Thursday, September 28, 2017

Arguing With Crazy Folks (Reflections on Pentecost 17, Year A)

Image result for Jesus confronts the chief priests and elders
“Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Matthew 21:31)

I really don’t know if I’ve grown wiser with age, but I do think I’ve learned a few things in my time on this planet. Want to know one of my cardinal rules? Here it is:

Never argue with crazy people.

That’s right. Don’t waste your breath, because you can’t make a rational argument to an irrational mind. You can’t reason with the unreasonable. And the problem with this rule is that all of us are unreasonable, irrational, and just a little crazy at times.

The debate in which Jesus finds himself engaged in the gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 17 Year A (Matthew 21:23-32) is right out of the nut house. Why? Because the chief priests and elders who challenge Jesus’ authority ask a question with no intention of hearing his answer. When they ask, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” they are not really requesting information. If they were, Jesus would have no trouble giving them a reply.

The story comes right after Jesus has entered the Temple in Jerusalem, driven out the money-changers, and begun a healing ministry. He could reply that his authority came from the Law of Moses which forbade the kind of corruption which cheated poor people, or he could claim the authority of scripture for cleansing the Temple (which he cited in v.13), by quoting Jeremiah 7:11 or Isaiah 56:7. Of course, if he did that, it’s more than likely that the high muckety-mucks would claim that they knew scripture better than he did by virtue of their office. If Jesus claimed he did what he did and said what he said by God’s authority, the priests and elders would accuse him of blasphemy. There wouldn’t be any arguing with these guys because their minds were already made up.

So what does Jesus do? He refuses to play their game. He asks them a question which exposes the hypocrisy of their self-serving inquiry, and then he challenges their imagination with a parable. Who does the Father’s will: the guy who has the right answer, or the guy who proves his devotion and obedience by his actions? The elders and priests have to reply that the words said are not as important as the deeds done. We will all be known by our works.

And this is tough, because we all get a little crazy at times and want to be seen as having the right answers. I think our craziness comes out of fear. It’s fear that demands we prove ourselves right when—deep down—we suspect we might be wrong. It’s fear that we aren’t in control, that we can’t dominate a situation—forgetting that this is God’s world and we’ve never controlled it anyway. It’s a fear that, if we give up our time-honored opinions and prejudices and admit to other possibilities we’ll somehow lose a part of ourselves. It’s fear that we just won’t be special or superior if our answer and our way can’t crush all opposition.

The chief priests and elders in the story can’t be reasoned with. But the tax collectors and the prostitutes can. The latter can admit to their sin and change their hearts and be led to do the work of God in reconciliation and love. That’s why they go into the Kingdom ahead of the others. But please note: Jesus doesn’t say that the elders don’t get to go into the Kingdom. It’s just their crazy stubbornness that keep them from enjoying the peace of surrender to God’s grace and mercy which repentant sinners can feel right here and now.

There are always going to be those who need to win. They need to feel superior. They’ll judge the contemporary “tax collectors and prostitutes.” Maybe they condemn Muslims or illegal immigrants or the LGBT community or women who’ve had abortions. And some of the rest of us will vilify them as “elders and chief priests.” We’ll condemn the racists, white supremacists, annoying family members, and loud-mouthed intolerant idiots we run into at work or at our gym or wherever. But by what authority do any of us get to judge others?

We can’t argue with crazy people. But we can chose to love them in spite of their—and our own—hypocrisy. We don’t need to be always saying the right thing or having the right answer. We need to be doing the work of the Father which starts with love. We always have Jesus’ authority for that.

God bless, my friends. Thank you for reading.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

"It's Not Fair!" (reflections on Pentecost 16, Year A)

The Workers Being Paid (Rembrandt, 1637)
Have you ever wondered why everyone else seems to catch a break and you never do? That seems to be the complaint of the agricultural workers in the parable Jesus tells in the gospel assigned for Pentecost 16 in the RCL (Matthew 20:1-16). I mean, these guys who’ve been working all day in the hot sun are pretty pissed at their boss. If they weren’t day laborers, I’m sure they’d take it up with the steward of the vineyard workers local. They’ve busted their humps all day, gotten no overtime, and the part-timers who came on at the end of the shift got extra perks for only working a few hours! What the freak is up with that??!!

