Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Saints of the Month of August

There aren’t any major festivals of the Christian Church in August, so that leaves me kind of stuck for ideas to write about this month. Fortunately, there are a whole bunch of minor commemoratives on our Lutheran calendar, and, since I love the stories of the saints, I thought I’d share some of these with you:
August 8: Saint Dominic (d. 1221) This thirteenth century Spanish priest really loved to talk about Jesus. He also worried that it was the institutional church which turned people off from following Jesus. He denounced the wealth of the clergy, refused to accept the office of bishop, and spoke out against burning heretics at the stake. He advocated kindness and the need to be non-judgmental when confronting people of different religious beliefs.
August 10: Saint Lawrence (d. 258) This early deacon served the church by being head of the Finance Committee in ancient Rome. He did his best to see that the church lived up to Jesus’ command to charity for the poor, the widows, and the orphans. When the Roman Emperor Valerian demanded that Lawrence surrender the treasures of the church, Lawrence presented a group of lepers, blind and lame people, and orphans and said, “Here is the treasure of the church.” Valerian took a dim view of this and sentenced the deacon to death, making Lawrence one of the first celebrated martyrs of our faith.
August 11: Saint Clare (d. 1253) Clare was inspired to a life of poverty and charity by Francis of Assisi. She established her own religious order along the lines of her friend, St. Francis, and was one of the most spiritually inspirational women of her day.
August 13: Florence Nightengale (d. 1910) and Clara Maas (d. 1901) These two Christian women revolutionized the role of nurses. Florence was an Englishwoman who learned skilled nursing from Lutheran deaconesses in Germany. She returned to England to reform nursing in hospitals and recruited women to serve with her in nursing wounded British soldiers in the Crimean War. Clara was an American battlefield nurse who served during the Spanish-American war. She was instrumental in the research of yellow fever, a disease from which she died.
August 14: Maximilian Kolbe (d. 1941) and Kaj Munk (d. 1944) Both of these pastors were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. Kolbe was a Catholic priest in Poland who aided the escape of Jewish refugees. He was imprisoned by the Nazis and volunteered to be executed in the place of a younger man with a family. Munk was a Lutheran pastor and playwright from Denmark. The occupying Germans arrested him because his Christian plays and critical sermons encouraged the underground resistance movement. He was executed by the Gestapo.
August 20: Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) This Cistercian abbot was one of the most influential spiritual writers of his day and is still referenced now, almost 900 years later. He had a deep love of the mystery of God and despised the riches of the world. His simplicity and kindness attracted the poor to him, and he is said to have made many converts to the monastic life. He wrote poems and songs, some of which survive today as hymns such as “Jesus, the Very Thought of You.”
August 24: Saint Bartholomew (d. 1st Century) We don’t know much about Bartholomew, but it’s generally believed that he’s the same as “Nathaniel” mentioned in John’s gospel and the one whom Jesus called “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” (John 1:47) It is believed that he, along with “Doubting” Thomas was one of the first Christians to preach the gospel in India. He is said to have been crucified, flayed alive, or beheaded (or all three) somewhere near Armenia.
August 28: Saint Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) Augustine was a bishop in North Africa who got off to a pretty rocky start as a party boy before settling down and becoming one of the most influential Christian theologians in history. Augustine clarified the doctrine of original sin and the need of all of us for God’s unconditional love. Martin Luther’s theology closely resembles that of Augustine.
August 28; Saint Moses the Black (d. around 400) Moses was an Ethiopian slave who had been brought to Egypt but was released by his master for being too thuggish to handle. He turned to a life of crime, leading a gang of marauders in the Egyptian desert. Somehow, he was converted to Christianity and became a gentle monk and, later, an ordained priest. Ironically, he was killed by a gang of thieves whom he refused to resist by violence.
And, last but not least…
August 15: Mary, the Mother of Our Lord (d. ?) I don’t have to tell you anything about Jesus’ mom, but Luther really loved her and admired her willingness to be the bearer of Christ. That is, of course, what we’re all expected to be, isn’t it?
You can learn more about all of these interesting folks and their faith from Wikipedia. I hope you find some inspiration in these little festivals during these hot summer months. Remember: a saint is nothing more than a sinner saved by grace. You can be an inspiration, too!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Wheat and the Weeds (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year A)

