Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Some Company on the Road (Reflections on Easter 3, Year A)

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1571
“While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them.” (Luke 24:15)

I’m always amazed by the people God has sent to walk with me on my life’s road. In early 1997 I was walking a pretty lonely path. I was serving my seminary internship as vicar of a wonderful congregation in Westchester County, New York when my first wife, after six years of our marriage, announced that she would be filing for divorce. I can’t say that I blame her. Our lives and careers were taking us in different directions, and I was far less supportive of her than I should’ve been. Nevertheless—and if you’ve ever been divorced you’ll understand this—the failure of a relationship which had begun with so much love and hope is something which really sucks.


I was feeling disappointed, depressed, and extremely embarrassed by this personal failure, and I wasn’t looking forward to returning to Philadelphia for my final year in seminary with this broken marriage hanging over my head. I talked it over with my intern supervisor, a wise pastor named Tim Kennedy, and he tried to help me put things in perspective. I put on a brave face for my intern congregation, but I felt that I was walking this road alone.

That is, until I got a phone call at my vicarage from a woman named Shauna. Shauna was one of the seminarians in my internship cluster in the Metropolitan New York Synod. Although the cluster had met several times, I hadn’t recalled exchanging more than a few words with Shauna. She was intern several miles away at St. John’s Lutheran in Poughkeepsie and a student at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN. Our paths had no occasion to cross either as students or as vicars. We were virtual strangers, and I don’t even know if she knew I was married—let alone breaking up with my wife. I had no idea that she and her fiancĂ© had just called it quits, and I have no idea to this day why, of all the people she could’ve called, she decided to call me.

But call me Shauna did, and suggested that we hang out and console each other for our recent trashed relationships. I will say at the get-go that Shauna and I never “dated.” Our relationship was totally platonic, but we were excellent companions on our respective journeys. We took trips into Manhattan and saw plays, went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and ate as inexpensively as we could in New York on our vicars’ salaries. Once Shauna treated me to a Hudson Valley Renegades AAA baseball game (I love A-ball! It’s better than the majors!) We talked of church politics, the calls we hoped we’d receive upon graduation from seminary, and Shauna regaled me with fascinating tales of her world travels with college choirs and other adventures. I recall one particularly long ramble through the tiny streets of Greenwich Village when we stumbled upon quaint little St. John’s Lutheran Church where (as I learned later) my own grandparents had been married in 1913.

At a particularly rough time in my life, God had provided me with a caring and understanding friend and wise counselor. Her insight, patience, and kindness were invaluable to me. After internship, Shauna and I remained in contact during our last year at our respective seminaries. The contact, alas, has dissolved over the past two decades as such contacts are wont to do. After all, God puts people in our paths for different reasons and different seasons. Still, I remain very grateful to have had the woman who is today The Reverend Doctor Shauna Hannan, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (and who once made the cover of Living Lutheran as one of the “New Thinkers in the ELCA”) to walk with me on that small patch of my  life’s highway. I make it my practice now, when I pray for people who have lost loved ones, to ask God to send the right people into their lives—the people who will reveal Christ to them and help them along in their journey.

In the gospel lesson for Easter 3, Year A (Luke24:13-35) two of Christ’s followers encounter a mysterious stranger on the road. It’s the day of Christ’s resurrection, but these poor guys just can’t bring themselves to believe the reports that Jesus has been raised. They’re disappointed that the one in whom they had so much hope ended up on a cross, and they must be feeling lower than whale crap as they make their sad way back home to Emmaus. But suddenly a stranger comes to join them on their way, and, because they’re willing to be hospitable and open to this guy, he is able to open the scriptures to them and re-ignite the doused spirit within their broken hearts.

Who is walking with you on your journey? Or, has God called you to walk with someone on their sad road back to wholeness? It’s worth thinking about. I always feel that, with due regard to Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25, our Christian walk is a call to see Christ in others, and to be Christ for others. That’s why it’s so imperative that we gather around the Lord’s Table. We need to remember that we don’t walk alone, that we’re family, and that we are all in need of the assurance of Christ’s presence—the assurance we receive in the breaking of the bread.

