions are the cost of discipleship.

And, of course, discipleship costs money. Just take a look at verse 33. Does Jesus really want us to give up all of our possessions? That’s a tall order. At the very least we’re being asked to support our congregations generously, to give alms to causes which matter, and to be ready to bail out our friends and family members who are in need without asking for the money to be returned.

Are any of us willing to go all the way? Are any of us true disciples? I don’t think I am. Sure, I’m an ordained pastor, a Master of Divinity, and a life-long-card-carrying Lutheran. But my discipleship still needs a LOT of work.

Here’s what I’m thinking: If I can’t measure up to the level of discipleship with which Jesus confronts me in the Gospel, I can just plain give up trying (which I’ll bet a lot of Christians do), or I can admit that I’m not there and decide to make the impossible quest for discipleship my life-long pursuit.

Just like that alpha horse, Jesus is confronting us yet also beckoning us to follow. “I know you lack discipline,” he seems to be saying, “but come and follow anyway. You’re welcome in the family.”

God bless you, my friend. I’m so glad you decided to drop by this week.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Taking a Humble Seat (Reflections on Pentecost Fifteen, Year C)

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“But when you are invited, go and sit at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’” (Luke 14:10)

I’m not sure Jesus is really giving us the best advice here. Some years back I was invited to go out to dinner with some friends. There was, however, a slight hitch in our plans. My friends had just lost a dear friend of theirs, and they asked if I wouldn’t mind accompanying them to the friend’s memorial service before we dined out. I was cool with this, but I informed my dinner companions that I would need time to change into something dressy as the memorial service was to be held at an historic AME church in our neighborhood. As an urban pastor, I’m familiar enough with African American churches to know how formal such houses of worship can be. My friends told me that they had not planned on dressing up and suggested that I needn’t bother. But I, not wishing to give any offense to the congregants of this black church, elected to compromise by staying in my “work clothes”—my black clerical attire and dog collar.

Big mistake.

I and my three friends entered the tiny chapel and slid meekly (like all good white Protestants do) into the very back pew. An usher spotted me (as white folks do tend to stand out in the AME church) and, noting that I was a pastor, immediately invited me to sit in a place of honor—the chancel in the very front of the church with the other clergy. I remembered that this was customary, and that it is considered an insult to refuse. Reluctantly, I let myself be taken up to the chancel where I was introduced to the pastor. I nervously told him that I was with friends of the deceased and couldn’t stay for the entire “home-going” celebration. “That’s all right, brother,” he said.” Just honor us with the opening prayer.”

Now, I had never met the deceased in my life and knew nothing about her but her name. I managed, as I frequently do, to BS my way through the invocation to a chorus of “Yes, yes!” and “Amen!” from the congregation, but I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I felt!

There’s something to be said for taking the lowest seat, but not so that one’s mock humility will be the ticket to a better and more prominent position. An old high school teacher of mine used to say he preferred honest arrogance to false modesty. But if we’re all really honest, there is no place for pride or arrogance at all—not from any of us. The only truly reverent attitude we can have is honest humility. And that’s actually rather comforting if you think about it. It takes a lot of the social pressure off of us.

I love this week’s Gospel lesson in the RCL (Luke 14:1, 7-14). Jesus gets invited to have dinner with a Pharisee on the Sabbath. Maybe this is a weekly get-together these guys have after synagogue. Have you ever been to a Cracker Barrel restaurant or a Philadelphia diner on a Sunday afternoon and seen all the people in their “church clothes?” There’s something really cozy about eating a good meal after having had a good worship experience. Maybe the Pharisees all got together each week to talk about the rabbi’s sermon or discuss the fine points of the Torah reading. Maybe somebody said, “Hey! Let’s invite this new guy, Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth. He seems to have some new-fangled ideas. Let’s invite him to our Sabbath luncheon and find out what he’s got to say for himself.”

So here’s Jesus at this weekly gathering. He’s the new guy, so they’re all watching him closely to see if he fits in. Jesus, it seems, is watching them pretty closely, too. Our pericope doesn’t include this part (verses 2-6), but a guy with really bad edema comes along, and Jesus politely inquires of his dinner companions if he should heal this fellow, pointing out that they’d do the same to help one of their kids or even one of their cows. Hearing no objection, Jesus cures the man and sends him on his way.

