Thursday, August 31, 2017

Not Even St. Peter Gets It Right (Reflections on Pentecost 13, Year A)

“For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matthew 16:26)

Poor Peter.

In last week’s gospel reading from the RCL (Matthew 16:13-20) he was certainly the Man. He was the hero who got the revelation from God about who Jesus is—“the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” (v. 16). Jesus lavished some pretty cool praise on him for getting that one on the nose, but in this week’s gospel lesson (Matt. 16:21-28) Jesus is chewing Peter’s butt for misinterpreting his own revelation. Peter just doesn’t get this whole suffering servant thing. I can’t say that I blame him. It’s not an obvious concept to most people these days either.

Back up in verse 20 Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone that he’s the Messiah. Why he’s keeping it a secret is any Bible reader’s guess, but I’m thinking the most obvious reason is this: folks just don’t get it.

All of the pious Jews who have such high hopes for Jesus as the Son of David are ready to put on their red “Make Israel Great Again” baseball caps and kick out those corrupt, tax-and-spend Romans and restore the glory of the long-passed Davidic Kingdom. You know—the good ol’ days when everyone felt pretty peachy about their nation. Then they can enjoy their freedoms and proudly lord it over the Canaanites and the Samaritans. To them, the Kingdom of God means power, victory over their enemies, and pride in their exclusive identity. To Jesus, however, it means love through sacrifice and humble trust in God’s righteousness, love, and goodness.

If you go into any old-fashioned Christian church—not one of these mega churches with the movie screens and the sixty piece praise bands, but an old-fashioned Protestant or Catholic church—you won’t see the image of a victorious general on horseback or a picture of the guy who just hit the Powerball. Pride, victory, wealth, and acclamation are not places where we find God. You’ll see instead the image of a man dying on a cross, because the true love and fullness of God only comes to us when we have put aside all of our human vanities and desires.

Now, as someone not living in an occupied nation, I don’t see that there’s anything particularly wrong with freedom or pride of identity. These things become particularly valuable when they’ve been taken away from you. But before they can bring you joy, you’re first going to have to find yourself in helpless dependence on the love of and mercy of God. Peter and the others might’ve been willing to die so that their people would triumph, yet what good is victory without love?

What does “triumph” mean to you? Recognition? More money? A more prominent job or place in society? The gratitude of your kids or their success? A Phillies World Series Pennant (Good luck with that last one!)? If you don’t know the peace of God without those things, you won’t know God’s peace should you ever achieve what you think you desire.

I’ll say one thing for dear Simon Peter in this gospel story—he sure does love Jesus and he wants to protect him (v. 23). Later, he’ll even promise to stand by Jesus until death (Matt. 26:35, although we know he didn’t make good on that promise!). I’m not so sure, however, that Jesus really needs our protection or our defense. Lots of folks get their boxers wedged up their cracks these days because of the increasing secularization of our society. They’re pretty miffed because saying “Merry Christmas” may not be politically correct, or because there isn’t prayer in public school, or because we can’t send Bibles to our troops serving in Muslim countries. Personally, I don’t see any of this as a threat to Jesus. Jesus endured being stripped naked, publically beaten to a pulp, and nailed to a cross. He was openly ridiculed as he hung there to die.

And yet he rose and lives in our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus doesn’t need us to protect or defend him. Jesus wants us to listen, love, serve, and obey him. He wants us to give up our cultural vanity so we can be free to experience the joy of his love for us, and find that love by serving others.

God bless you, my friends. Thanks again for reading.

