Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Saint of the Month: Shimon Peres (Reflections on Pentecost Twenty, Year C)

Shimon Peres (center) with fellow Nobel laureates Arafat and Rabin
“And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.” (Luke 17:4)

Israeli politician Shimon Peres went home to meet the Lord this week, and a really big fuss was made over his passing. That’s only fitting as the guy had a career which spanned over sixty years in public life, held the record for being the oldest codger (over ninety-years-old!!) to be a head of state, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

I think of Peres as I meditate on the Gospel lesson the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Twenty, Year C (Luke 17:5-10). In order to understand this snippet of scripture, however, I think we have to look at the verses which come before it. In Luke 17:1-4, Jesus is telling his followers not to screw things up. Of course we’re all going to make mistakes—say things we wish we hadn’t said and do things we wish we hadn’t done and generally be our usual stupid, sinful selves. Nevertheless, Jesus is telling us to look sharp lest our hypocrisy damages the faith of others. Chiefly, he’s warning us against intolerance and lack of forgiveness.

It’s that last part—forgiveness—which makes me think of the late Israeli Prime Minister. If ever there was a dude who tried to get along with people who hated his guts, it was Shimon Peres. Not only could he get one of his arch political rivals, Yitzhak Rabin, on his side, but he even managed to get an agreement with PLO leader Yasser Arafat, too. I mean, it’s no big secret the Israelis and Palestinians don’t exactly slow dance with each other. After decades of violence, hatred, and mutual suspicion, Peres snuck behind his nation’s back and made the daring move to talk to his enemies. These talks eventually led to the Oslo Peace Accords and the Nobel Peace Prize for Peres, Rabin, and Arafat.

Alas, the peace process hasn’t gone particularly smoothly since the accords were signed in 1994. Even after things went south between the Israelis and Palestinians, Peres continued to push for peace and reconciliation. For me, his persistence embodies Jesus’ command to forgive “seventy times seven (Mathew 18:22).” For a Jew, he made a better Christian than some Christians.

Of course, there are those who believe there will never be peace between the factions in the Holy Land. Forgiveness, peace, and understanding require faith. It’s no wonder that the followers of Jesus in Luke 17 ask to have their faith increased after Jesus admonishes them about the need for forgiveness. But Jesus isn’t listening to excuses. He doesn’t have time for his divine teaching to be answered with some lame balderdash like, “I really wish I could make peace with that person, but I just don’t believe it’s going to happen. They just don’t listen to me or respect me. I guess I don’t have enough faith in them or myself to even try.”

Jesus’ response to this could be summed up as: “What a load of crap! If you had the faith of a mustard seed—and, grammatically speaking, you DO—then you could accomplish miracles. I didn’t give you a command knowing that you couldn’t keep it. I told you what I expect of you. I expect both repentance and forgiveness, and you have faith enough for that already.”

Repentance and forgiveness are minimum requirements. It’s nice to get a Nobel Peace Prize, but reconciliation is what were supposed to be about. My hat is off to folks like Shimon Peres, Lutheran World Federation President Munib Younan, Jimmy Carter, Karen Armstrong, and all of the saints who have faith enough to believe that peace, empathy, and harmonious interaction between diverse peoples are right and achievable goals. Violence, force, intimidation, and animosity only beget themselves. Resentment and un-forgiveness, as the old saying goes, are like drinking poison yourself and hoping it will make your enemy die.

Shalom to you, Mr. Peres. You tried to do what God expects of all of us. I’m glad you got the Nobel Prize, but I hope you know you did only what you ought to have done.

God be with you, my friends.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Good News for October

        I wrote this piece for my church newsletter, but I thought I'd share it online, too.