Jesus quickly notices that this gathering appears to be less about fellowship and more about social positions as the guests are all jockeying for the more prestigious places at the table. He suggests that—just maybe—a prideful exertion of prominence might lead to a disgraceful embarrassment. Better to take a lower position and know yourself as God knows you—as an erring child who is still held high in God’s esteem even without deserving it. That’s called grace, and if you can wrap your brain and heart around that, you won’t need to be seen in a prominent place by anyone else.

(Not that the world’s estimation really matters anyway.)

In the marriage liturgy there’s a reference to celebrating with Christ “the marriage feast which has no end.” I guess I see joy in the kingdom of God as a sort of wedding reception. These shindigs always begin with the wedding party and their families being announced and then taking their places of honor, sometimes on an elevated dais. This is the worldly part where position at the banquet seems to matter. But, by the end of the evening, everyone has been up on the dance floor, jackets have come off, and people are sweaty and half bombed. Everyone has left their assigned seat and started to mingle around the room and no one is sitting at the table of honor. There are no positions, only people being family. How cool is that?

Jesus also has some advice about invitations. If you invite only those who can repay the invitation, you really haven’t given them a gift. You’ve just entered into a transaction. A real gift is to invite the poor who cannot return the favor. That is, after all, what God has done for us.

Glad you stopped by. Please come again.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

What I'm Waiting to Hear Trump and Hillary Say

This isn't a reflection on a weekly pericope. It's just another rant. As always, the following opinions represent the views of your Old Religious Guy and are not a statement of policy from my congregation or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

We’ve certainly heard a lot from our presidential candidates in the last few month and, doubtless, we are going to be in for a lot more. Here are a few things I’m waiting to hear Trump or Hillary say:

1.      America’s military is not fighting for our freedom. Okay. “Fighting for our freedom” sounds really good and patriotic, but I don’t think our freedom is in any jeopardy from ISIS, Al Queda, the Taliban, or any other foreign terrorist. Terrorism is the last resort of the powerless. No turbaned Talibani are going to come parachuting out of the sky and launch a commando-style takeover of Chicago or Los Angeles. There won’t be any ISIS battleships shelling the Jersey shore and launching troops into Wildwood or Atlantic City. Our freedom, in this sense, is actually pretty darn secure. What our military men and women are fighting for is rule of law which is intended to protect the sovereign freedoms of other nations. They are fighting and bleeding because the world is made up of more than just Americans, and it is the moral duty of the strong to protect the week.
2.      The greatest threat to the freedom and liberty of Americans is not terrorism or government regulation. It is—and always has been—POVERTY. Think about it. If you don’t have the bucks, your choices are really limited. You can’t land a good job because you can’t pay for a good education. You can’t get out of your crumbling neighborhood because you can’t afford to live anywhere else. Your kids are stuck in rotten schools. You are a slave to public transportation. You can’t work because you can’t afford child care. If there’s crime rampant in your neighborhood, you are a prisoner of your home. If you participate in this crime, you’ll become a prisoner of the state. We’ve heard an awful lot about protecting the middle class in this election, but I’m waiting to hear a sensible and compassionate suggestion about how to alleviate the pain of the poorest Americans.
3.      Support of Israel is not necessarily support of the Israeli government. Sometimes this government is just plain wrong. They have violated United Nations resolutions by continuing to build settlements in the West Bank. Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian, are human beings too and equally entitled to live in their own, peaceful homeland. Blind support of Israeli government policies is a tacit agreement to oppression. I’m certain many in the Arab/Muslim world see the United States as backers of oppression. Support for Palestinian rights might go a long way toward changing the view many have of the US. (And I also believe that the view some Fundamentalist American Christians have that Israeli control of all of Jerusalem fulfills Biblical prophecy is nonsensical and heretical. We are ALL God’s people, and God is not a real estate agent!)