I’m glad you came by this week. Thanks for letting me share your journey. Please feel free to drop me a line and let me know you’ve been here, okay?

PS-If you’re ever in lower Manhattan, I suggest you drop in to St. John’s Lutheran. I’ve never worshiped there, but it seems like a pretty cool church. Find out more by clicking St. Johns.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Street Cred (Reflections on Easter 2, Year A)

Who knows what or who the freak to believe these days? The 24-hour cable news cycle gives us some facts and fecal tons of opinions. Even our president and his faithful myrmidon little Sean Spicer seem to be a bit accuracy-challenged.

I’ve always looked at the assigned lectionary for Easter 2 in the Revised Common Lectionary (See Acts 2: 22-32 and John 20:19-31) as a treatise on the issue of doubt versus belief. Who can believe a news story which is just too darn good to be believed—that Jesus has risen from the grave? We’ve playfully nicknamed one of the key characters in the gospel story “Doubting Thomas,” and we hang that moniker on anyone who looks with a suspicious eye on the potential of a good outcome. Just how do we go about believing the report of the gospel, and how do we convince others to believe it?

Heck if I know.

(Actually, I do know. We don’t really believe anything about the gospel unless it’s revealed to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. At least that’s what Martin Luther told us in his explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in the Small Catechism.)

When I look at the story of Thomas’ skepticism today, I’m a little less interested in blaming Thomas for his sour-puss attitude about the resurrection and more interested on how Jesus goes about approaching his still-frightened posse. He entered into their place of fear and uncertainty and showed them his scars (John 20:20).

Why the demonstration? Certainly he had to prove that it was really him—their crucified rabbi—they were seeing. But I also think he had to get some street cred, too. It’s as if he were saying, “Hey guys! Look at these cool scars I got from being a human being like you are. See? I hurt like you do. I know how you feel. I get it. And you can believe me when I tell you that it’s going to be okay.”

I wrestle personally with how “human” to be around my parishioners. I can say that I’ve been treated for depression, I’ve gone to AA, I’ve felt the shock of losing a loved one suddenly. I’ve stood watch waiting for a loved one to die. I’ve been divorced. I’ve been fired and I’ve been broke, and I’ve wondered where the money was going to come from. I’ve been disappointed. I’ve been frustrated. I’ve lost a baby before it was born. I’ve doubted my purpose in life and wondered if I mattered.

You don’t need to know my stories, and, for the sake of professional distance, I’d probably be wise to stay sketchy on the details. But you do need to know that I hear your stories. And I get it.

Jesus gets it, too—much better than I ever will. I mean, how could we learn to love a God who hasn’t felt our pain? How could we know a God who won’t show us his scars? How else can we learn to love God if not through the wounds of Jesus?

Something I really like about this gospel story is how gentle Jesus is with Thomas and his doubts. He doesn’t ream the poor guy out for not believing the news of his resurrection. He meets Thomas on Thomas’ own ground and makes the offer to have him touch his scars. Jesus tells him, “Do not doubt, but believe” (v.27). Jesus’ purpose is never to condemn, but to welcome.

I guess this is the only Christ-like way to deal with the doubt and unbelief of those we love. We’re called to be welcoming in spite of their opposition, and willing to let them see our scars and hear our stories so they may find us reliable witnesses.

God bless you, my friends. I appreciate that you took the time to visit my blog!

Thursday, April 13, 2017

What's Easter?

"Resurrection" by Piero della Francesca, 15th Cent.
But the angel said to the women, 'Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised...'” (Matthew 28:5-6a)

Several months back I was listening to a really cool program about story-telling called the “Moth Radio Hour” on National Public Radio. I heard a great tale told by a retired United Methodist pastor named Wayne Reece. Pastor Reeve told how he received inspiration for his first Easter sermon from a gang of bikers in a Texas dive bar sometime in the early 1960's. I won't share his story because, well, it's his story and he tells it better than I do. Besides, you can hear him tell it yourself if you click on this link: Pastor Reece. I will say, however, that it got me to thinking as the key point of the story came when one of the bikers asked Pastor Reece quite innocently and sincerely “What's Easter?”

