Monday, February 27, 2017

The Shock (Reflections on Ash Wednesday)

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Sudden losses can really shake us. If we have any kind of mature introspection at all, the death of a family member or close friend, the loss of a job, the break-up of a relationship, or a serious health crisis will cause us to start taking stock of who we are, what our purpose is, and what God is doing in our lives. Perhaps this is why the Christian Church has historically given us this artificial shock of Ash Wednesday which begins our forty-day Lenten journey. We begin this holy season with the sign of decay on our foreheads and the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The knowledge of our mortality leads us into the time of fasting, abstinence, more prayer and worship, and giving of alms. The deep purple paraments and loss of the joyful cries of “Alleluia!” in our worship service are reminders to reflect not only on the death of Christ, but on our own death. How will this reminder affect us?

Our first Sunday lesson has Jesus experiencing his own Lent. He’s in the wilderness for forty days (Matthew 4:1-11) where he goes hungry and is tempted by the devil. How did those forty days change him, I wonder? In the gospel narrative he had just been proclaimed Messiah by John the Baptist and people had experienced the heavens opening at his baptism. Yet even at such a sublime moment, the Holy Spirit saw fit to snatch him away and send him on a journey to face loneliness, hunger, danger, and temptation. I can’t imagine he was the same on day 40 as he was on day 1. After all, if you had to endure (and maybe you have) a time of shocking change when you came plummeting down from a great height of security to face death or privation or heartache or confusion, how would you be changed?

Next year my high school classmates and I will be marking the fortieth anniversary of our graduation. I’m not really planning to make the trip back to California for a reunion, but I do wonder what happened to all of those “kids” with whom I was so close so long ago. At such events people often say, “Gosh! You haven’t changed a bit!” and mean it as a compliment. I’m not sure I want to hear that. I know I’m not the same as I was forty years ago. I have gray hair and poor eyesight and somewhat less energy than I did in 1978, but I also see the world and my place in it differently. Truthfully, I am grateful to have changed and aged and experienced all the events—good and bad—which have made up the last four decades of my life on earth. There have been dashed expectations and unexpected joys, and I can’t help but believe that God has been trying to make me into a new person.

If there is a change in me at all, perhaps it’s that I take the admonition of the Ash Wednesday gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) a bit more seriously. I don’t want to sound the trumpet when I give alms or stand in the street corner and pray long prayers. The older I get, the less I care about what others think, the less ambitious for praise and advancement I become. I have to learn to be satisfied with my lot in life, and I have to prepare myself to give an account to God and not to the world.

I hope—and pray—that I have done right by the congregation I have been called to serve. I hope they find in me a compassionate servant and one who has shepherded them with integrity through the changing times we face. For, you see, the church of the 1960’s and early ‘70’s may have been about supplying us with a weekly dose of spiritual energy, but now I believe that the emphasis has moved off of what the institutional church gives us and onto what we—the living church—give the world.

As we enter the annual journey into Lent, I pray that the spiritual disciplines of this season will be transformational. May we seek a living resurrection as people who are daily drowned in our sins and brought back to new life—and as new people—through faith in Christ.

God be with you, dear reader, in these forty days. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

What Thomas Jefferson Didn't See (Reflections on the Feast of the Transfiguration, Year A)

While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him.’” (Matthew 17:5)
The Transfiguration as painted by Giovanni Bellini, 1490

I recently received a lovely gift from some friends. It’s a facsimile of what is called the “Jefferson Bible,” a rare volume from the Smithsonian Institute. The actual title which President Thomas Jefferson gave this document is
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Mr. Jefferson, it seems, was greatly influenced by the eighteenth century philosophical movement called “The Enlightenment.” This movement attempted to make logic and reason the basis for all government and conduct. The disciples of the Enlightenment weren’t real big on religion, and neither was Jefferson. In his later years (sometime around 1819) he took a razor blade to the Gospels and cut-and-pasted his own version of the life of Jesus, removing all references to miracles or divinity—including the resurrection. 