I guess what I’m asking for is a little less jingoism. The words and phrases we use have power. I’m just waiting for our leaders and would-be leaders to tell what I believe to be some simple truths. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Jesus Heals on the Sabbath (Reflections on Pentecost Fourteen, Year C)

Circa 1685, English perjurer Doctor Titus Oates (1649 - 1705) in the pillory at the Temple gate for his involvement in the Popish Plot. His false confession led to the trial and death of about 35 people between 1678 and 1683. In 1685 Oates was found guilty of perjury
Our ancestors had very special  ways of making sure we didn't skip church.
When did church-going become a chore? Back in Exodus 20:8-11 the Sabbath was supposed to be a day of rest and a time to be with God and get refreshed. I mean, isn’t that a good thing? Gathering with a Christian community is supposed to be what any family gathering is supposed to be—a happy time to share a meal, get connected with folks who make us feel safe and valued, catch up on what’s important, and come away feeling better than you had when you were dragging your butt all week.

I’ll bet those early Christians in the Roman Empire really looked forward to Sunday. That’s when slaves and free folk could break bread together and be equals. They could sing together and hear God’s promise that they were loved by God even though their lives tended to suck. They also might’ve had the joy of knowing they were doing something really wild, dangerous, and troubling to the folks who were in charge of making their lives suck. But then along came Constantine, Christianity became legal, and church was on its way to being mandatory.

Recently one of my faithful parishioners told me her grandson protested that he could be a Christian without going to church. I’ll admit to having felt that way myself once. Ironically, I was in Seminary at the time. As senior Lutheran seminarians are not required to do field work, I often found myself with a Sunday morning free when I wasn’t scoring some cash by doing pulpit supply. On those Sundays I’d lie in bed and think, “Gosh. I can sleep in today. After all, I’ve been to chapel five times this week, so I think I’m good.” Besides, the local Lutheran church, although racially diverse, seemed to have an unhealthy division between the African American and Caucasian members. It just didn’t feel cozy to worship there. Also, the interim pastor was a manuscript preacher whose interminable sermons and brain-numbingly dull delivery were enough to make me envy the dead.

But every Sunday, feeling guilty about breaking the third commandment, I’d drag myself out of bed and attend that church. And every Sunday, God would speak to me in some way. It would be the music or the liturgy or the readings or the Eucharist, but Jesus would always show up, and I would always leave feeling glad that I’d come to worship. Jesus, you see, heals on the Sabbath.

The Gospel lesson for Pentecost Fourteen in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 13: 10-17) contrasts Jesus’ ability to heal and bring mercy and glory to God with the religious leaders’ insistence on turning a joyful experience into a legalistic act of drudgery. The woman with the crippling spirit illustrates to me why our public gathering is so necessary. I don’t know what actual physical malady is being described here, but I do think it’s interesting that the scripture diagnoses her inability to stand upright as the result of a spirit. Jesus will say in verse 16 that this spirit is Satan. Maybe this isn’t a physical condition at all, but an emotional or spiritual affliction. Maybe this woman is bent over because of shame. Maybe she’s been an abused wife for eighteen years. Maybe she suffers from self-esteem issues. Maybe she’s an addict or an alcoholic. Maybe she’s burdened by the memory of past abuse or family trauma. Maybe she’s bent over by the weight of her children’s problems.

Whatever has crushed this woman’s spirit has not kept her from Sabbath worship. There she encounters Jesus who declares her freedom and actually touches her—actually acknowledges her as a child of Abraham and a beloved, valued person before God. Then the power of God’s truth straightens her out. (In the Greek, the verb is anorthothe.  It literally means “she was made straight.” The King James Bible actually translates this very accurately. I personally wouldn’t have figured this out if I hadn’t read it in a commentary. Now I feel really smart for quoting Greek!)

That’s what Jesus does for us. He heals us on the Sabbath. He straightens us out, because we probably wouldn’t get straightened out on our own. He calls us to know him through the word and the sacraments and the music and the fellowship. His touch and proclamation change us from being curved into ourselves and make us able to stand straight, see the world, give God glory, and become agents of healing ourselves.

Now, nobody’s going to put you in the stocks and throw rotting vegetables at you for missing church like they used to do in colonial New England. Most of us believe that God’s grace is merciful enough to excuse a summer Sunday at the shore void of any religious observance. Our culture just doesn’t make church-going into the legalistic burden it was in the past.