If you’ve been watching the news in the greater Philadelphia area these past few weeks you’ll certainly have heard of the disappearance and murder of four young men in their teens and early twenties. The victims were all white and from the Philly suburbs of Bucks County (Vastly less has been said on the TV news about the routine slayings of African American and Hispanic youth in the city, but—hey!—that’s our media for you.). I was asked earlier this week to preside at the funeral of one of the victims, a nineteen-year-old named Dean. A few days later, Dean’s family told the funeral home they’d prefer to find their own clergy for Dean’s memorial service, so I was let off the hook. This was a relief to me as the funeral was scheduled a little too close time-wise to a wedding I was already committed to performing.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t cower from painful and tragic situations. In two decades of urban ministry I’ve been called on to preach at the graveside of murder victims, tragic accidents, suicides, those who have died untimely young, and—recently—a veritable host of drug overdoses. I take a certain professional pride in ministering in situations which are so soul-shatteringly painful because I want to make sure that those who grieve are given the opportunity to grieve and not made to sit mutely through prayers blandly read from a book or made to listen to an altar call disguised as a tribute to their deceased loved-one. I feel that healing only comes through honesty.

Even though I won’t have to preach at Dean’s memorial, I’ve been thinking a lot about this young man in the last few days. The gospel lesson assigned for Pentecost 7 Year A in the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) speaks to me of the dichotomy of this young life which was ended by violence. It’s Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the weeds. You know it. It’s the story of the man who plants good seed in his field, but an enemy comes along and sows weeds among his good crops. The man warns his hired hands not to try to pull up the weeds, because they might uproot the wheat along with them and the crop will be ruined. The farm-workers are counselled to let the bad grow with the good and wait until the harvest to sort it all out.

Not everything I learned about young Dean was good. He wasn’t exactly a Boy Scout. He’d been in trouble with the law. He was also lured to his death on the pretext that he’d be buying a certain quantity of marijuana. The kid had to know that this was illegal. Still, everyone who spoke to the press about Dean remembers him as a nice young guy. He had a job at a local ice cream shop. His co-workers liked him. They found him to be funny and warm and treated him like a family member. Everyone remembers his smile. He loved his family, and his interest and ambitions seemed to be mostly wholesome.

So was he a good kid who made some mistakes, or a dope-smoking little punk who should’ve known better, given the advantages he had, than to get involved with the wrong kind of people? Both descriptions are probably true. Dean was like the field sown with wheat and weeds, both wonderfully loving and selfless, yet still prone to temptation and folly. The same contradictions have been applied to Dean’s twenty-year-old killer. According to a Washington Post article, neighbors remember that boy, Cosmo Dinardo, as “a good kid who went out of his way to help others—such as volunteering to shovel them out during snowstorms and refusing payment.” Was Dinardo a “good kid” with serious mental problems or a sociopath? Both?

All of us, I think, are a combination of weeds and wheat. Which means, of course, that we should be very careful about how we judge people. Punish wrongdoing, yes. But who are any of us to say who is “evil” and who is “good?” In choosing to be wrathfully judgmental, we are fertilizing our own weeds. And if the weeds get enough of our emotional “Miracle Grow,” they’ll choke the goodness out of us—no matter how righteous we think we are.

I certainly have to keep an eye on this myself. The same week as the quadruple murder I’ve referenced was reported, a local Philadelphia funeral director, a guy named Harry, was attacked in the garage of his funeral establishment. Some guy came in off the street while Harry was working alone on a project using a circular saw. The attacker struck Harry with the saw, cut his face to ribbons, broke four of his ribs, and left him with a serious head injury. He stole Harry’s wallet, cash, credit cards, and cell phone, and left the funeral director unconscious and bleeding. I know Harry. He’s a real nice guy, a Viet Nam veteran, and has conscientiously cared for families in my congregation. I want the s.o.b. who hurt him caught and punished.

What I don’t want is to think of the afore-mentioned s.o.b. as a human being. I don’t want to have to consider that he might be a junkie so crazed by his addictions that he’s not in control of his own actions. I don’t want to think that he might be suffering, or that he has a family that loves him, or that he was once his mother’s pride and joy. I don’t want to see the wheat in him. He’s just a weed to me.

This kind of absolutism seems to be rampant today in our public discourse. No wonder our congress can’t get anything done—all they seem to be able to do is vilify the opposition. But no one is wholly bad or good. We are, as Martin Luther said, at once justified and sinner. I certainly pray that violence will be restrained, that guilt should be punished, and that laws should be obeyed even if the threat of force must be used. But I pray that I may not hate the guilty. I pray that I can learn to be merciful in my assumptions, because I am certainly in need of mercy myself. I pray that I can leave God’s work up to God.

Dear Jesus my Lord, you who were the victim of violence, please watch over the families that have been wounded by violent acts. Be present with the mourners of victims, and with the families of those who suffer because their loved ones have done violence. Let your Holy Spirit move into the hearts of those who have committed crimes and bring them to repentance. Remove hate, vengeance, arrogance, and all that separates us from your love from our hearts. Help us to see a shared humanity as you see it. For this and for all you see we need, we ask in your holy name. Amen.