The story of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) didn’t make the cut—literally!—in Jefferson’s Bible. A glowing Jesus on the mountaintop, a heavenly voice from a shining cloud, and the miraculous appearance of two long-dead prophets was not something which an enlightened fellow like our third president could buy into. According to Mr. Jefferson, things like this simply don’t happen. They are fairy tales which corrupt the story of a great human being and moral teacher.

I grant it’s awfully hard to make sense of this story which closes out the season of Epiphany. The Transfiguration might seem to us more like a TV commercial for Tide or Oxyclean than an insight into our relationship with Jesus. Perhaps we’re taking the story of this festival day a little too much like Mr. Jefferson did. That is, we’re so hung up on the literal impossibility of it that we miss its poetic message. Maybe the enlightened Mr. Jefferson (and history proves he was pretty darned enlightened—just look at the Declaration of Independence!) approached the story with too narrow a mindset.

What if the story wasn’t meant to be taken literally, but was an expression of how the three disciples—Peter, James, and John—experienced Jesus during that prayer retreat on the mountaintop? What could the glowing face and the dazzling white clothing represent? Purity? Glory? What if they saw beyond the earthly reality of their peasant teacher and glimpsed the total goodness of God? The dusty sandals, the sweat-stained carpenter’s clothing, the sunburned face, the hands calloused and dirty from climbing among the rocks disappeared from their vision and they saw their friend Jesus only as the embodiment of God’s love and holiness. Think of the love and awe they must’ve felt when they realized what he meant to them.

Think, too, of how they saw their identity realized in Jesus. Here was the man who actually lived in fulfillment of their law which Moses gave to their ancestors and the zeal of their prophets symbolized by Elijah. In Jesus they found all of their heroes manifested in one calm, wise, loving, healing, and passionate presence. It must’ve been a revelation so inspiring as to be actually frightening.

Have you ever felt that way?

I’m sorry Mr. Jefferson eliminated this story from his Bible. The ray of light which never shined on the Enlightenment was the truth that logic and reason do not run our world, and they never have. We are so much ruled by our feelings and emotions. But in the dense fog that is our lives—in the struggle to understand who we are and what we’re here to do—we need to use our hearts as well as our brains. And if we’re to be passionate about anything, let’s be passionate about Jesus. His is the only light which pierces our darkness. If we’re to understand anything at all it is because we heeded the words, “Listen to him.”

Thanks for reading, my friends. Keep looking beyond for the light of Christ.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Loving the Unlovable (Reflections on Epiphany Seven, Year A)

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:44a)

Some time ago I was at a meeting with some of my fellow pastors and one of our colleagues shared about the struggles she was having with her recent divorce. Her ex was taking her to court and really being a total feminine hygiene product (metaphorically speaking) to her. I remember her saying with an air of mystified astonishment, “I never knew what it was to have an enemy before.”

Boy. That’s something I really wish I never experience. An actual, honest-to-Pete enemy. Someone who genuinely wishes you harm and will rejoice in your pain or embarrassment. Has there ever been anyone like that in your life? If there has been (or still is) I wish you all of God’s peace and spiritual power to deal with that individual and the hurtful feelings that person causes you.

Jesus is once again making a pretty tough demand on our sense of discipleship in the gospel lesson assigned for Epiphany 7, Year A (Matthew 5:38-48). When someone sets out determined to wound us physically or emotionally or any other sort of way, it’s a real female canine (again I speak metaphorically—my wife says I swear too much) not to want to wound them in return.

The demand on us is, I think, to substitute compassion for the woundedness of our enemy in place of the fear, hurt, rage, or disgust we’d naturally feel when someone has violated our sense of humanity. It’s no easy trick, but it has been accomplished. History is full of brain-blowing examples. There’s a famous story about a woman accosting President Abraham Lincoln when he discussed plans for the reconstruction of the vanquished southern states. Supposedly the woman rejected Lincoln’s talk of forgiveness and demanded to know if the purpose of war was not to destroy one’s enemies. To this Lincoln famously answered, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemy when I make him my friend?” Lincoln, Gandhi, Dr. King, and the Marshall Plan are all examples of compassion triumphing over a desire for revenge.

