Thursday, October 27, 2016

Jeremiah, Martin Luther, and Us (Reflections on Reformation Sunday)

Image result for Images of the Prophet Jeremiah
The Prophet Jeremiah as painted by Marc Chagall

As Hebrew prophets go, I have a warm spot for Jeremiah. I dig Hosea and Ezekiel, too. All three of these boys had pretty wacky ways of getting their messages across, but Jeremiah takes center stage in the Hebrew scripture lesson for Reformation Sunday (Jeremiah 31:31-34). I thought it might be a good idea to give a little historical background on the old fellow.

Jeremiah comes on the scene as a prophet around the seventh century B.C. He’s pretty mainstream when he starts out, but later he does some wild stunts—the weirdest of which (Jeremiah 13:1-11) is walking around in dirty underwear as a graphic demonstration of the depravity of the people who have fallen away from God and justly deserve a family-sized dose of shame. He’s kind of a tragic guy in that he has the dirty job of telling people who are in power stuff they don’t want to hear. Chiefly, he has to tell King  Zedekiah that God isn’t going to protect the chosen people—no matter how fond of them God is—from the consequences of their own stupidity. The rulers of Judah think just because they are God’s chosen that they won’t get their butts whooped by the Babylonians. Jeremiah counsels negotiation with the enemy, but Zedekiah’s minions, in their arrogance, don’t want to hear that. They chuck Jeremiah in the slammer and advise Zedekiah to face off with Babylon. The result? The Jews get the crap kicked out of them. Zedekiah’s kids are murdered in front of his eyes, and then Zedekiah has his eyes poked out. The elite of Judah are carried off into exile in Babylon, and Jeremiah lives the rest of his life in obscurity in Egypt (See 2 Kings 25).

In today’s lesson, however, we get the kinder, gentler side of Jeremiah. Here he prophesies that God doesn’t abandon God’s people, and that a new covenant will be made that will be different from the old Law of Moses. The old law had a lot of “thou shalt nots” in it, and I speculate that the people must’ve felt that if they didn’t explicitly do any of the forbidden things then they’d be okay. Unfortunately, that’s a pretty complacent spirituality. God doesn’t want to coerce us with a rule book. God wants us to live the love and compassion which is implicit in the Law. God wants the Law to come from within us.

Fast forward over two thousand years and meet another outrageous prophet—Martin Luther. Luther is also dealing with folks who are hung up on the rule book but are missing the point. He’s part of a church which equates rightness with God with going to church, multiplying prayers, paying to have masses said for dead relatives, and buying yourself a little forgiveness through the purchase of indulgences. The church bosses keep control and line their pockets by keeping folks in fear and ignorance, saying, in essence, “Do what we tell you to do and pay your share or you’ll burn in hell!”

Both Luther and Jeremiah saw societies that needed to be shaken up. Whether the people were trapped by a societal arrogance or by superstitious fear, they were trapped all the same. In the appointed Gospel lesson for Reformation Sunday (John 8:31-36), Jesus exhorts that a real, genuine, and free relationship with God comes only through continuing in his Word. This isn’t about obeying rules, but, rather about letting the love of Jesus live in us—believing that the Son has set us free.

Now, five hundred years after Luther and twenty-five hundred years after Jeremiah, I sometimes think we are in need of some more shaking up. I worry that we’ve dumbed-down American Christianity to the point that we see it as assent to doctrine, and, like the folks in Jeremiah’s time, we assume that because we’ve signed on to the right confessions we are exempt from any further discipleship. Or, we might be like the folks of Luther’s day who are wrapped-up in following the rules and judge righteousness by a litmus test of moral “purity” (usually involving same-gender relationships and reproductive rights!). Of course, it’s not for me to claim that such people aren’t “saved.” Who am I to stand in God’s place of judgment? But I do see a need for a constant reformation—for a call to, as Jeremiah says, “Know the Lord.”

I sometimes think we could use another Jeremiah or another Luther right about now.

