Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Who Can Be John the Baptist Today? (Reflections on Advent 2, Year A)

Related image
"John the Baptist" Bartolome Estaban Murillo (1660)

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” (Matthew 3:2)

I so dig John the Baptist. You have to admit, he’s a pretty funky guy—right up there with Jeremiah and Ezekiel in the list of prophets who were way far out in left field away from the mainstream, speaking uncomfortable truth to complacent power. To say the very least, John is an eccentric character. Just look at his primitive clothing and organic diet! But sometimes we need someone who is very different in order to get our attention.

John’s a pretty important guy, too. We could, I suppose, ask why God didn’t just send Jesus to us with all of his love and healing. Wouldn’t the Savior be enough? Why did Jesus need an advance man? I find the answer to that question every time I go outside my office into the church Fellowship Room where the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are held. There’s a six-foot poster on one of the storage closet doors displaying the AA 12 Steps in big black letters. Step 5 says, “(We) admitted to God, ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” This is followed by Step 6 which reads, “(We) were entirely ready to have God remove these defects of character.”

“Entirely ready.”

Yup. That sums us up. We aren’t going to change or accept the possibility of change until we’re entirely ready. My guess is that if Jesus just showed up doing his own thing, many people would never give him a second thought. They wouldn’t be ready to be healed, or to have their sins forgiven, or to begin loving their neighbors as themselves. They had to acknowledge their need for Jesus first. They had to know that their way wasn’t getting them the peace they were starving for. They had to be entirely ready to say “bye-bye” to their old assumptions.

So along comes John. He’s not the guy with the temperament to give the peace which passes understanding. He is, however, the guy who has the loud voice and is willing to wake folks up to the corruption of their world, the errors of their thinking, and the truth that God has prepared a way for them if they’re only willing to see it.

Who can play the role of John the Baptist today? Personally, I like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Old Uncle Bern—you’ve got to admit—is as unconventional a hero as they come, yet he was able to get millions of America’s young people mobilized against income inequality. Sen. Warren has joined her voice to Sanders’ in waking us up to the dangers of money in politics and the “financialization” of America—that is, the concentration of capital into one sector of the economy while ignoring the needs of millions.

Of course, this is just me being partisan again. I sometimes imagine a modern-day John the Baptist to be like Howard Beals, the fictional news anchor in the 1976 film classic Network. In Paddy Chayefsky’s satire of the television industry, an aging newsman goes berserk on camera and calls for Americans to open their windows and scream “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” The character of Beals goads his viewers out of their torpor of avoidance and demands that they feel something about the state of the world. Unfortunately, raw passion alone—without the proper direction—soon reverts back into complacency. We can be ready to change, but the change has to be towards Jesus.
Image result for network 1976 film
Peter Finch as Howard Beals in "Network" (1976)

So where is our passion today? Do you think we’re really ready to receive Jesus? Or are we stuck in finding Black Friday bargains, closing our borders and our minds, or just shutting off the news and pretending that sin in our world just doesn’t exist?

How will people be ready to receive the Good News Jesus has to deliver? Who will be the advance man?

Do you think it could be YOU?

God’s peace, my friends. Thanks again for reading.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Reflections on Advent

You also must be ready, for the Son of man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (Matthew 24:44)

The above passage from Matthew’s gospel, the line which ends the first gospel lesson for Advent One in Lectionary Year A, is a pretty ominous verse. Jesus is coming, and we don’t know when. He might just catch us by surprise. I mean, what if you’re in the shower or gambling in Vegas or doing something you might be ashamed of? What if you’re busy having a feud with your in-laws or yelling at your kids when Jesus suddenly shows up and says, “Time’s up!” How would you feel? Or maybe you’re busy doing something really fun? Maybe you’re at your kid’s soccer game when the End of the World comes. How would you know who won?

I’m not really sure that most of us give much thought to Jesus’ return. And yet, every year at Advent we begin the Prayer of the Day with the words “Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.” Maybe we’re just having too much fun without the Second Coming. Still, the older I get, the more I understand how our lives are always about waiting for something wonderful to happen.

Think about it. When you’re a kid, you just can’t wait for Christmas (although, I suspect we are waiting more in the spirit of greed for toys and goodies than we are waiting to hear about Baby Jesus!). As we get older, we just can’t wait for adulthood—for our driver’s license, our high school graduation, or our journey to college when we’ll be free at last of our pesky parents—never suspecting that they’ve been waiting to be free of us for a little while, too.

