Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What Do We Value? (Reflections on Epiphany 4, Year A)

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…” (Matthew 5:6)

So here’s Jesus doing a little in-service with his disciples (Matthew 5:1-12). My go-to gal for all things lectionary preaching, Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, reminds me in her article for Working Preacher that Jesus isn’t holding a big, Billy Graham-style evangelistic rally when he preaches his Sermon on the Mount. He’s not talking to Gentiles or regular Jewish folks. He’s talking to his disciples—people who already want to be his followers. Basically, he’s talking to us.

And what’s his message? He’s telling us who God loves and favors. He’s telling us who are the ones who find happiness in God. And who are they? They’re the suffering and the afflicted and the folks who are trying to do what’s right.

The most egregious dumbing-down of this discourse I’ve ever heard was from Dr. Robert Schuller who referred to the Beatitudes as the “Be Happy Attitudes.” As much as I may admire all that the late televangelist has done to promote the Gospel, I really have to take issue with him for neutering this quintessential teaching of Jesus and turning it into a self-help lecture. I can’t imagine anything being further from what Jesus intended. The Beatitudes are a statement of God’s value system—a system which is diametrically opposed to the values of the world.

The Schullers and Osteens and others have preached for a long time that God desires to see us prosper. I don’t really doubt that. What I’d like know, however, is how God understands prosperity. The Bible is full of stories of men who were blessed with material wealth but whose personal lives were filled with conflict and heartache. Look at Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon. Then there are characters like Elijah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist who are greatly honored as heroes of the faith yet knew nothing but poverty and struggle.

Our culture blesses wealth, status, beauty, and power. We say we abhor violence, but—boy howdy!—we love those who have the potential to do violence. We are being told that greatness lies in our ability to intimidate others. We despise weakness.

But Jesus calls blessed those who are humble, peace-loving, and filled with a capacity for mercy and kindness. Jesus calls blessed those whose only desire is to do what is right for the people and the creation God loves. If we are really Jesus’ disciples, we need to get this notion straight before we attempt to do anything else. Any proclamation of Jesus’ lordship will ring hollow if we haven’t embraced the values he teaches us here.

Righteousness is its own reward. If a little church elects to open a daycare center because the neighborhood needs a daycare center, that’s well and good. The poor are served and the need is met. If, however, the little church opens a daycare center because they feel it will increase their membership or provide extra revenue to keep their church afloat, then they’re missing the point. They should be doing what is right because it’s right. If virtue is not its own reward, then it is not virtue but commerce.

I am greatly distressed by the feeling in America today. There is so much anger in our discourse, so much talk of “winning” and “defeating” the opposition. It seems so hard these days to speak of righteousness with love and humility, but such is the only way we can speak as disciples of Jesus.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Light the Dark Territory (Reflections on Epiphany 3 Year A)

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“…and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.” (Matthew 4:16b)

Well, I’m not exactly sitting in the region and shadow of death. In fact, the region in which I sit and write these words was once a wilderness inhabited only by the Lenape Indian tribe and a lot of wildlife. In colonial America, it became farmland, and crops flourished here for centuries. The great American patriot Dr. Benjamin Rush—physician, educator, and signer of the Declaration of Independence—was born about three miles north-west from here. Two miles in the other direction is the former summer home of the Drexel family, the place where an honest-to-God Roman Catholic saint, Katherine Drexel, began her ministry and founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. The bones of members of Philadelphia’s illustrious Biddle family—titans of finance, government and the military—repose in an Episcopal churchyard a few blocks away. The historic Glen Foerd Riverfront Estate, a masterpiece of 19th century architecture which once housed one of the finest private art collections in the U.S., is only a stone’s throw to the east.

And here I sit, surrounded by all of this history, in a cinderblock church which not a few people have told me they’ve passed by for years without knowing that it is a church. Faith Lutheran blends into the 1960’s brick and vinyl-siding architecture of the cramped rowhomes of a neighborhood tucked away between a strip mall and State Highway 63. It’s a blue-collar community. The pavement is uneven, potholes fill the road, trash is everywhere. The church parking lot, in spite of our best attempts to keep it well-lit, has become both the local garbage dump and drug thoroughfare.

If I really want to depress myself, I contrast the area’s glorious past with its crappy present.

Sometimes, when I drive into the church lot and see the blowing litter or the abandoned shopping carts, or when I stoop down to pick up the discarded drug paraphernalia, I ask myself, “Is there someplace else I could be?”