In our gospel lesson Jesus is referencing a really pretty darn good law from Exodus 21:23-25 which was an admonition against excessive revenge or retribution. According to ancient law, you weren’t supposed to cause more pain to your enemy than your enemy had caused you. That was supposed to keep things civilized—if you lost a tooth, just knock out only one of your enemy’s teeth. Be fair about it. But Jesus is calling us to an even more radical retribution—return hate with love. And, if we read on, we discover Jesus isn’t just talking about our feelings for enemies, but for people we might actually like who make us nuts, too. We’re supposed to show compassion for people who beg money from us or put demands on our time. Sometimes I’ll bet it’s easier to love enemies than to love the family members who constantly mooch off of us or suck us dry with their demands for help and attention.

It’s not enough just to tolerate or to forgive. We’re called to find a kind of love. I have this screwy notion that if we really seek this kind of righteousness, God is capable of putting it in our hearts (see Matthew 5:6). Some years ago I had a brief and rather unpleasant encounter with one of the neighborhood toughs who hang around my church. It was a sunny Saturday afternoon following a work party. Everyone had gone home and I was locking up the church. As I headed for my car in the parking lot I observed a young couple having a pretty violent argument on the sidewalk in front of the church. Small children were playing on our lawn, and the language the young man was using was not exactly fit for the ears of the young. I watched the argument progress, trying to look as intimidating as a 5’ 8” pastor could look. The fight got louder, and the boy started shaking his girlfriend by the arm and yanking at her T-shirt. I pulled out my cell phone, fearing that, should this ruckus escalate any further, it might be necessary to alert the officers of the law. As I did so, I noticed the boy put his hand on the girls face and gave her a shove. A little girl on the church lawn hollered out, “You’re not supposed to hit girls!”

This statement prompted two things: First, the boy began to curse at the little girl with as vile a collection of epithets as I’ve ever heard. Second, I began to realize that if a little girl could speak up for justice, a pastor should certainly do something about the violence against a woman being perpetrated right in front of him. So I headed down the driveway to confront this ruffian.

(This, in retrospect, was probably a bad idea.)

When I approached the couple, the young woman (as battered women are wont to do, I’m told) informed me that this was a private conversation and asked me to leave. I faced the young man and asked, “What’s the problem here?” At this, the brutish youngster proceeded to unleash his considerable command of verbal vulgarity on me. Before I could make reply, he bowed up his chest and bumped me a good three feet back. I should add at this point that the young man was shirtless, and so I had a good look at his physique. He had easily three times the muscle mass I had and he’d only had it half as long. A physical confrontation with him could only result in my being thumped into a wet spot on the pavement. Still, something about the attack brought out the stupid in me. I introduced myself as the pastor of the church.

“Pastor..!” screamed the youngster, “I don’t give a f--- about no pastor!! I’m the son of the f-----g devil!”

As he raved on, I just stood my ground. Two things occurred to me: First, unless I really provoked him, he probably wasn’t going to hit me. He’d have done so already if wanted to. Second, God opened my eyes to see a tremendous amount of pain and torment in this young person. I understood that some kind of emotional oppression had caused this great rage within him. I suddenly found that I was not afraid of this bully and I was not repulsed by him. I only felt sorry for him. Eventually, he walked away down the street, the young woman walking in the opposite direction.

We may encounter all sorts of enemies in our lives. Bullies, criminals, jealous contemporaries, or ex-lovers who turn their hurt and disappointment against us. But Jesus calls us to a journey of understanding—to a heart-breaking compassion such as our Father God has for us. This side of Heaven we may never reach it, but the attempt might bring us a little closer to God’s perfection.

God bless you, my perfect friends. Come again, please.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

"Peace be With You" (Reflections on Epiphany Six, Year A)

Image result for Images of shaking hands
“The peace of the Lord be with you,” we say. “And also with you,” comes the reply. These are the words we speak to one another each Sunday before we lay our gifts at the altar. At Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia, it takes us a freakin’ long time to do this. You see, we’re kind of loose in our liturgical piety in this little church. Casualness runs pretty deep here, and the Lord’s peace might also be accompanied by a hug, a laugh, a word of gossip, or a prognostication about the Eagles or the Phillies. One of my wittier parishioners (now, alas, at home with the Lord) once remarked, “It’s beginning to look like recess.”