P.S. I don’t think there’s a lot of partisan politics or denominational wrangling going on in Houston, Texas right now. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by Tropical Storm Harvey, and things that might’ve seemed really important a week ago don’t seem to matter today. Today we look to Jesus on the cross giving himself away for people he has never physically met, and asking us to do a little giving of our own. Here’s how:

The Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Fund will be used for helping congregations and their people get back on their feet so they can serve their neighborhoods.
·         Give online at Click the donate button and give to “Hurricane Harvey.”
·         Mail your donation to: Gulf Coast Synod Disaster Fund / 12941 North Freeway, Suite 210 / Houston, Texas 77060 (Memo: Hurricane Harvey)

Lutheran Disaster Response is a highly reputable ELCA organization that supports case management primarily, through local providers like Lutheran Social Services. They give by need and not by creed. Learn more about giving to LDR at

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Who Is Jesus? (Reflections on Pentecost 12, Year A)

“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” (Matthew 16:15)

“The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord…” I really dig that old hymn (ELW 654). About twenty years ago, when I was vicar of Grace Lutheran Church in Yorktown Heights, New York, I was assigned to take the high school youth group to one of those youth gatherings with funky preachers and rock ‘n’ roll praise music. One of the bands did a “thrash rock” version of “The Church’s One Foundation” which had hundreds of teens bouncing like pogo sticks, arms at their sides, skulls flopping like they were on bobble-head springs, and hair flying everywhere in a frenzy of adolescent joy—and all while singing the principal doctrine of the church!

I mean, how cool is that? Isn’t it a crazy joyful thing to have Jesus as the foundation of your life?

The gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Twelve (Matthew 16:13-20) is that famous story we’ve called “The Good Confession.” That’s when Simon Peter answers Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?” by saying, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus’ is pretty tickled that ol’ Pete got this one right, and he tells him that he’s a rock, and on this rock he’ll build his church.

But, truth be told, Peter isn’t much of a rock, is he? He’s impulsive and vacillating and doubtful and downright cowardly at times—just like the rest of us. Okay, so he is said to have been martyred in Rome when he led the church there. All subsequent bishops of Rome, according to our bros in the Roman Catholic Church, are believed to be successors to Peter. Does this make the cornerstone of the Christian faith the incumbent Pope? To an extent, even dear old Martin Luther would see some value in this. After all, the Church must have order, and a centralized authority can be a useful tool of the Holy Spirit. The downside, however, is that it negates the question “But who do you say that I am?”

How come..?

Glad you asked. Because however valuable ecclesiastical authority might be, it isn’t worth a thimbleful of warm spit if the individual believer doesn’t have a deep, personal answer to the question of Jesus’ identity. Who do YOU say Jesus is? What does he mean to you? How is he—or IS he?—the foundation of your life? Never mind what the Church says or what you learned in Sunday School. Who is Jesus to you?

If I try to answer that question for myself—and not as a clergyman but just as Owen, an average white dude closing in on sixty—I can tell you I love Jesus because I believe he is the resurrected God who knows and reminds me that all of my struggles will one day end in victory in the arms of the Living Father. But I love him more because he is the crucified man, and there is no insecurity I have, no pain I will encounter, and no loss I will face which he hasn’t faced already.

(Quick illustrative anecdote: The breeder from whom my wife and I got our new Shih Tzu puppy told us a story about a friend’s three-year old daughter. Three-year-olds are not known for their theological sophistication, but this little girl told her mommy one morning, “Mommy! I had a bad dream last night, but I didn’t call out ‘cause I remembered Jesus is always with me. So I went back to sleep.” Out of the mouths of babes!)

But if I get pressed to answer the question, “But who do you say that I am?” I may have to reply, “You are that person who really pisses me off. You are that dirty, creepy guy with the cardboard sign who is panhandling by the side of the road. You are that shriveled-up black lady in a recumbent wheelchair from the group home who gives a long and incoherent eulogy when I’m trying to conduct the funeral of one of her fellow residents. You are my whining and complaining parishioner who talks endlessly about her ailments. You are even that politician who I can’t freaking stand the sight of on my TV news at night.”

You are, dear Jesus, the one who tells me that I must see you in those whom I consider least. You are the one who keeps pointing out the worst in me in order to bring me to my best. You are the one whom I must see in others, and the one whom I must be for others.