If the anger these guys feel about being mistreated isn’t enough, the Hebrew Scripture lesson (Jonah 3:10-4:11) is also jam-packed with vitriol and indignation. Just put yourself in Jonah’s place—here the guy’s been righteous and God-fearing all of his life (Well, except for his little act of disobedience in Chapter 1, but he repented his butt off in Chapter 2 so I’m sure he feels he’s made up for it), and these godless feminine hygiene products (metaphorically speaking) of Nineveh get forgiven for all the crime they’ve committed just by repenting one stinkin’ day. Jonah had to spend three days in a fish’s belly before God cut him some slack. Imagine how this guy must be fuming! And to top it all off, not only does God relent and not destroy Jonah’s enemies, but he kills the plant that Jonah was using for shade. How unfair can you get..?

Why do the undeserving prosper when the rest of us get screwed? Why does God let that happen? Ever ask yourself that?

Or have you ever stopped to consider what a powerful, sinful, and poisonous thing is our sense of wounded entitlement? We keep saying, “I’m doing my best, but the other guy keeps getting ahead. It’s not fair!” But that attitude has been the bane of the human race since we climbed out of the slime. Sometimes I think the Old Testament story of Cain and Able might’ve been a more appropriate companion piece for the parable in Matthew’s gospel. Why? Because envy and self-righteousness not only pollute our lives but can lead to violence and destruction.

The big issue in the news here in the US lately has been the question of immigration policy. What do we do about those who’ve come into this country illegally? Are they entitled to the same social safety nets and benefits as law-abiding American citizens? I’m sure there are many who are asking why we pay for healthcare for illegals when good American citizens whose families have been here for generations, are struggling. We keep saying, “But we did everything right and played by the rules. Why do they get special treatment?”

But let’s watch our attitudes. Once upon a time there was a great nation. Many states united to form one country with a single language. It grew prosperous and militarily strong. It was victorious in war and economically powerful. Then it got involved in a long, protracted war it couldn’t win. The economy went south, and the people became discontented until a charismatic man arose and told the people that they had been cheated of their rights. Their government had betrayed them, he said, and a bunch of undeserving folks who weren’t real citizens were responsible for their predicament. If they voted for him, he told the people, he would make their country great again. Many people thought he was full of crap, but many didn’t. In March of 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany and the world suffered in consequence.

But the parable Jesus tells is not about leaders. Indeed, it’s not a ruler who corrupts a country—it’s the sin of covetousness, envy, and ingratitude which is in the hearts of the people which is just waiting to be exploited.

I don’t think I suffer when my brother prospers. But we all suffer if our brothers suffer and we remain arrogantly indifferent to that suffering.

God has not wronged me when others prosper or when they receive an act of mercy. Indeed, God has paid me the agreed upon wage. “Give us this day our daily bread.” The key to joyful living has got to be letting go of comparisons and false ideas of justice and fairness, while at the same time cultivating a sense of gratitude for what God has already done. The rottenest day you’re ever going to have in your life will be full of more blessings than you can count. On the day you drive home from work banging the steering wheel in frustration over the mindless jerks you have to work with, you may just want to remember that you still have a steering wheel to bang, a home to go to, and a job where you meet those idiots. God has not wronged you. Rather, he’s blessed you every single day.

Be joyful, my friends, in the love and mercy of God. Thanks for hanging out with me.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

"Perfect" Joe (Reflections on Pentecost 15, Year A)

Joseph presents his brothers to Pharaoh.
Watercolor by James Tissot (1900)

“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” (Genesis 50:20)

I’ve always been slightly irritated by the Joseph story in Genesis. I mean, this kid is just so freakin’ virtuous I almost hate him. For real. Is anyone that good of a person?

Joseph’s only flaw is that he’s his daddy’s pet and he acts pretty cocky because of it. He loves to tell his big brothers about his prophetic dreams in which his older siblings will end up kowtowing to him. This get the boys pretty pissed off, so they decide to throw him into a hole, sell him to Arab traders as a slave, and tell their old man that he’s been eaten by a wild animal—not exactly a sign of brotherly love.

But Joseph always manages to come out on top. Personally, if I were sold into slavery, I don’t know that I’d be so optimistic about it. But Joe turns out to be an A+ slave for the Egyptian general, Potiphar, and gets promoted to head of the household. This would be great for him, except Potiphar’s horny scuz of a wife gets a thing for him, and when he won’t play footsie with her she accuses him of attempted rape and has him thrown in prison. Once again, the kid turns out to be a model prisoner, and soon becomes a trustee. When he uses his prophetic ability to give good news to the Pharaoh’s butler, that ungrateful slob forgets to help him out, and Joseph languishes in the joint for another two years. But Joseph still manages to keep his chin up. He’s so perfect it’s almost sickening.