"The glory that you have given me I have given to them, so that they may be one, as we are one…” (John 17:22)
Martin Luther (1483-1546). German reformer. Luther hanging his 95 theses in Wittenberg, 1517. Engraving. Colored. - Stock Image
Luther posts his 95 Theses, October 31, 1517
             Halloween is approaching, and that means we in the Lutheran Church are getting ready to celebrate the 499th anniversary of that momentous All Hallows Eve when Martin Luther nailed shut the coffin of the Middle Ages by posting a list of ninety-five debate topics to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. His challenge to the authority of Church teaching changed the course of Western civilization, but split the Christian faith into a division between “Protestants” and “Catholics.” Today, after almost five centuries of—sometimes violent—division, the split seems to be healing.
            What does it mean to you to be a Lutheran, I wonder? I grew up with a dyed-in-the-wool Lutheran mother, but all I remember learning about our heritage as a child was that we were the people who weren’t the Catholics. Catholics, I was told, had to go to confession and repeat special prayers to work off their sin while we Lutherans were simply justified by grace through faith. How little I understood in those days the beauty of the tradition which formed Martin Luther and which he sought only to reform, not to replace.
            Over the years I’ve developed a deeper respect for our Roman brothers and sisters. It was the Catholic monastic tradition which saved the culture of antiquity during the Dark Ages. Catholic spiritual practice also gave us contemplative prayers, the services of the hours, the beautiful order of mass which Lutherans still observe, and the significance of the liturgical year which include the pious observances of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Holy Week (some of my favorite things!).
             In the early 1960’s Pope John XXIII (recently canonized as a saint by the Roman Church, but already celebrated for decades in the Lutheran liturgical calendar) opened the windows of the Catholic Church and let worshipers talk openly with their Lutheran neighbors. He also adopted one of the most striking reforms made by Martin Luther, the vernacular mass. In exchange, he gave us the practice of moving altars out from the wall so celebrants could face the congregation, and began the tradition of sharing the peace inspired by Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:24.
            For over fifty years Lutheran and Catholic theologians have been in conversation to iron out our differences.  I’ve taken part in theses dialogues myself from time to time, but I amuse myself by thinking that this conversation has been going on successfully for decades around the dinner tables of members of my congregation.
Pope John XXIII - 1959.jpg
Pope Saint John XXIII
            John, now in his mid-eighties, has been a member of Faith practically since the church was built. His wife, Mary, is a faithful member of Saint Anselm Catholic Church. They have been married for over sixty years. There are no doctrinal differences which have kept them from loving each other. Neither were there insurmountable religious disputes between the Catholic Tom and his Lutheran bride, Harriet. When I visited Harriet in her later years to give her the sacrament, Tom—who would not receive with his wife per the church teachings of his youth—still piously knelt on his living room floor when I elevated the host and pronounced the words of institution. To him, the promise of Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist superseded the differences between denominations. These are just two of the many Lutheran-Catholic couples in our congregation who have long ago realized that what our two traditions have in common is far more important than the issues upon which we disagree.
            I’m very excited about the “Statement on the Way” which was recently approved by the ELCA Churchwide Assembly and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This document highlights thirty-two points of agreement between our denominations and, God willing, will make straight the highway to full Eucharistic sharing. I don’t believe our two communions will ever merge back into one, and I don’t think they should. Each of us, on our own journey, has developed a unique personality with which we can bless the other and make comfortable spiritual homes to accommodate the different spiritual needs and tastes of the faithful in Christ. But we can, as separate bodies, proclaim the unity we share in Jesus Christ—the one who came to experience our suffering so we could be present for the suffering and healing of the world.
            As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let’s keep praying for the unity which we will proclaim through the sharing of the body and blood of Christ. In a time when we have seen the legalization of same-gender marriages and the election of an African American US president, anything is possible.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Hugged to God's Bosom (Reflections on Pentecost Nineteen, Year C)

"Lazarus at the Rich Man's Gate"
by Fyodor Bronnikov (1827-1902)

“…between us and you a great chasm has been fixed…” (Luke 16:26a)

“That’s my dad,” Brian said. He pointed to the face in the Confirmation class photo taken in 1979 when John, his father, was fourteen years old. I showed him the picture in our church’s Confirmation Book, the photographic record of all the youth who had affirmed their baptisms at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia from 1961 to the present. Brian and I had met to go over the details of his father’s funeral. The 1979 Confirmand had died of a heart attack at age fifty-one, the result of decades of drug and alcohol abuse.