Thanks for stopping by, my friends. I appreciate that you took he time.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Mild Rant About Confederate Statues and Other Stuff

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:2)

Alverta, our church treasurer, has taken it upon herself to replace the warn-out garden flag which adorned the entrance to our narthex. “I hope this flag is okay with you, Pastor,” she said. “If you don’t like it I’ll take it down.” The little banner fluttering about waist high in the flower bed to the right of Faith’s front door simply reads “Welcome.” There’s nothing controversial in that, but Alverta was concerned that the greeting appeared below a five-pointed star set on a background of red and white stripes and a field of blue with white stars—basically the stars and stripes of our American national flag. She was a little worried that I would not want to mix a patriotic symbol with a house of Christian worship.

She has a good point. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the American flag having a place of prominence in the chancel of Christian churches as, however much we love our flag and country, these symbols are not images for worship on a par with the cross of Jesus Christ. Ironically, although it was Martin Luther who first insisted on the separation of powers between church and state, it was American Lutherans who might be responsible for putting American flags in church chancels. German-speaking Lutherans planted the “Stars and Stripes” in their sacred spaces in an attempt to prove their allegiance during the days of America’s involvement in World War One.

I told Alverta that her “Welcome” flag was cool with me. After all, we still have Old Glory in the chancel, and I’m certain there’d be a huge dust-up if I ever suggested removing it. Nevertheless, this got me to thinking about the symbols we use—especially in light of the recent unpleasantness in Charlottesville, Virginia. I was told last night by a neighbor whose daughter lives in the Charlottesville area that a dark haze has descended over the town since the August 12 demonstration by white supremacists carrying Confederate battle flags and swastika banners. These so-called “Alt Right” marchers were protesting the removal of a statue of the Confederate general Robert E. Lee from the town square. Because our symbols matter, there has been much activism recently to remove Confederate war memorials from public places in the US. I’d have to say it’s about time we did so. Why?

I was always taught in school that, although Lee fought for the Confederacy, he was an excellent and gifted soldier, a compassionate leader of men, and an overall fine gentleman who had the respect of his comrades and enemies alike. Unfortunately, much the same could be said of the Nazi general Erwin Rommel—and no one is rushing to put up a statue to him. Both of these soldiers made choices, and their choices were to fight for regimes which existed solely to dehumanize human beings. No gallantry on their part disguises the fact that they put loyalty to their homeland above the Law of God. A statue to Lee or any other Confederate general or statesman is a symbol which says, in essence, “It’s okay to brutalize others as long as you do it for your country.”

Now, as you all know, I’m a big history buff and I believe that the truth should be told about figures of historic significance. Let’s be fair: no one is 100% good or evil, and all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Nevertheless, there have to be cases were heroic symbolism is denied and reverence and veneration are forfeited. For example:

The trustees of Penn State University elected to remove the statue of the lionized football coach, Joe Paterno. Paterno’s inaction when he knew crimes were being committed against children can only amount to a depraved indifference. The trustees were right to remove his image from the campus.

A pastor in my former synod was discovered to have had an affair with his female vicar back in the 1970’s. Although the affair did not come to light for decades (and you would think the statute of limitations would have run out), the synodical bishop still called for the removal of this pastor from the clergy roster. Why? Because his relationship with the vicar, consentual or not, was an abuse of the pastor’s power and a violation of the trust placed in him by his congregation.

Baseball great Pete Rose has been denied a place in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame. His illegal betting corrupted the game. A plaque in his honor at Cooperstown would be a symbol declaring illegal activity is forgivable if your batting average is high enough. Similarly, I think there can be no place of honor for a wife-beating O.J. Simpson, a steroid-juicing Lance Armstrong, or a dog-fighting Michael Vick. None of these men are beyond rehabilitation and no one is beyond the mercy of Jesus; however, there must be some penalty given, if only as a deterrent to others whose egos or misguided loyalties lead them to make gods out of something other than God.