As adults, we still find ourselves standing in the line of time and circumstances. We’re waiting to find that special someone who will give our lives joy and purpose. We wait to get married and we long for the moment when we say “I do.” Of course, sometimes waiting for a wedding is mixed with both excited longing and intense anxiety depending on how much of a perfectionist the bride—or her mother--is. In that case, we just can’t wait to get it over with!

Then we’ll wait for a better job, for our children to be born, for a special vacation, a raise, a new house, or retirement. We wait for that magical season when our favorite local sports team wins the championship (some wait longer than others!). Sometimes the waiting is much more special than the actual event. When I graduated from seminary, I waited excitedly for my ordination. When the event finally arrived, I was so stressed out by the arrangements I’d made I realized I wasn’t even paying attention to the service.

Sometimes, we find ourselves with our loved ones gathered around a bedside, waiting for someone we love to leave this world. Those times feel like the waiting goes on forever.
Sometimes we wait, as the song says, for the world to change.

Do we ever, I wonder, really wait for Jesus? If you do, what does that mean to you? It seems like everything else for which we wait passes into memory after it occurs, and we go on waiting for something new. Yet nothing seems to satisfy us enough for us to say, “My waiting is over. I just want to be in this moment forever.”

When Advent comes, I always try to take some time to ponder what it means to wait upon the Lord. Like everyone else, I look forward to those candlelight liturgies, to singing the Christmas carols, to giving gifts, and having Christmas Day dinner with my family. And yet I know that these annual rituals are just the foretaste of the feast to come which will put an end to all waiting. And I long for that. The little baby, child of an unwed teenager, born homeless in a stall for animals, lovingly ogled and cooed at by dirty sheep-herding peasants, came to remind us all that the day will come which will put an end to waiting. We will have peace. We will know we are loved. We will want no more and hunger no more. We will sin no more, hate no more, hurt no more. Wait no more.

In the meanwhile, believing that God’s promise is true, we wait in confidence, and the waiting is both bearable and lovely.

A blessed Advent and Christmas to you all.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Saint of the Month: President Obama

Image result for president obama
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain this to members of my parish: No. The President of the United States is not a Muslim. It is true that his father, grandfather, and step-father were Muslims. It is also true that he went to school as a little boy in Indonesia, and the Catholic nuns listed his religion as “Muslim.” But, in that country in those circumstances, they listed every child’s religion as Muslim unless the child was specifically a Roman Catholic.

The truth is, Barack Obama is a Christian. Specifically, he is a member of the very progressive United Church of Christ. In his wonderful memoir, Dreams From My Father, the future forty-fourth president described his days as a community organizer in Chicago. While working with local religious leaders in an attempt to create coalitions to aid some of America’s poorest citizens, Obama encountered the dynamic—if somewhat controversial—pastor of Trinity UCC, the Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. Wright explained to the young social worker that he’d have a better shot at working with local churches if he actually attended one. In moving detail, Obama explained how a worship experience at Trinity led him to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Obama would later be married at Trinity and would have his children baptized there.

As President Obama prepares to leave office, I’m sure the TV, newspaper, and internet pundits will begin to dissect his presidency. The historians will get out their measuring tapes and will expound on where this administration ranks in terms of historical importance. To me, the Obama administration—for all its tortured trek through the fecund jungle of adversity—reflected the Christian values of its Commander in Chief.

Early in the administration President Obama showed a willingness to address past foreign policy mistakes in an open and courageous manner. I think he recognized that part of a great nation’s greatness is seen in its ability to admit error and work for redress. His Affordable Care Act reflected the moral value that no nation can claim to be civilized if it denies medical care to people simply because they are unable to pay for it. The president’s stand on climate change expressed his concern for the creation God has made and his compassion for future generations. His stand against the use of torture was a triumph of virtue over fear. He has expressed a heart for the refugees of this world, vast empathy for the victims of violence in places like Sandy Hook, a heart for immigrant families, and has constantly stressed that “we are our brothers’ keeper.”

President Obama is the first president in my lifetime who is younger than I am, and I don’t think I’ve ever prayed for a leader as much as I’ve prayed for this man. He came into office in a time of great turmoil. He steered the nation through an economic catastrophe and endured the taunts and insults of those who felt he wasn’t repairing the damage fast enough. As an African American he spoke about race in a way which showed he understood the feelings of a white majority which no longer enjoys perfect privilege or cultural hegemony. At the same time, he was an honest voice for racial justice, speaking truth without rancor or bitterness.