Brian had gone out-of-pocket to pay for his father’s cremation and for the catered luncheon to be served after the funeral. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind taking up a collection to defray some of the expense he’d incurred as John had died with no money and no insurance coverage. I told him I would.

After Brian left, I kept thinking about John. The day his Confirmation picture was taken might’ve been the last time he ever set foot in a church. I knew some of the other faces in that Confirmation picture. One was of a boy who is today a loving father and husband with a home in North Carolina and a successful career. Another classmate just retired from the Pentagon, a US Navy captain who now runs military affairs at a major East Coast university. One girl is the proud adoptive mother of an honor student. Another girl runs the Parkinson’s unit at the local VA. Why, I wondered, did their lives turn out so well, and why did John’s life turn out so badly?

In the world of the text for this Sunday’s Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 16:19-31), Jesus’ hearers might’ve believed that those who received good fortune in this life were favored by God, while those who were on the outside of society were there because God had willed them to misfortune. Maybe they believed, as many do, that the poverty of someone like Lazarus was due to his own fault, or that God was punishing him with sickness and penury as recompense for some unknown sin. I’m certain that many looked at John, who died broke after stints in rehab and multiple incarcerations, as one who had all the crap in life coming to him as a result of all of his poor choices.

But yet I wonder: has John been carried away by the angels to the bosom of Father Abraham?

Here the NRSV Bible fails us a bit in translation. My Bible says that Lazarus was carried “to be with Abraham” (v. 22), yet the Greek actually reads “into the bosom of Abraham” (or eis ton kolpon tou Abraham for you Greek speaking folks). Just think about that image. To be “in the bosom” evokes a lot of images. Most likely, it referred to the tradition of the ancient world of having formal dinners where you ate while reclining on your left elbow. If Abraham is the host, than the guy on his right hand—the side that he’s facing where his chest would be—is the guest of honor. Lazarus, the poor, sick slob locked on the outside of the gate, is now the recipient of all of the hospitality and honor of heaven.

To be “into the bosom” also conjures up the image of a mother nursing her child. Can there be a more tender or nurturing image than that? The one who has gone hungry is now lovingly fed and embraced with an unconditional, maternal love. Or, perhaps, it just means that the Father figure is giving the poor man a great big hug. God is embracing, loving, welcoming, and claiming as his own the one who was despised and overlooked in his earthly life.

So what’s Jesus saying here? I really hope he’s not telling us to enjoy our wealth now because we’re going to roast in hell when we die. He’s certainly turning the expectations of his audience on their heads—but Jesus always does that. Is he saying that God loves poor folks more than the well-off?

Maybe we should figure out who we are in this parable. It’s just possible that some of us might be Lazarus—a guy locked outside the gate, hungry, rejected, and blamed for being a victim of our own misfortune. If so, than we need to know God wants to hug us and call us his child. The world’s estimation of our worth is not God’s estimation.

More likely, however, I think Jesus wants us middle-class, church-going Americans to see ourselves as the rich man. We’re living in unimaginable luxury compared to about 75% of the earth’s population. Even in our own land, the chasm between the wealthy and the poor is growing greater all the time. Without compassion, all of our good fortune is meaningless. Without compassion, we actually miss seeing God and fall in love instead with our own achievements. The sin of the rich man in the parable—about which he had been warned by Moses and the prophets—was not that he was rich, but that he could not find love for the poor.

I am thinking of John, a junkie jailbird, and trying to imagine him being hugged by Jesus. Can you imagine that? If you can, what does it mean to you?

God’s peace be with you. Thanks for visiting my blog.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Good at Being Bad (Reflections on Pentecost Eighteen, Year C)

Image result for parable of the dishonest manager, images
Eugene Burnand (1850-1921) "The Dishonest Steward"
“…the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.” (Luke 16:8b)

Well this blows. I’m sure glad that this passage from Luke’s Gospel (Luke 16:1-9) only pops up in the Revised Common Lectionary every three years, because—after checking several commentaries and conferring with my learned colleagues—I’ve concluded that no one has any freaking idea what point Jesus is trying to make by making this slimeball manager the hero of his story. Check it out: the guy is an embezzler who openly admits to being both arrogant and lazy (v.4) and plans to retire by sponging off the poor folks he’s been financially screwing.