Luther would tell us that protection of the weak and punishment of the unrighteous is the first use of God’s Law. I’m certainly all for forgiveness, and no one has a right to judge the soul of another. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that some actions—although forgiven—should not be excused. Our symbols are important, and we all need to decide where we, as a society, are going to draw the line.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Defiling Words and Annoying Faith (Reflections on Pentecost 11, Year A)

Juan de Flandes, Spanish 16th Century

“…it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” (Matthew 15:11b)

This past week I enjoyed one of the singular delights of the summer season—I had my annual reunion with my buddy and seminary classmate, Pastor Jack. Each year Jack and I meet on Long Beach Island at the Jersey Shore to stuff our faces at the Dockside Diner and indulge in a colloquy on our respective ministries, the state of Lutheranism in America, and life in general. I have to say that my friend is one of the wittiest and most erudite individuals I’ve ever met, and quite possibly the living embodiment of Martin Luther. When we get together, the verbiage always flies in a rhapsody of picturesque expressions which, as pastors, we don’t often get the chance to use around our pious parishioners.

Unfortunately, some of our expressiveness might have been a bit too picturesque for the gentle ears of beach-going youngsters seated close to us at the diner. By mutual consent, we attempted to keep our voices low and not detonate “F bombs” or pronounce epithets which might corrupt the young. After all, as Jesus warns us in the gospel lesson for Pentecost 11, Year A in the RCL (Matthew 15:10-28), what comes out of the mouth defiles.

Which brings me to this point: There was an awful lot of defilement being spewed out of the mouths of so-called “Alt Right” marchers last Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia. Another friend of mine suggested that, perhaps, the proper response to a demonstration of white nationalists puking hate in the public square would be to ignore them completely, not cover them in the media, and deny them the opportunity to challenge with words or fists any opposition to their sinful and disgusting rantings.
But what comes out of the mouth can defile.

The counter-protesters in Charlottesville and those who have taken to the streets since understand that such defilement cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. It is not enough to ignore the ranting of Satan. We must counter with the words of Jesus. What we say and what we allow to be said matters, and what comes out of our mouths has power to corrupt and degrade or to uplift and liberate. We cannot ignore the words of hate, and we cannot neglect the words of God’s grace.

The main part of our gospel lesson concerns a Canaanite woman who comes begging Jesus for help. She really needs it because her daughter is demonically possessed (Don’t you hate it when that happens..?) and she’s somehow got wind of the idea that Jesus can help her out. Unfortunately, she’s a foreigner. She’s not of the right nationality or religion to rate public assistance from a Hebrew rabbi. Her cries initially go unnoticed. Faithful disciples of Jesus just want her to go away and stop annoying them (v.23). Even Jesus himself tells her she doesn’t signify.

But this lady isn’t going away. Why? Because her need isn’t going away, and she’s not about to be ignored any longer. Her life and the life of her child matter.

Pastor Jack shared with me an issue he’s having with his congregation in New York. The previous pastor was extremely reluctant to allow the local community use of space in the church building. Although 12-step groups had requested to meet at the church, the pastor feared that such meetings would bring in “the wrong element.” I guess this pastor didn’t want to give what belonged to the children to the dogs. Even good Lutherans can be as blind as the Pharisees at times.

(BTW: Jack is very proud to report that his congregation seems much more willing to embrace the outsider than was their previous shepherd!)

Jesus praises the faith of the Canaanite woman. I wonder if he’s impressed by the fact she really believes if she tries long enough and loud enough and just keeps on trying—annoying as she is to the mainstream—she’ll eventually get the mercy she needs. If there’s enough love and mercy for animals, surely there’s enough for suffering human beings.

I see a whole bunch of take-aways in this story. First, Jesus once again goes counter to the culture and crosses the divide that separates “us” from “them.” In Jesus, there is only “us.” Every life matters, and it is the duty of the strong to protect the weak, or of the “haves” to care for the “have nots.”