Why? I see the Christian Church shrinking in America, and I have to guess it’s because complacent reliance on correct doctrine or judgmental legalism just aren’t speaking to this generation. What will and does speak, however, is looking to the man on the cross, and recognizing the depth of the love that led him to give himself up to all of that suffering. Realizing that such love is meant for us has to touch our hearts. That’s when we know the Lord and truly know ourselves.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Political Arrogance (Reflections on Pentecost 23 Year C)

Related image

“…for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14b)

So are you ready to barf yet?

I’m writing this post on the eve of the third and—mercifully—final candidates’ debate of the 2016 presidential election. This entire political season has been a bilious glut of vitriolic rhetoric spewed at the electorate through a nauseatingly endless stream of hateful advertisements and media coverage. I’d call it a giant clown show, but I have too much respect for clowns.

Now, I’m not about to take sides since to do so would violate church policy and threaten the 501(c)(3) status of my congregation (and I think it’s pretty obvious to my readers which side I’m on, anyway!). I will, however, simply point out that this season doesn’t seem to have brought out the best in any of us. There’s been sin on both sides, and the greatest sin of all might just be the way we relish taking sides. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for democracy, and I know we have to have debate and honest comparison of ideas if we ever want to get anything done right as a society. Even Saint Paul reminded the Corinthian church, “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” (1 Corinthians 11:19). Yet public debate always carries with it the risk that we will end up like the  Pharisee in the parable from our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 23, Year C (Luke 18:9-14). I mean, haven’t you caught yourself saying something like “God, I thank you that I am not like those other people who are voting for that loathsome candidate! Thank you for putting me on the side of righteousness, unlike those sub-human, deluded nincompoops!”

Isn’t that the problem with believing earnestly in a cause? Our passion always seems to suck up a healthy dose of arrogance for our own superior position and contempt for those who disagree with us. Can somebody please tell me the secret of being a passionate advocate while maintaining humility in myself and respect and compassion for those on the other side of the argument? It ain’t easy.

The tricky thing about the parable Jesus tells in this lesson is that the Pharisee (Boo! Hiss!) is actually a pretty good guy if we take him at his word. He really does try to observe religious piety, and he’s a conscientiously generous person (v. 12). In fact, I’ve always thought that Pharisees get a rough shake in our Gospels. Historically, they were folks who honestly tried to do the right thing all the time based on their interpretation of Jewish law. They were the fathers of modern rabbinic Judaism, and they might make darn good neighbors.

The trouble with the guy in this parable is that he seems to think that his actions have made him beloved in God’s eyes, and he’s really quick to look down on someone like the tax collector who doesn’t measure up to his standard of righteousness. Basically, he’s like all the rest of us.

Dr. David Lose wrote a great commentary on this parable for the Working Preacher website. He points out that it’s real easy to reduce this parable to an exhortation to humility. Unfortunately, as soon as we concentrate on being humble, pride in our own humility sneaks in and makes us just as arrogant as we’d been before. When I think of humility, I always think of Uriah Heap, the cringing clerk in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. Uriah always references his own humility while secretly despising his “betters” and plotting their downfall. But, if Uriah Heap is a literary example of false humility, the tax collector in our parable is the expression of the broken spirit which is acceptable to God. This poor guy knows he is wholly dependent on God’s mercy, and can claim no merit of his own. This, I think, is what God is asking of us. Such a broken spirit is the gateway to both gratitude to God and love and compassion for others.

I got a little lesson in humility a while ago when I was officiating the funeral service of a man whose wife had been member of my parish. The deceased gentlemen had been on hospice care for a considerable period before his death, and the hospice chaplain had been an amiable rabbi named Brian. Brian asked if he could say a few words at the funeral and I, in the spirit of collegiality and ecumenism, encouraged him to do so.

As Rabbi Brian spoke, I was struck by his calm, thoughtful, and very humble demeanor. The man possessed an almost overwhelming subtlety which shamed me as I thought of my own self-conscious theatricality. He seemed like just the guy I’d want to minister to me in my final days. After the burial, I told him that I thought he had a gift.