No. I think we do that to ourselves. Perhaps we bring to our place of worship our own pre-conceived idea that Sabbath is a stuffy obligation to be endured. Perhaps we should enter the doors of the church with the joyful expectation that we are going to be healed, renewed, and used by our very presence as an instrument of God’s community. Maybe we should take some time to understand liturgy, you think? Maybe we should rejoice that we can share an experience which gives us gladness with our children, and teach them to expect blessings from the Sabbath.

We spend a lot of our time getting bent out of shape. We need to approach the Sabbath with the understanding that Jesus will be there to straighten us out. As the Psalmist says, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord!’” (Psalm 122:1) Jesus will be there. And he heals on the Sabbath.

A good Sabbath to you all! Thanks for visiting this week.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Families Fight (Reflections on Pentecost Thirteen, Year C)

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One of my favorite TV shows is the CBS crime drama Blue Bloods. I mean, who doesn’t like a good crime drama, am I right? But what I love about this series is that it tells the tale of a family of Irish Catholic New Yorkers who are all in some way involved with law enforcement. Every episode features a scene around the dinner table of the Reagan family patriarch as the clan gathers for their weekly Sunday post-mass meal. Invariably, the adult children find themselves arguing over some issue which reduces them to squabbling eight-year-olds in very short order. There is something undeniably honest about this depiction, because—face it—families sometimes fight, and bitter disagreements with the ones we love the most are as natural as drool from a bulldog.

Jesus knew this, and in the gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost Thirteen in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 12:49-56) he goes as far as to tell us that he has not come to bring peace but division (v. 51). This might be disconcerting to good American church folks who find conflict as welcome as a dead roach in our potato salad. Nevertheless, Saint Paul has told us that

“Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” (1Corinthians 11:19)

Yes, Jesus can bring us comfort, but Jesus also brings us challenge. Without challenge, we will become a stale social club—what Nadia Bolz-Weber called “the Elks Club with communion"—and our life expectancy as an institution will not be hopeful.

Of course, people don’t always like to talk politics, especially not in church. Truth be told, not every religious issue is a political issue. But every political issue is a religious issue because, if we truly take our faith seriously, every issue is a religious issue. Every choice we make relates to our sense of value, and we are constantly weighing our values against the teachings of Christ.

Do you want to inject a little liveliness into your next holiday dinner? Invite Jesus to the family table. Open the discussion on the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and ask what Jesus would have us do. Would Jesus value law and order over mercy? What would he who was beaten and tortured by ruling authorities say about the use of deadly force?

Or, you might ask what Jesus would have to say about Syrian refugees coming to the US. Would Jesus want us to turn our backs on the hungry, the homeless, and the destitute for the sake of national security? (See Matthew 25:35 for a clue to this question)

How would Jesus react to the “America First” movement?  Would Jesus advocate for free trade or fair trade? And by “fair trade,” I mean trade policies which might lead to higher prices in the US but would insure sustainable incomes for peasants in the developing world. How would Jesus come down on that question, do you think?

Where exactly do you think Jesus stands on the role of government and taxation? Would Jesus want us to keep our hard-earned cash, or voluntarily relinquish some of it so others might afford food and healthcare and live comfortably in their old age?

And what would Jesus say about our churches?  Would he accuse us of favoring comfortable tradition over active discipleship? Would he ask us to read the signs of the times? There seems to be a great deal of passion in America today over politics, but where is the passion in our churches? Where are those eighteen to thirty-four-year-olds who seem so ready to throw themselves into causes? Why are they not here in church?

If you have these kind of discussions, be prepared to be disagreed with. We’re not all going to see eye-to-eye on these questions. Families fight. But that’s really okay. If we are fighting over whose vison of Jesus’ teachings is correct, at least we’re in dialogue with Jesus. If we’re brave enough to enter into conflict and engage the ways of this sinful world, we might just be on our way to bringing the fire of the Holy Spirit to the earth.

Be bold, friends! Stir up a little controversy this week, okay?