What impresses me now as this president prepares to leave office is the basic decency of the man. There were no sexual or financial scandals connected to this administration. No dirty political tricks. “No Drama Obama” never displayed unseemly ire or unbecoming vindictiveness. One would think it went without saying that gentlemanly behavior would be the minimum requirement for a person in government service, but, given the bad taste of the recent election, I think it’s important to hold up the example of a man who led with dignity and respect. Here was a calm presence, an obviously loving husband, and a conscientious father who modeled behavior we would want for ourselves and our children.

I write this post before the Feast of Christ the King, a Christian festival inaugurated after the horror of World War I to remind us all that earthly leaders are fallible and only Christ can be our true ruler. I would not liken Barack Obama or any earthly leader to Christ, but I do believe that this man was led by the moral convictions of faith in the One who died for our sins. During the last eight years he has made me even prouder to be an American.

Pray for our country, my friends. May our leaders look to the Lord.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Sometimes We Lose (Reflections on Pentecost Twenty-six, Year C)

Whatever happened to Country Music? I turn on the radio to my local country station and I don’t understand what I’m hearing. It’s lots of Southern Rock with loud guitars and heavy instrumental mixes. Where are the love ballads I remember? Whatever happened to Johnny Cash? Or Waylon Jennings? Where’s George Jones and Tammy Wynette?

And will somebody please explain to me why church attendance has been so crappy lately..?! I remember a time when people came out regularly and jammed the pews and made church a priority. What the hell happened?

Things changed.

That’s a pretty nasty pill to gulp down—change. I think Mr. Trump figured that out when he launched his campaign for the presidency. He figured out that there’s a whole lot of hurt in America that’s tied into grief for the way stuff used to be but isn’t anymore. Change means loss, and loss hurts.

But what about those folks who were looking for change? What about those Americans who were excited over an environmentally sound government agenda or the first woman president? Things seemed to be moving in one direction, but now they’ve changed. And that hurts.

The sad, painful truth about being a human being living on this planet under God’s sky is that things will always be changing and we will always be losing something we cherished or something we hoped for. Customs, tastes, industries, generations, places we’ve known, people we love—they will all disappear. Even the dreams we have and our expectations will be thwarted or forced to swim with the current of time.

Jesus delivers this painful news to the disciples in our Gospel lesson for this Sunday (Luke 21:5-19). The guys are in Jerusalem where they marvel at the gorgeous carved stones of the temple. They must have been pretty impressed with this edifice. It was definitely bigger, grander, and more elaborate than anything they had back home. I guess they figured that this building would last forever as a symbol of how great their nation was and how close their people were to the Creator God.

But Jesus reminds them that the glory of the world is temporary. Even this awesome temple can be reduced to a pile of crushed rocks. As you can imagine, this intelligence doesn’t sit well with the boys. If the symbol of their national might and exceptionalism is destroyed, they think, wouldn’t that mean the end of the world? So they start asking Jesus for some prophetic advanced warning as to when this cataclysmic event is to take place. But Jesus isn’t really trying to warn them about the end of time. He’s trying to get them to focus on things which will endure.

Jesus warns them that whenever some huge change takes place—whenever there is a shift which causes loss and confusion and demands a reevaluation of the way we see the world—there’s going to be some loudmouth false prophet or phony messiah who is going to try to sell us a load of crap and explain it away as God’s plan or try to blame it on some group or sell you something which will insure you against all possible doom. Don’t be taken in. It won’t be the end of the world. There will always be wars and violence. There will always be natural disasters. There will be famines and economic reversals at times. But it’s not going to be about what happens. It will be about how we embrace it.

There are a lot of folks out there, I’ll bet—good, Christian folks—who see all the change around us and interpret it as signs that we’re in the End Times. Well, maybe we are. Or maybe we’re not. Would knowing it really make that much of a difference to how you live your life?

When it all hits the fan is the time we have the opportunity to testify. It’s not about the inevitability of loss, but how we go on in the face of it. Didn’t our Lord lose his earthly father? His friend Lazarus? Didn’t he face rejection by his own people? Wasn’t he hailed as a king and then crucified as a criminal? When nailed to the cross, hadn’t he lost his freedom? His dignity? His friends? His life? And yet from that very cross he proclaimed pardon and forgiveness. His very suffering was a testimony to the love of God.