Secondly, there’s the matter of the faithful persistence of the Canaanite mom. She’s reminding us to believe in the just outcome, and to keep on keeping on—in our prayer life, in our social activism, in our forgiveness, in our relationships, and in the work God has called us to do. Ask and it shall be given. And if it isn’t, keep on asking until it is.

Keep the faith, my dears. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

High Winds and Slot Machines (Reflections on Pentecost 10, Year A)

Image result for Jesus walks on water
I had dinner this past week with M (No, I’m not trying to hide her real name. She just likes to go by “M,” so that’s what everybody calls her.). She’s getting baptized at my church this Sunday along with her eight-year-old son. She was telling me about her job, and about how hard it is for her to see God in her surroundings.

M works at the local racetrack and casino which is a few miles to the northwest of us in Bensalem, PA. Originally, when the racetrack was built in the mid-1960’s, it sat directly across the street from our church. The first pastor of Faith Lutheran fought the Philadelphia zoning board tooth and nail to keep that sucker from going up. Not only would its location eat up land that could be used to build homes for potential Lutheran parishioners, but the pastor realized that if you build a gambling facility in a working-class neighborhood, working-class people will gamble. Which means, of course, that people who can ill afford to waste money will risk losing it on stupid games of chance.

Today the site of that original racetrack has become a retail outlet mall, but the track and its accompanying slot machines and green felted tables are still sucking money out of the pockets of local roofers, plumbers, and other hard-working stiffs just a few miles down the road. M tells me that she sees the same faces there day after day. They are people motivated by greed or desperation or by the addiction of gambling. And the corporation which runs the place doesn’t give a rat’s ass about who is playing and losing so long as they keep making a profit. I told M that it must be hard for her, a person of character and moral conviction, to be surrounded by a swirling sea of avarice and compulsive behavior. The neon lights and the jaunty slot machine bells can’t disguise the atmosphere of corruption.

Two of the lessons assigned in the RCL for Pentecost 10 (1 Kings 19:9-19 and Matthew 14:22-33) are stories of God’s people in chaotic environments. At least that’s the way I see them. Elijah in the Hebrew scripture reading and the disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to be caught in situations they can’t control and are feeling very far from God. I bet we’ve all felt that way ourselves. We’re just trying to make a living and stuff happens and crazy people are all around us and nothing is going right. We’re trapped in a little boat in a big storm and we didn’t do anything to deserve this.

The story in 1 Kings may not be familiar to you if it’s been a long time since you were in Sunday School. Elijah, the rock star of prophets, has done some pretty cool prophesying. He’s told Ahab, the king of Israel, that God isn’t happy with the apostasy into which the kingdom has fallen—especially since wimpy Ahab’s nasty wife, Jezebel, has got everyone worshiping a Canaanite weather and fertility god called Baal. God punishes Israel with a severe drought, and Elijah challenges the 450 prophets of Baal to a contest to see whose god is the real deal. Elijah wins the contest and has the 450 false prophets put to death. God ends the drought, but Jezebel decides to have Elijah killed anyway. When we meet him in this lesson, he’s alone, running for his life, and feeling like nothing he’s done right has mattered. It’s all turned to crap anyway.

“What are you doing here, Elijah?” God asks. Elijah whines about his problems, so God tells him to go outside because he’s about to pass by. Then follows a hurricane, an earthquake, and a forest fire. But it’s only when all the chaos has subsided and Elijah is alone in the deathly quiet that he realizes he is truly in God’s presence. Just him and God. And it freaks him out. It’s in that still, quiet moment that God lets Elijah know that all isn’t lost, that he’s not alone, and that there are other people out there who are part of his community. Thousands of people, in fact.