Some visitors get freaked out by the raucous display of fraternity we exhibit in our congregation. Everybody gets out of their pew and greets everybody else. This isn’t too hard to do since we only seat around 100 in our worship space and we generally have only half that number of adults in church on any given Sunday. Personally, I always wish we could rein it in a little—liturgical purist that I am. When we created our Praise Mass, we put the sharing of the peace right after the opening prayers and just before the readings. It got so the lector practically had to thump the pulpit and bellow over the cacophonous din of “peace-wishers” in order to get everyone settled back in their seats to hear the First Lesson. We recently got smart and put the sharing of the peace where it should go according to Jesus in the gospel lesson we’ll read on Epiphany 6 (Matthew 5:21-37).

Here’s a shout-out to one of my favorite liturgical innovators, Pope (and Saint) John XXIII. He’s the guy who suggest including this ritual in the order of the mass. I guess after finally catching up with us Lutherans by declaring a vernacular mass as one of the reforms of Vatican II, ol’ John jumped out in front and suggested that we Christians literally make peace with our brothers and sisters before we lay our gifts before the altar. Hence the sharing of the peace comes right before we take the offering. It should remind us that Jesus, in keeping with his declaration that he has come to fulfil the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 5:17), tells us that any sacrifice we might make to God is an empty one if we aren’t at peace with the rest of humanity. The best offering we can give to God is love, compassion, forgiveness, and reconciliation with others. Jesus taught that all of God’s Law is about loving God and loving everybody else (Matt. 22:34-37).

But fulfilling God’s Law isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be, is it? Not by a long shot if you buy Jesus’ interpretation in this pericope. I have to confess that, even though I haven’t gunned anyone down in cold blood, I’ve said some pretty uncharitable things about people lately (particularly about the current US Administration and the greedy, unqualified, sycophantic myrmidons who have been proposed by a certain incompetent narcissist for cabinet positions!), so, according to Jesus (v.22) I’m in real danger of going to Hell for murder.

And—if I’m to be really honest—I’m probably guilty of adultery, too (v.27-28).

Of course, it’s pretty easy to start equivocating about all of this. I mean, how many of us really believe that Jesus wants us to poke our eyes out for looking with lust? Or cut our hands off if we grab that extra doughnut or take that one-beer-too-many? We look at this strict interpretation of God’s Law and say, “He’s kidding, right? He doesn’t literally mean we should blind or maim ourselves, does he?” Nevertheless, for centuries we Christian have taken that stuff about divorce (v.28) pretty literally. Why do we assume Jesus meant that seriously but was just speaking with hyperbole about the other stuff?

I guess we like to be able to pick and choose our sins—making some greater and some lesser so we can squirm out of any sense of shame or guilt we might feel. But what I’ve always taken away from this discourse is the fact that we all sin, and we do it constantly—by thought word, and deed.

No, I don’t think Jesus really wants us to blind and main ourselves any more than I think he wants us to be shut off from community if our interpersonal relationships don’t work out. But I do think he wants us to be humbled by our chronic disconnect from God. If we’re willing to parse the commandments the way Jesus does here, we’re going to realize what screw-ups we truly are. Then, we’re going to fall on our knees and come back to God for forgiveness and renewal. And maybe then we’ll start to recognize that we’re no better than anyone else, and we’ll be able to love one another with a compassion that comes from our own humility.

And then the peace of the Lord will really be with us.

Peace be with you, my friends.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

No More Bushels (Reflections on Epiphany 5, Year A)

Image result for lights and lanterns

Jesus never told us it would be easy. I think we Lutherans are having a particularly rough time these days trying to decide how to be the Church in the midst of the contentious weirdness of American society. I mean, in this week’s Gospel (Matthew 5:13-20) Jesus tells us to let our light shine so people can see our good works (v. 5:16). But we’re not comfortable with that. We’re naturally reserved, shy folks who like to sit humbly in the back of the church. Besides, didn’t Jesus just tell us last week that the meek will inherit the earth (v. 5:5)? And isn’t he going to tell us in Matthew 6 to beware of practicing our piety before others, and that we should do our good deeds in secret?