“So do you,” he said. And then I got it. I have a gift. If it’s a gift, I didn’t come up with it myself. God gave it to me, and I have no call to boast about God’s actions. I can only be grateful and acknowledge my dependence on God’s grace.

Of course, I’m still stuck with the question of how I can righteously pursue political advocacy. I guess all I can say is that my desire to promote what I believe to be best for society will always carry with it the temptation to sin against my brothers and sisters, and that I must always struggle with this—acknowledging my own weakness and dependence on God. There is, I would hope, something holy in the struggle with sin, if only in that it saves me from being complacent with it.

Thanks for checking in, friends.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Praying for the Chicago Cubs (Reflections on Pentecost 22, Year C)

“And will not God grant justice to His chosen ones who cry out to Him day and night? Will He delay long in helping them?” (Luke 18:7)

How about those Cubs, eh..? Incredible as it may seem, it looks like the 2016 Chicago Cubs might just be poised to win the World Series. I know. Wild, isn’t it? I mean, Chicago hasn’t won a series since 1908! They haven’t even played in a series since 1945. In fact the last guy to play in a World Series in a Cubs uniform died last year.

And yet—year after painful year—Cubs fans have come out to Wrigley Field, praying to have a victorious team who will make the Windy City proud.

You have to admire their faith.

When you think about it, weirder things have happened. Did you ever think you’d see an African American president of the United States? Or a woman president? Did you ever imagine you’d see the day when same-gender marriage was legal in the land? Did you ever think you’d live to learn that a Roman Catholic pope planned to celebrate the Protestant Reformation with the Lutheran World Federation, or that there’d even be talk of full communion between Lutherans and Roman Catholics? Sometimes things take time, but—remember—God created time and he has time for all things

Our Gospel lesson this week in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 18:1-8) is a clever little parable in which Jesus reminds us to keep the faith. God’s time may not be our time, but that doesn’t mean we stop believing, stop working, or stop praying for the things which are righteous. If even the unrighteous can be worn down eventually through our persistence, surely God will be listening and choosing the moment to answer our righteous prayers. In the meantime, our persistent faith builds our character. The time of constant prayer is a time of learning. Remember—God is always righteous. Our prayers don’t change God. They change us.

Two Martin Luthers have wise words which I think apply to this Gospel passage. Martin Luther King is often quoted as saying that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. I think that’s a pretty encouraging thought, don’t you? And, of course, the original Martin Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism that despair is a great and shameful sin.

I really dig the Hebrew Scripture pericope which the RCL pairs with this Gospel lesson (Genesis 32:22-31). It’s the story of Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok. He’s sent his whole family and a sizable bribe across the river to his brother Esau. When we last saw hairy old Esau, he was pretty p.o.’d with Jacob for stealing his birthright, and he was really looking forward to killing him for doing so. Now, years later, Jacob is preparing to meet the brother who hates his guts once again. He tries to make peace, but he’s not sure Esau is willing to kiss and make up. He spends a restless night alone before the encounter, during which he wrestles with a mysterious man. We don’t know if this is God or an angel or who, but Jacob won’t let this guy go until he receives a blessing from him. Even though the mysterious wrestler gives him a nasty kick in the groin and puts his hip socket out of joint, Jacob still holds on. Finally, the wrestler gives Jacob both a blessing and a new name. Henceforth he will be called Israel—which means “The One Who Strives with God.”

In a way, we’re all Israel. We all struggle and strive and hold on for dear life, praying for a righteous blessing. To lose our hope is to lose our purpose. To lose our purpose is a kind of suicide. So keep praying, my dears. Keep striving with God. Hang on until you are blessed.

And GO, CUBS!!!

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

I'm on Vacation

This week's Gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 17:11-19) pretty much preaches itself. I don't have to deliver a sermon on it because I'm on vacation this week. I did, however, use this text for a Thanksgiving Eve service a few years ago. I've made it the "Featured Text" at right. Read and enjoy the story of this great American hero.