It seems that as human beings we are in an almost constant state of mourning. Everything changes—politics, culture, attitudes about religion, even country music (darn it!). But the word of God endures forever. We are not guaranteed a free pass from hard times. We are guaranteed that the steadfast love of God will inspire us when we feel lost. When our man-made temples fall we will be a testimony to the strength of our convictions and truth of our faith.

Things change. God doesn’t. So hang in there, and thanks again for stopping by!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

An Open Letter to a Grumpy Lutheran (Reflections on the Election of 2016)

An "I voted" sticker given to Boston voters in 2016.

I voted this morning. It wasn’t easy. Some less-than-courteous fellow citizen had parked his SUV over the line in the already full parking lot, but I managed—with great automotive dexterity—to squeeze my Toyota into the tiny sliver of a parking space, and, with only about twelve inches of door clearance, I slithered out like a mollusk.

I’ve never seen a crowd like this at my polling place. In spite of the large turnout, everyone seemed curiously sedate this morning. There was a solemnity in the air that felt like church. People recognized the importance of participating in democracy. It was strangely sacred, and it felt good to be an American.

For weeks now, one of my parishioners has been filling my in-box with his political opinions. His emails have railed against both presidential candidates, but he has leaned in a certain direction and written derisively against those in the opposing camp. His comments are disdainful (and, upon occasion, somewhat racist), and one of the more recent emails referred to members of the party to which I belong as “idiots.” I think today, on Election Day, I will reply to him in an attempt to make known that I have given considerable thought to the opinions I hold.

Dear Friend,

First, let me tell you that I love you. Not just as your pastor, but as a fellow human being. You are a good man with many fine qualities, and I am extremely grateful for the faithfulness you have shown to me and to your congregation. If we disagree on a few issues, it should never be understood that I don’t value you and esteem you highly. We are brothers in Christ, and that is more important than anything.

I’d like to explain to you my political philosophy. As Luther teaches in his explanation to the eighth commandment, we are to explain the actions of others in the kindest possible light. I like to give people the benefit of the doubt—even in politics—and I don’t believe any of our elected officials or candidates get up each morning thinking, “What can I do to screw up America today?” I think it’s fair to judge someone’s ideas and policies, but not fair to try and judge their motives. Let’s start by believing that we all want the best for our country and world. We just differ on how to achieve it.

Last Sunday’s Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary spelled out our Savior’s priorities (See Luke 6:20-31). Jesus loves the poor and the outcast. He teaches compassion, patience, forgiveness, and generosity. We should, as Christians, embrace these values, too. Martin Luther was also a great advocate for the peasantry. My Christianity believes that it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak. This doesn’t just mean against crime and violence. It means to protect them against discrimination, poverty, illness, and ignorance. The early Christians understood this, and pooled their resources in order to care for the less fortunate (See Acts 4: 32-34).

I cannot personally reconcile the theory of supply-side economics with the teaching of Scripture. This policy leaves the greatest wealth in the hands of those who are already wealthy. When tried, it has proven to be a failure at getting capital to circulate throughout the economy. It increases the federal deficit and calls for our leaders to make drastic cuts in discretionary spending—cuts which almost invariably impact the poorest and most vulnerable of society. Schools, nutrition programs, and clinics all lose out, and so do the poorest Americans.

I am also greatly concerned about America’s foreign policy, and I look to Jesus’ words in Luke’s Gospel for guidance here as well. I know it’s a dangerous world, and laws must be enforced for the protection of the weak—even if they are enforced at the point of a gun. Still, hatred and violence are never the answer. We will not kill our way out of the problem of terrorism and radical extremism. At some point, we are going to have to listen to those who hate us and try to understand them. As Abraham Lincoln pointed out, we will destroy our enemy when we make him our friend.

Another concern of mine which influences my stance on public policy is concern for the earth God made. God gave us this planet and told us to take care of it (Genesis 1:28). I feel it is simply poor stewardship—as well as bad economics—for America to double down on energy technologies which poison the planet, cause health problems for those who work in supplying them, and will ultimately become obsolete. To me, wisdom dictates that we pool our resources to find alternatives which will be environmentally friendly and economically sustainable.