His boss is just as big a feminine hygiene product (metaphorically speaking) as the manager. The brilliant New Testament scholar Barbara Rossing points out in her research in this weeks “Working Preacher” website article that predatory lending practices were just as common in Jesus’ day as in our own. It was not uncommon for lenders to charge up to 25% interest on cash loans and 50% on the loan of goods. Just like the bottom feeders of today’s banking institutions who charge usurious rates on credit cards or “pay day” loans, the wealthy of Jesus’ time tacked on huge interest rates in the hopes that the poor would default and surrender their land to the lender. This is in spite of the fact that Mosaic Law forbade the lending at interest to fellow Jews (Ex. 22:25-27, Lev. 25:36-37).

Most really smart Bible scholars agree that what the shrewd (crooked, arrogant, and lazy) manager did was roll the debts back to their original amount, probably giving up the commission he was shaking the poor slobs down for. If his boss was Jewish, he couldn’t very well complain since he’d been breaking the Law by charging interest in the first place. Instead, his hat is off to the manger for ripping him off so successfully.

So what’s Jesus saying? On face value, it looks like he’s telling us something we already know—dirtballs are really good at being dirtballs. It’s a pity that Christians aren’t as efficiently and decisively motivated by the Gospel as sinners (and we’re both, remember?) are motivated by greed and the “security” of wealth. Maybe we should think about this.

Let’s face it, the dirtballs have created a whole industry on promoting and buying and selling debt. The unsuspecting or extravagant among us get into debt, are charged huge sums of interest, and, when they can’t pay, the creditor writes off the bad debt at the expense of the federal government and sells the debt to some sleazy bill collector. The sleazy bill collector gets a fraction of what is owed but still makes a profit.

This Gospel lesson is paired with the dramatic story of the prophet Amos (Amos 8:4-7) as he confronts Amaziah, the priest of Bethel who is the chief henchman to the wicked King Jeroboam II of Israel. Amos is technically a foreigner from the southern kingdom of Judah, but God has called him across the border into Israel to warn the power structure that their continual abuse of the poor by rigged markets and predatory lending is not making God do the happy dance (v.7).

The problem for a pastor like me in a little blue-collar neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia is that none of the folks I’ll preach to this Sunday are the myrmidons of a greed-crazed financial system (I don’t think any of them are loan sharks, either, but I can’t be sure. This is Philly, after all). What does your average Joe Pewsitter do with these scripture lessons? I’m thinking there are about four points I can make.

First: Let’s be conscious of the fact that people in America and around the world are suffering from crippling debt. As I’ve said elsewhere, the greatest threat to an American’s freedom and liberty is not terrorism of government regulation. It’s poverty, and poverty is fed by lots of crappy things—low wages, drug and alcohol addiction, medical expenses, and debt. As individuals, we may not be able to alleviate the debt of others, but we can support organizations which advocate for debt relief and we can be responsible citizens who elect leaders committed to fair lending practices. Compassion dictates that we remain awake to this problem.

Second: We can refuse to feed the beast ourselves. Good stewardship requires that we model responsibility in our financial matters. If you’re in debt, pay it off. Don’t use credit cards with high interest rates. Don’t reward institutional greed. God has promised to provide your daily bread. You don’t need to charge a month’s supply on your VISA card.

Third: We need to teach our kids good financial stewardship. My Builder Generation parents feared debt and understood the concept of delayed gratification. Let’s share a bit of that wisdom with our grandkids (Proverbs 22:6).

Fourth: Let’s acknowledge that we are dealing with spiritual warfare. The power of sin manifested in greed is cunning and beguiling and always with us. We need to be conscious of what our economic choices mean. We’re dealing with a powerful enemy who is really good at being really bad. We need to step up our game at calling out injustice, at proclaiming what our faith means to us, and in being in prayer for the healing of this poor society.