PS-If you want to read a good book which asks some really tough questions for American Christians, let me recommend Red Letter Revolution by Shane Claiborne and Tony Campolo (Thomas Nelson: 2012). Click on the title to learn more.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Driving in the Dark (Reflections on Pentecost Twelve, Year C)

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” ― E.L. DoctorowWriters At Work: The Paris Review Interviews

I really like the above quote from Mr. Doctorow. Personally, I enjoy driving, and once upon a time, I used to take lots of long road trips. Just before my second year in seminary, I drove all the way from Lake Tahoe, California to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in about three-and-a-half days. This required a great deal of night driving and it was often a chore to keep awake and alert. The Nevada desert is a pretty dark place at two in the morning, and you can only see as far as your headlights. When you’re cruising at 70 miles per hour, you’d best be paying attention just in case a cow decides to wander into the middle of the road. This happened to me, and I can still remember the animal’s dumb, perplexed look as I screamed to a smoking halt about two yards from its front hoof.

I was just lucky that I had that close call over twenty years ago—back in the days before cell phones and texting and portable GPS. Had I been distracted on that dark, desert highway…well…I tremble to consider the ghastliness of an untimely meeting of a ton of raw beef and a ’92 Chevy Corsica.

I think this is what Jesus is trying to tell us in the lesson for Pentecost Twelve (Luke 12:32-40). We’re not to be distracted by the things of this world—especially not by material things or wealth. We don’t want to keep our eyes on things which don’t really serve us. Wealth, position, or even fear of the unknown are distractions from the road ahead. Rather, we are to live in such a way that we are prepared to serve God when the opportunity comes across our path.

A colleague of mine recently lamented that his congregation seemed more like a social club and less like a body of living Christians in mission to the outside world. He related a recent incident in which a woman passing down the busy Philadelphia street on a Sunday morning entered the doors of his church. She was upset and nervous and just looking for a little peace. An usher intercepted her and, upon seeing she was in distress, told her, “Wait here a minute. I’ll get the pastor.”

This made my friend wonder: Why did the usher run for the pastor? Couldn’t he—the usher—sit with this woman? Couldn’t he offer her a glass of cool water? Couldn’t he take a moment to be present with her, listen to her, or pray with her? Perhaps Christ had come to him in the person of a stranger, but he was not ready to meet Him. And that is very sad, and a disturbing commentary on the state of our organized religion.

* * *

I wonder why the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary choose the texts from the Hebrew scriptures to marry to the New Testament texts. What’s the connection on Pentecost 12 Year C between Jesus’ admonition in Luke and the story of Abram in Genesis 15:1-6? I’m guessing that both passages deal with trust in God. The Gospel text begins with Jesus telling us “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (v. 32) This is probably the easiest thing to say and the hardest to live by. We are always afraid because our intuitive headlights see only so far into the fog and darkness of the future.
Abram is worried about his wealth. Specifically, he’s worried about whose going to get all of his loot when he dies. God has already assured him that he will have a legitimate heir, but Abram’s been doing everything right by faith for years and God still hasn’t come through with His part of the bargain.

Abram’s just like the rest of us. He’s driving through the desert at night, and the road of his future vanishes beyond the reach of his headlights into incomprehensible darkness. So God makes him pull over and look up at the stars. It’s as if God is saying, “You don’t know what’s going to happen, but just look at all the worlds my hands have made (Hey! That would make a pretty catchy song lyric!).  Just look, Abram. Even in the darkness you can be conscious of my might and power. Just trust me. I haven’t steered you wrong yet, have I?”

God is calling Abram to unfold himself from his own limited situation and believe in a larger picture. And face it—none of us can really see into the future. We are called to put trust in the God who has already given us everything we need for the Kingdom. The provisions God has given have nothing to do with large financial endowments, magnificent church buildings, social media or television networks, or brilliantly conceived church programs. God has given us the Kingdom by putting love in our hearts along with a generous helping of trust in the miraculous love of the crucified Jesus Christ. We have been given the gospel and promised that we will know how to respond when something unexpected comes across our path.

I guess it just boils down to this: With faith in the promise of God’s love—and nothing more—we can do what we need to do. Without it we will have neither courage nor purpose. Without faith we can do nothing. We may not be able to see where we’re going or know how we’re getting there, but we can make the whole journey and arrive safely home.

Thanks for reading. I hope this has  brightened your week!