What's Easter?

What's Easter to you? If someone asked you that question, how would you answer?

I can tell you what it is to me. It's the most sacred day in the Christian calendar, and one that I dearly love. It's the day I gather with Christians I don't even know and watch the sun come up over the Delaware River, reliving the story in scripture where the women came to Christ's sepulcher at dawn only to find the tomb empty. It's the day of irrational joy and the shout of “He is risen!”

And here's the story in the simplest way I can tell it: Once upon a time there was a man. He was born to an un-wed peasant girl in a hick town. He had a blue collar working stiff for a step-father. When he wasn't even a toddler his family became refugees. He finally relocated to his native country. As a kid, he had a profound interest in spiritual things, but he grew up working with his hands. When he was thirty years of age, he was baptized by his cousin and proclaimed the one who would save his people. For three years he wandered throughout the country as a preacher, teacher, and healer. He broke the societal rules by hanging out with all the wrong people—hookers, collaborators with the foreign government that had invaded his homeland, foreigners, and anyone on the outside of the community. He had a gang of twelve disciples who were mostly unlettered working stiffs. They were peasants just like he was. But people were drawn to him, and he changed their lives. He spoke of peace and love of enemies and compassion for the poor and God's forgiveness.

He wasn't a revolutionary or a terrorist, but he spoke truth to power, and the power decided to kill him. One of his closest friends sold him out to the authorities. His other friends deserted him when he was arrested. He was executed in a cruel, painful, and humiliating fashion. It took him three hours to die.

As soon as they could, a group of women, more faithful to him than the men had been, came to anoint his body as a final show of love. When they came to his tomb, they were told that he had risen from the dead. And they were afraid.

Why afraid? Surely, this was good news. Their beloved teacher was alive. But if I had to put myself in this story, I think I would know what these ladies felt.

What's Easter once we stop hiding behind the colored eggs and bunnies? Couldn't it be a time to start believing that the life of this man Jesus changed the world, and that we live in that reality? Couldn't we take the risk of believing those few terrified souls who, long ago, knew their teacher to be alive even after his death? Couldn't we take the risk of pondering what it means to live in eternity?

And, yes, it is risky. Believing something so glorious as life eternal, forgiveness, and your own worthiness in the eyes of God can be scary since we're so accustomed to having to prove everything—even to ourselves.

I get it. When I was an actor—even when I was working—I couldn't believe that I actually belonged in the profession I so desperately and pathetically yearned to be in. I walked through the studio and got before the cameras terrified that I would be found out to be an imposter. Eventually, my fear of the unreality of it all paralyzed me, and I wasn't able to audition any longer. People very kindly say I left the “business” because God had other plans for me (which I believe is true), but I know in my heart it was because I was afraid. I just couldn't accept the good news that I had been found worthy.

What's Easter? Can you accept the good news that Christ took on all of our pain, all of our disgrace, all of our insecurity, temptation, and loss—just so we could take on his immortal glory? Do you believe that he has gone, as the scripture tells us, “ahead of you to Galilee,” gone back home, and that there is no place you will ever go in your life's journey where he has not gone? And that you will one day be at home with him?

What's Easter to you? May it be the day when we take the risk of saying—in the face of everything this ephemeral world throws at us—HE IS RISEN!

And because he lives, we will  live, too.

A blessed Easter to you all. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

That's Why It's Called Communion (Reflections on Maundy Thursday)

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” John 13:34

Maundy Thursday—literally Commandment Thursday—the night we celebrate Jesus' last meal with his disciples before his arrest and crucifixion. It's the night he gave us the commandments to love one another and to “do this” (ie: Holy Communion) in remembrance of him. At Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia it's also the night in which some of our youngsters make their First Holy Communion, so it's a night I always look forward to.