And then I come inside, make myself a cup of coffee, and read the words of scripture for the upcoming Sunday mass (In this case, Matthew 4:12-23). In this story, Jesus learns that John the Baptist has been arrested, so he withdraws to Galilee. To me, the word “withdraw” suggests that he retreats or runs away. After all, if your fellow preachers are getting arrested, it might be a good idea to get out of Dodge for a while. I checked the word out in my Greek Bible and everybody seems to agree that it is correctly translated as “withdrew.” That is, Jesus went back to Galilee. We’re told in Matthew 3:13 that Jesus came from Galilee to be baptized by John, and then he spent forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan (Matt. 4:1-11). But where was John during those forty days?

Here’s what I’m thinking: John is arrested by Herod, who is the tetrarch of Galilee. So I’m wondering—would Herod arrest John if John weren’t in his jurisdiction? I don’t think so. I’m thinking John was in Galilee, got thrown in the slammer, and when Jesus heard about it, he went back to Galilee to continue his mission. Instead of running away, Jesus went where he felt the need. John’s followers must’ve felt pretty scared and alone after their prophet got pinched. They needed Jesus.

The text tells us that Jesus was fulfilling prophecy by heading for the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. These were districts in the north-east of Galilee which were conquered by the Assyrians after the fall of Israel in 721 B.C. History tells us that the Assyrians were not very nice guys. They were big into conquest, oppression, and cruelty. The neighborhood of Zebulun and Naphtali would certainly suck for the conquered peoples who lived there, and the prophet Isaiah would be right in calling it the “land of deep darkness.” (Isaiah 9:2)

But the prophet preached hope for that benighted hood. He dreamed of a time when God would send the deliverer to God’s people. There would be light in the darkness. In Jesus’ time, the community around the Sea of Galilee was once again occupied by ruthless conquerors. This time it was the Roman Empire and its myrmidon, Herod Antipas. Yet this place, the first territory of Israel’s once glorious kingdom to be defiled by enemies, would be the place where the Kingdom of Heaven would reappear in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. This was where Jesus just had to be.

When the neighborhood around my church starts to depress me, I have to try to remember that well-lit places don’t need more light. Jesus calls disciples in the dark places. Where the enemy seems to have conquered—be it through poverty, addiction, depression, or just plain apathy—that’s where Jesus is seeking disciples. And that makes any neighborhood a beautiful and glorious place because Jesus is present there.

Let’s be like Peter and Andrew and James and John. Let’s heed the call and be the light.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

"Come and See" (Reflections on Epiphany 2, Year A)

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You just have to love John the Baptist. This cat does a pretty awesome thing in the appointed gospel lesson for Epiphany 2, Year A (John 1:29-42). He purposely takes all the focus off of himself—even though he’s been the rock star of prophets up to this point—and points the way to Jesus. No ego. No fuss. He makes an orderly transition of authority from himself to the one he calls “the Lamb of God.” Later, in John 3:25-30, when his own disciples start to get their shorts bunched up because Jesus has become more popular than John, the Baptist again modestly points to Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease,” he says in verse 30.

This week we in the U.S. heard our President give a farewell address. I thought it was pretty cool of Mr. Obama to set his adoring hometown crowd straight when they booed at his mention of the transition of power. He reminded us that, whether you like the incoming leader or not, the transfer of authority must take place in a peaceful and respectful way in order to show the rest of the world that American democracy still works. Some people may not like the change, but there is something more than personalities involved here. There is a belief system which unites us and makes us who we are.

The world of the church doesn’t seem much different from the world of politics at times. Two buddies of mine—older colleagues who have been my “rabbis” over the years—have recently retired after long and distinguished careers in their respective parishes. I’ve been in contact with members of both congregations, and I have to confess to being somewhat dismayed by reports that some church members have just sort of drifted away from worship during this transitional period. I have to wonder if folks are saying to themselves, “Golly. I don’t want to risk becoming attached to an interim pastor who will not ‘abide’ here permanently. I guess I just better sit at home until the Call Committee picks someone permanent and then I’ll come and see if I like him (or her). Of course, whoever comes next won’t be as good as Pastor Wunderbar with whom I’ve had so much history and with whom I’ve grown so comfortable.”

I’ll admit, transitions suck. It’s hard to deal with change because it also means dealing with loss. Even though my retired friends diligently preached to their congregations that the worship life and mission of the church was not about them but about Jesus, it’s still been hard for some people to get the message. “Come and see” is easily said, but it takes faith to do it.

When I read this Gospel passage, I attach a lot of meaning to the disciples’ question, “Teacher, where are you staying?” (verse 38). I question if these boys are trying to figure out if Jesus is one of them, a local, or if he’s someone who is committed to hanging with them and being part of their community. They don’t bounce up to him and say, “Hey, Mr. Of Nazareth! John the Baptist just told us that you’re the Messiah, so we’re going to become your disciples and follow you everywhere even unto death out of pure faith!” No. That would be a little too hard to do. They have to question him first. The problem, of course, is that Jesus so rarely gives anyone a straight answer (check out poor Nicodemus in chapter 3!). He tells them, “Come and see.”