There are many other issues which have surfaced in this campaign and upon which I hold strong convictions. I’m sharing these with you now in order that you might have a little better insight into how I think, and, perhaps, you won’t judge me so harshly. I’ll end by saying that I have great confidence in American democracy and our constitutional government. However this election turns out tonight, we can endure. Still, what will matter most will not be tonight’s election results, but how we as human beings and people of faith attempt to reconcile them tomorrow.

Love in Christ,

Pastor Owen

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Blessed Are the Average (Reflections on All Saints Sunday)

Image result for images of cemeteries
“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Luke 6:31)

Dry, yellow leaves were blowing in the cool autumn wind on a blue-grey afternoon. The tiny circle of people gathered around a small grave at Our Lady of Grace Cemetery in Pennsylvania’s Bucks County to say a last “good-bye” to Aunt Louise. The eighty-eight-year-old’s cremated remains were placed atop a family member’s tombstone.

“She always remembered everyone’s birthday,” said one of the mourners. “We always got a card from her. She never missed.”

“I never heard her say a mean word about anyone,” another said.

“She taught me how to pray the ‘Our Father.’ I’m sure going to miss her.”

And so I read the prayers over Aunt Louise’ ashes. She had lived as a widow for years after her husband was shot to death by a hold-up man who tried to rob the tavern he and Louise ran. She was never, bitter, however, and the family always admired her courage.

Joe was courageous, too. A dedicated Philadelphia Eagles fanatic, he was laid to rest wearing his Eagles jersey, and his funeral ended with the singing of “Fly, Eagles, Fly!” It must’ve been so undignified for this hard-working, blue collar guy to succumb to the indignities of ALS and spend his last days in a wheelchair, dependent upon others for his care. He was such a care-giver himself. He married a single girl with children, yet he loved the step-children like his own issue and cared for them as a father should—just like the righteous Joseph who married Our Lord’s mother.

Bill was a humble man. Quiet. Pious. He fought for his country as a Marine in the Korean War. Before deployment, he and a battle buddy tore a dollar bill in half, promising they’d reunite the halves of the bill when the war was over and buy a couple of beers to celebrate their survival. The torn dollar was never taped back together. Bill carried his half in his wallet for the rest of his life, remembering his friend and all of the other boys who would never come home again. He was a survivor. He survived a war, a broken marriage, a lost job, a battle with depression, and came through it to marry the love of his life who sat at his bedside when he rejoined his fallen comrades.

Millie was a doll. I called her “Aunt Millie,” because she was the aunt of three of my parishioners. I’d known two of her sisters. They were thin, elegant, fragile-looking little ladies with delightful smiles and delicate features. They were part of the vanishing generation that experienced the Great Influenza, the Great Depression, and the Second World War. I felt for Aunt Millie, as all of her siblings had gone before her. No one was left who remembered her parents or the way the old neighborhood used to be. No one to recall skate keys or Fibber McGee or that first dance to a Glen Miller tune. And yet, she always made me smile whenever she came to the church’s Wednesday afternoon senior citizen bingo games. She glided on to the end of her journey with gratitude and dignity and the charm only the elderly can possess.

The world continues to turn after Joe and Louise and Millie and Bill are laid to rest. Their passing did not make the nightly news. Nevertheless, these lives mattered. They touched other lives, and they planted a small seed of their own convictions in the consciousness of the ones who learned to love them during the blink in God’s eye that is a human life on this planet.

Have you ever wondered what your own funeral will be like? How many people do you suppose will come? Who will miss you, and why will your loss affect them? What of you will linger when your body is no more?

In the gospel lesson appointed for All Saints Sunday Year C (Luke 6:20-31) Jesus tells us that even the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, and the despised are blessed. The world’s estimation of greatness is not God’s estimation. Every life can be blessed in the eyes of God, and every life has the potential to bless other lives. The riches of God are available to all of us, and these riches, the Lord tells us in the scriptures, are forgiveness, compassion, forbearance, generosity, charity, and empathy. As our souls live on forever in God’s kingdom, so our virtues—should we chose to cultivate them—live on with those we` encounter in the here and now.

O Lord, help me to walk in your way. Teach me those precious qualities found in your Son, so that my life may be a blessing to all those about me, and that I may be welcomed with joy into the company of all the saints. Amen.

God bless you, saints of God. Thanks for reading.

PS – Another great average saint who has gone to be with the Lord this past year was Howard Brooks. Check out the “Featured Post” column to find out more about this extraordinary Christian.