When I was a kid growing up in the strict Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (Just think of the ELCA and then suck every ounce of enjoyment out of worship and you'll get a pretty good idea of the LC-MS of my youth!), we didn't receive our first communion until after we had made confirmation. I guess those Missouri Synod folks were frightened that kids taking communion without understanding it were doomed to hell per some weird interpretation of 1 Corinthians 11:29 in that old King James translation they loved so much. In the ELCA we've tended to sneak the age of First Holy Communion down to about third grade in order to get the children more involved in the worship life of the church.

When I became pastor at Faith I was pretty surprised to learn that First Holy Communion was celebrated on Ash Wednesday. My reaction was, “Say whaaatt..? Ash Wenesday..?” I really didn't like the liturgical juxtaposition of this. It felt like we were saying to the kids, “Welcome to the Lord's table. Now you're gonna DIE!” So for years we celebrated this milestone on Palm Sunday. I figured that getting lots of folks in church for Palm Sunday to see the youngsters make First Communion would give me the opportunity to plug our Holy Week liturgies. Unfortunately, this never had any effect since people loved Palm Sunday for the souvenir palms and would show up, First Holy Communion or not, but still stayed away from Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. I finally got smart a few years ago. The logical time to have First Holy Communion is on Maundy Thursday—the night commemorating Jesus' institution of this sacrament. It's been SRO ever since.

Again, if you read my post on Palm Sunday, you know I love the theatricality of this event. During this liturgy I wash the feet of my third and fourth grade first-time communicants. I think the historic re-enactment makes the gospel real to us. I want people to see Jesus' act of servant-hood. I think what this night most says to me is that we are called to be Christ in community. I am no holier or more “saved” than the children whose feet I wash. We are all one body, and we all need each other. That's where grace is found.

Although the night tends to focus on the sacrament, our gospel lesson (John 13:1-17, 31b-35) points us to our need to be family, to serve and be served, love and be loved. Poor Peter in this story has a little bit of an issue with the “being loved” part. He's okay with loving Jesus, but he can't seem to let Jesus love him. He seems to be hung up on his own sense of unworthiness. If you ask me, the dude has some control issues.

I remember talking to a buddy of mine in grad school some thirty years ago. She said something I haven't forgotten. “If I had the choice,” she said, “of being hopelessly in love with someone who would never never love me back, or having someone be in love with me whom I didn't love—I would rather be the one in love.” I get that. It's so hard for us to accept another's devotion because we can't control it. But truth be told, we can't control God's love for us. It's hard to accept that it's not about us. It's only about God.

That's why Jesus gave us this sacrament. Communion. Community. Togetherness. We don't eat alone. We come to the table of remembrance knowing that everyone around it has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God just like us, and in that community we witness to each other. And in that mutuality with our fellow sinful foot-washers we are letting ourselves be loved.

The best thing I can compare this to is an AA meeting. One of the great traditions of the 12-step program is that someone sharing their story in a meeting will begin by introducing themselves. “I'm Owen, and I'm an alcoholic.” It's basically an act of confession and contrition just to say those words. But what follows is an act of grace. Everyone in the meeting responds as if liturgically by saying, “Hi, Owen!” The effusive greeting says, “You may be a screw-up, but you're welcome here.”

We can read of God's grace through Jesus' sacrifice in the words of scripture, but nothing is quite like having another human being look you in the eye and express that grace to you. We need each other. That's why we come together to eat the meal of remembrance. That's why we're church.

I hope you, dear Reader, will find the time to worship this week and let yourself be loved by those you encounter.  

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

A Populist Messiah? (Reflections on Palm Sunday)

What Is Palm Sunday and What Do Christians Celebrate?