So where are you abiding, Jesus? Maybe not in things familiar to us. But, if we’re true disciples, our job is to seek Jesus and abide with him even if it means transitioning from the known and comfortable. It might mean embracing the truth that we Christians no longer have primacy in the culture. It might mean accepting the loss of permanent, full-time, ordained clergy and shifting ministry to an energized laity. It might mean embracing different worship styles, times, and places. It might mean worshiping with people who are radically different from the folks we saw in the pews when we were kids. But our faith isn’t about leaders or buildings or even Sunday mornings.

“Where do you abide?” the disciples ask of Jesus.

“Come and see,” He says to us.

May you abide with Him this week. God’s peace to you, and thanks again for stopping by.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Beloved (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

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“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:17) 

I was just playing the soundtrack to the original London cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. As a former actor and one-time denizen of Hollywood, I really love this musical. There’s a great production number at the end of the first act which takes place in the apartment of a young assistant film director. He’s invited all of his young movie-biz friends to a New Year’s party. They sing a terrific song about their dreams for the future called “This Time Next Year.” I love this scene because I’ve been to parties just like that one, and I’ve imagined a golden dawn with a “yellow brick road career” which must be just around the corner. Unfortunately, that magical tomorrow never seems to come.

So often our hopes for tomorrow run on the rocks because they’re predicated on the idea that today sucks. Okay. Maybe we’re not well pleased with the way things are. Maybe we could stand to lose a little weight, fix a relationship, move to better quarters, start going to the gym, or improve ourselves by some brilliant and strategic plan.

Then what?

I don’t know about you, but I think I’m just getting too friggin’ old to make New Year’s resolutions. I’ve arrived at the point where I have to be grateful for what I’ve got because I don’t know how much longer I’ll have it. For whatever shortcomings I might have, whatever dreams might go unfulfilled, whatever ambitions might fall victim to the harpoon of my proclivity towards procrastination, I can at least say, “I am baptized.”

Pretty cool, huh? Yeah, the gospel lesson for the first Sunday after the Epiphany (Matthew 3:13-17) reminds me yet again that Jesus didn’t mind washing in the dirty bathwater of my sin. I’ll only find contentment if I can find my identity in being a child of God—of God who is so well pleased with me that he joined me in human suffering so I can join him in glory.

Granted, I have a few accomplishments of which I can boast. On the wall of my office hang my neatly-framed Master of Divinity diploma, my Urban Ministry Certificate of Study, and my Letter of Ordination. I also framed a nice congratulatory letter from my bishop sent when I became the longest-serving pastor in my parish’s history. But along with those trophies of my achievements I hang my Certificate of Baptism. Those other samples of scholarly calligraphy might boast about what I’ve done, but my Certificate of Baptism tells me what was done for me. This is the document which tells me who I am.

Truth be told, in spite of my degrees and beneath the gorgeous vestments of my office I’m just a lazy, un-ambitious, error-prone, frequently irritable, frightened sinner. But God has chosen to make me a beloved child anyway.

Also, if truth be told, I got the idea to hang my Baptismal Certificate in my office from my home pastor, the late Rev. Dr. Roger Magnuson, whose Baptismal Certificate hung over his desk. I also stole the idea of emphasizing baptismal identity form an article by the Rev. Frank Honeycutt in the January 2017 edition of Living Lutheran. Pr. Honeycutt suggests that we all find and celebrate the date of our baptisms. I think this is a swell idea. In fact, a few years ago, I took a good look at the Baptismal Certificate on my office wall, deciphered the signature of the pastor who had baptized me in 1961 when I was about a year-and-a-half old, and looked him up. He was still alive, so I wrote him a letter and received a charming response. He has since passed away, but I feel more connected to my baptism now because I made the effort to thank the man who sprinkled me with water and pronounced that I was sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

So now we start a new year already as new people. How? Because every day through the remembrance of our baptism, we are drowned to our sin and made alive again in Christ. Congregations like mine will hold annual meetings. We’ll lament that we’re short on money, that we need more volunteers, and that we need to implement new programs. I hope we’ll remember above all else that we are baptized—that we bear the name of Jesus who came to us in all righteousness. Let’s celebrate that, despite all adversity and all of our worries and shortcomings, WE have been called beloved children. God has trusted us with the treasure of the gospel.

Not only do we believe in God, but we must believe that God believes in us.

Happy New Year, Church.

P.S. – If you’re a theater buff but don’t know Sunset Boulevard, you can hear the song I referenced by clicking here.