Like the manager in Jesus’ parable, we are all of us stewards of wealth which, essentially, does not belong to us but to God. Someday each of us will be called upon to give an accounting. Fortunately, that accounting will be for our own benefit, not that of the Master. He’s already paid our debt in full.

Thanks for reading, my friend. I appreciate your visit.

PS - Want to strike a blow for debt reduction? Check out the website of Rolling Jubilee and find out more information. Just click here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

"Rejoice With Me!" (Reflections on Pentecost Seventeen, Year C)

Image result for interfaith hospitality network images

“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost!” (Luke 15:6b)

For several years now my congregation in beautiful Northeast Philadelphia has been involved with Interfaith Hospitality Network. Each August we open our downstairs fellowship space as a home for temporarily homeless families. These are mostly single moms who, somehow or other, have managed to find themselves without a permanent address. The social workers of Interfaith Hospitality work with them to help them be better stewards of their resources, find jobs, or learn parenting skills—whichever need is the most pressing while they wait through the city’s six-month low-income housing backlog. The families stay at our church for a month and then move on to the next worshiping community (be it church, synagogue, or mosque) until they are placed in permanent housing.

I’m happy to say that thirty-two members of my small parish were willing to be volunteer hosts for our guest families this past month. They brought them home-made dinners, watched their kids, and generally tried to treat them like human beings in the midst of their unfortunately crappy circumstances. As always happens, of course, there were some complaints from church members. They claimed our guests were sloppy, that they didn’t come for dinner on time, they didn’t do the dishes, their kids were bratty, they left the air conditioning running, they didn’t leave the building when they were supposed to, etc., etc.

(It just wouldn’t be a church if people didn’t whine about something, you know?)

I like to remind those who find fault that, if our guests actually had their acts together, they wouldn’t be living in a church basement. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves why we do acts of mercy in the first place. When we first entered into this program, we were asked what we hoped to get out of it. I responded that I wanted an incarnational ministry for my church in which people could see that they had made a real difference in the lives of others. One of my parishioners answered that this program would “make God smile.” Others came up with similarly groovey-sounding answers, but one of my teenagers simply said, “I want these homeless people to get back on their feet.”

Well, dang. Out of the mouths of teens. That’s really what it’s about. We have no control over who becomes homeless or why. It is our duty, however, to help heal the broken, help lift the lowly, welcome the stranger, and find the lost and welcome them back into society.

When our guests moved on this year to the next church, Bob, the director of Northeast Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, remarked to me that one of last year’s guests—now safely in a home of her own—had become a chaperone/mentor for those currently in the program. Bob is a great young man (If he weren’t married, I’d consider him son-in-law material!), and it was a thrill to see him rejoice over the success of one of the formerly homeless. I felt that there was joy in the presence of the angels of God, too.

In this Sunday’s Gospel from the RCL (Luke 15: 1-10), Jesus teaches us about rejoicing when the lost are found. It’s meant as a critique against those who get their shorts bunched up over why people get “lost” to begin with. We are to be supporters, not judges.

Think about it. If you’re a parent and you have a child with an addiction or an eating disorder, do you condemn or abandon that child? Wouldn’t you diligently search for the best care you could find to bring him or her back to your family in one piece? Would you not remain hyper-vigilant during the recovery process? Looking carefully into the child’s eyes? Searching their room? Watching for needle marks? Checking to see that they are eating?

And when that lost child reaches a recovery milestone or graduates from school or gets married or achieves some goal of a normal, healthy, functioning human being, aren’t you overcome with joy? Don’t you want to throw a party and celebrate?

All of us, after all, are lost in some way. Jesus has gone to pretty drastic lengths to find us and bring us back to ourselves. I’d say that calls for a party, wouldn’t you?

If your lost sheep is found, say a prayer of thanks sometime this week. Let the joy of the Lord into your heart, and enjoy a foretaste of the feast to come.