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil asking, 'Who is this?' The crowds were saying, 'This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.'” (Matthew 21:10-11)

If you've read my previous posts around this time of the year, you'll know that we at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia don't celebrate the Sunday before Easter as The Sunday of the Passion. No siree, Bob! You want the Passion story..? Then come and experience it through the worship of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. None of this lazy, Sundays-only stuff for us. We relive the story every year through our liturgies, and, I think, that's what keeps it alive and powerful for us.

We'll celebrate the Sunday before Easter as Palm Sunday, a festival reminding us of the events which led to our Lord's crucifixion. We wave palm branches just as the crowd in Jerusalem did who laid them in the Lord's path, creating a poor-person's red carpet to welcome Jesus as the Messiah as our gospel lesson records it (Matthew 21:1-17).

This story fascinates me as it has something of the flavor of a poor people's populist revolt to it. Here's Jesus entering the center of national religious life (which is to say, the center of all life for the people of his day) in a way described by the prophet Zechariah. He's coming from the Mount of Olives just like the Messiah should (Zech. 14:4) and he's riding in a very humble way—not on a royal mule or war horse—but on a little donkey (Zech. 9:9). He's entering as king, but as a king who has his roots in the peasantry. No chariot, no banners, no trumpets for this humble king. Just hungry people, desperately shouting “Hosanna!” Please help us.

I don't think it's hard for Americans in 2017 to imagine what those peasants who followed Jesus and cried out for his aid were feeling on that Sunday. They knew their society was pretty helplessly messed-up. Somebody else was calling the shots, leaving the average folk to feel like something they'd rather not step on in the street. You know they were hoping that this Jesus guy was the one who'd come and make everything right. He was one of them, and not like the power structure who was keeping them down.

Imagine how jazzed these folk must've been when Jesus entered the temple and drove out the big financial interests. These were the sellers of sacrificial animals who charged a huge mark-up to the unsuspecting rubes from the countryside. Then there were also the money-changers with their usurious exchange rate for turning pagan Roman coins into acceptable, non-blasphemous shekels from Tyre which were acceptable for paying the temple tax. Jesus called these guys out (Matt. 21:13), calling them “robbers.” I'll bet the crowd standing by were saying to themselves, “Atta boy, Jesus! You tell 'em!”

Our gospel story goes on to say that after Jesus took care of the money guys, he turned his attention to the ones who were really on the outside of society, the blind and the lame (v. 14).These folks weren't even permitted in the temple because they were considered ritually unclean because of their disabilities. In one heroic move, Jesus reversed the whole social order. And who cheered him on? Children—the very weakest members of the society.

In a time of renewed populism in America I'll bet we could read a lot into this story. Our sinful nature really loves an “us-versus-them” narrative. If you're President Trump, the “them” might mean a smug, liberal, intellectual elite from Hollywood or the "dishonest media" who have consistently ignored the realities of hard-working Americans in order to push a tree-hugging socialist agenda. Or, if you land on the progressive side, you might see “them” as the big money oligarchs who buy politicians through dark campaign money and cut the programs of needy citizens in order to give themselves tax breaks.

I'd be willing to bet that however we look at the “us-versus-them” situation, we can't help but wait for the Messiah to come riding in and put everything right—the way we understand “right,” that is. And the kind of Messiah we're expecting will be just as disappointing in this sinful world as the earthly ruler for whom many mistakenly took Jesus.

We want a kick-ass Messiah who can trample our enemies and put them in their place and make us feel superior. But if we look at the gospel, we see that Jesus' Palm Sunday act of defiance landed him on the cross. This is where he intended to be all along, and this is the only place we really meet and know him. When we look down the aisle and over the altar of our worship space, we don't gaze on the image of a victorious general on horseback with sword raised high. Neither do we gaze at some guy who has just hit the Power Ball. We won't find God in wealth or power or influence or fame.

We'll find God in Christ crucified. We'll find God in Jesus' honesty and courage and compassion. We'll find God in the one who loved us enough to endure our earthly, all-too-human pain. We'll find God in the one who found us—even in our sin and selfishness—beloved enough to die for.

Jesus did not come to change the system. Jesus came to change us.