The disciples in the gospel lesson are also feeling a bit lost and alone. They’re out in a boat in the middle of the sea and the wind is kicking up. Jesus comes to them, but they’re even frightened of him. Impulsive Peter wants to conquer his fears by doing a pretty stupid thing. He wants to test Jesus’ presence by walking on the water himself. I guess it isn’t enough for him that Christ has come to give aid and comfort. His fear makes him act irrationally. For a while he seems to be doing okay, but he looks around and gets scared by the wind.

Now, if I were Peter out on a small boat in a heavy sea, it would actually be the water that would make me nervous. After all, you can’t really drown in wind. But remember that in the Greek the word for wind is the same as the word for spirit. Perhaps it’s the spirit of the times, the mood of the place, the attitude of those around us, or the prevailing angst which is overcoming us. It’s not the actual threat, but rather the fear of that threat that causes us to sink.

I’m sure a lot of us—like M—identify with Elijah or with Peter. The world around us seems chaotic and uncontrollable and depressing in spite of all of our best efforts to stay afloat. That’s why we need each other. We need to know we’re not alone. And we need to take those quiet moments to be alone with God and get our heads on straight. We need to check our impulsivity and get in touch with our faith. That’s why we need the Church

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Healing and Feeding or How Jesus Rolls (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year A)

Jesus Feeds the 5000
“…he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” (Matthew 14:14)

It seems that every time we look at a familiar story in the Bible it tends to morph into something new. The last time the story of the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 14:13-21) rolled around in the Revised Common Lectionary, I was really struck by the fact that Jesus gave himself to the care of the crowd even though he’d just learned that his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist, had had his head sliced off by Herod Antipas.

Verse 13 tells us: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” Can you blame the guy..? Jesus was probably grieving for his cousin and needed some alone time, or he was making a strategic withdrawal before Herod got any ideas about coming after him. Whatever his motivation to scram out of Dodge might’ve been, Jesus was still willing to give up his time and be compassionate to the people when they needed him. This is kind of a pre-Calvary example of Jesus' willingness to sacrifice.

When I look at this story again today, I’m asking: What's up with Jesus? What's he DOING here? If you look a few paragraphs earlier, before all the John the Baptist stuff that starts chapter 14, you’ll see one of Jesus’ great teaching discourses about the Kingdom of Heaven (That was the gospel lesson for last week in the RCL). If you were to remove the detour about John, the Jesus narrative shows him as teacher, healer, and provider of food. So what I pick up on is Jesus’ compassion and desire to see the sick be healthy is more important than his need for privacy. Then he tells the disciples (who really do seem concerned that the crowd gets something to eat) to feed the folks out of their own supply and not make those five thousand fend for themselves.

What is Jesus providing? Education, healthcare, and nutrition. Out of compassion.

“Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (v.16)

I suspect there may be a lot of well-meaning American Christians who are perfectly delighted to see Jesus dispense education, healthcare, and nutrition, but they just don’t want to see the federal government doing it. I write this post as we’ve been listening to weeks of debate from our leaders in Washington, D.C. about the merits of affordable healthcare, public education, and entitlement programs. But I notice that Jesus doesn’t stop and ask the sick if they can afford a premium or if they have a pre-existing condition. Neither does he blame the multitude for coming out to meet him without bringing their picnic baskets. He doesn’t send the poor away empty. He tells his disciples to feed them.

My take-away from this is that Jesus wants us to be educated, healthy, and fed. When the resources exist to care for a population, that population deserves to enjoy them. The story of the feeding of the 5000 also impresses me with the miracle of God’s providence. We may think we don’t have enough to share, but God uses what we have and shows us it’s always more than enough. And Jesus puts the responsibility on us—his disciples—to see that all are served. 

It would be pretty swell (wouldn't it?) if we the people could create a society in which all needs were met and in which people were educated, cared for, and fed as a right not as a privilege. But, as our government seems pretty deadlocked as to how to go about this (or even if they want to attempt it), the burden falls back on us Christians to do the work of Jesus.

He was willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of others. Are we?