There just seems to be too many frustrating contradictions here. We even have a problem with the Hebrew scripture lesson appointed to accompany the Gospel text (Isaiah 58:1-12). How are we supposed to shout out to the people and announce their rebellion when Jesus told us last week that the peacemakers are blessed? Why should we go around stirring the pot? Isn’t there enough controversy already?

And—not for nothing—being merciful to the poor and marginalized is all well and good, but do we have the money in the church budget to do it?

And shouldn’t I, as a pastor, be about the business of providing comfort and refuge from the craziness and vitriol of current events? After all, you can’t even turn on the TV or the radio or log onto the internet without learning of anger, protests, and discontent with the new administration. The mayor of Philadelphia is challenging the president. There are demonstrators clogging Market Street and at the Philadelphia International Airport. People are having vicious debates on social media. Commentators are barfing out their opinions, and I’m guessing many of us are just looking for a safe, “politics-free” zone where we can rest and let our blood pressure return to normal.

Jesus never told us this would be easy.

If the last thing you want to read about in a religious blog is political controversy, maybe you should click on something else now.

Okay. Here’s what I can’t do: I can’t tell you how to vote when there’s an election. That’s against IRS rules. If I stand in the pulpit and say “Vote for this guy or this party,” that officially makes the church a political action committee and violates our tax-exempt status. Here’s what I shouldn’t do: I shouldn’t get you so riled up about social controversies that you don’t hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And here’s what I won’t do: I won’t pretend that social issues and values don’t exist. I won’t let you live “love thy neighbor” on Sunday and “every man for himself” Monday through Saturday.

What good is knowledge of the Gospel—of God’s saving and all-inclusive love—if we don’t put it into action? If we keep our lamp of truth under a bushel, it’s going to go out. In these times, with the rhetoric being what it is, it is more important than ever that we find expression for our faith. If we really believe that Jesus loves the poor and values the stranger, then it’s time to put that belief into action. I’m not suggesting that we all go out and march and protest, but I think we have to seek ways to express our convictions to those in authority.

Last Sunday, my congregation voted to begin work on a community garden on our church property. The purpose of the garden is to provide fresh vegetables to the more than 2000 families registered for food assistance through our local Lutheran food cupboard, Feast of Justice. Today, I am reaching out to one of the directors of the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia which has committed to help resettle refugees from the violence in Syria. I do not know what assistance we can offer, but I feel the gesture is important. This summer Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia will again shelter homeless families through our partnership with Interfaith Hospitality Network. To date we have helped some fourteen families find permanent housing. These actions are not major feats, but they are tiny ways through which we can let the light of Christ shine. We need to make up our minds to do something. A letter to a congressman, a signed petition, a new volunteer opportunity, a charitable donation, or a word of gentle rebuke to a racist comment. Something. Anything. Faith without works is dead (James 2:17).

Finally, let me use this forum to express some things which are dear to my heart. As some of my readers know, my sister died of cancer in 2014. She had no employer-provided health care and was receiving assistance through a women’s health center in Tacoma, WA. The center did not have the equipment to accurately diagnose her condition. By the time she presented with cancer symptoms, it was too late. The notion of further defunding women’s health institutes or replacing Medicare or Medicaid with risky block grants is extremely painful to me. Healthcare is not a commodity. It is a basic human right and an imperative in my faith (See Luther’s explanation to the Fifth Commandment).

Similarly, as a Lutheran and a former public school teacher, I do not see the education of our children as a free-market enterprise. It is the duty of the society to provide education adequately for every child. (Luther also expressed this eloquently in his Letter to the Councilmen of All Cities in Germany, 1524). If the president wishes to spend twelve to fifteen billion dollars of our tax money building something, I’d be much happier if he’d spend it building new schools or repairing existing educational centers.

Christians, there is a time to be silent and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7b). Now, I believe, is the time to speak our values. Now is a good time to put our faith into volunteer action and let our light shine. We’ve been under the bushel too long.