Finally, Joseph gets a chance to use his prophetic gift of dream interpretation to help out the Pharaoh (the ungrateful butler finally comes through for him), and gets released from prison, made Prime Minister of Egypt, and is given a company car and a bunch of other executive perks. Then, as only this kid’s luck would have it, his rotten brothers come down to Egypt in search of food during a famine. Joseph has the perfect opportunity to get revenge on them for what they did to him, but, instead, he forgives them. The family gets reunited, and all of the children of Israel come to Egypt and get saved from starvation.

You’ll have to admit—betrayal, slavery, and prison are not particularly great experiences for cultivating a forgiving spirt, but Joseph seems to have a faith that somehow God is going to turn all of this around. What strikes me about this story today is the fact that Joseph is not powerless in the situation. He has the ability to screw his brothers as bad or worse than they screwed him. His forgiveness comes out of strength and is the more genuine because he has the option not to grant it.

But where would it get him if he didn’t grant it? Where does it get any of us? In the gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 15 Year A (Matthew 18:21-35) Jesus teaches about the torture of an unforgiving spirit. Matthew, as I pointed out in a recent post (Sept. 17, 2017), lived in a time when the church was under great persecution and unity was essential. There was no place in the Christian life for resentment of any kind.

I generally like most people. Given the life I lead, that’s a pretty good thing. But I remember back in my grad school days in the early ‘80’s at the University of Wisconsin I had a run-in with my department chairman. I was on a teaching assistantship, teaching undergraduate courses while I studied for my Masters of Fine Arts degree. The department chair and I didn’t exactly hit it off initially. I made matters worse when I decided to give a reprieve to the cornerback of the Wisconsin Badger football team who was failing my class and would be dropped from the team and the university if I gave him the “F” he deserved. I felt sorry for the guy and, being the complete wuss that I am, elected to give him a second chance. The boss was furious over what he considered to be my pusillanimous act of mercy. He called me into his office and chewed my ass to hamburger in front of my supervisor. He later embarrassed me by bringing the matter up in front of my peers during a lecture. I hated his guts for that—and deeply despised his liver, spleen, and pancreas too!

But I needed a role in a show for my master’s thesis project, and the chairman needed a student actor to play the lead in his German expressionist project. We both agreed to put our mutual dislike and distrust on hold for the sake of the production. Looking back, I realize that the cautiousness with which we treated each other allowed us to step back, see where the other was coming from, and gain a new appreciation of each other apart from our past disagreement. I don’t think we ever got to the point where we wanted to hug each other, but we did end the show on much better terms.

(The production, by the way, got great newspaper reviews, pulled in pretty good-sized audiences, and even got written up in a national theatrical journal. It is permanently archived on video at the UW. Best of all, it helped me to grow up and get over myself!)

Resentment doesn’t get anyone anywhere. In today’s polarized America, we need compassion, empathy, and forgiveness more than ever. As Christians, we can’t repay hate with more hate. The example of a crucified Jesus calls us to criticize in love, praise and appreciate when praise and appreciation are due, and to see our own sinfulness mirrored in those we dislike. As Joseph did, we’re also called to look to what God can do with our wounded feelings. Every case of alienation is a possibility for greater reconciliation with both our “enemies” and our own souls.

Hey. We can’t control how others behave or how we are perceived by them. We can, however, control how we respond.

God bless. Thanks for checking me out this week.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Family in the Time of Cyborgs (Reflections on Pentecost 14, Year A)

Unknown engraver - Humani Victus Instrumenta - Ars Coquinaria - WGA23954.jpg

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20)

As a rule, funerals are pretty solemn affairs. I know. I do a ton of them. I’m something of the Barry Bonds of neighborhood funerals. But the one I did this past week was actually kind of fun—if a funeral could ever be called fun. It was for a sixty-seven year-old guy named Jody who played the bass in an oldies cover band. He gigged up and down the East Coast and all around the Philly area and managed to achieve his lifetime goal of never having to work a 9 to 5 job. Granted, sixty-seven is still pretty young measured by today’s yardstick of life expectancy, but Jody got to live his life playing music, hanging with his band-mates, and generally having a pretty good time.

What struck me about this service was the vibe from the folks who came to see Jody off. Even though they loved him and would certainly miss the guy, they had this really funky energy. It was like they were at a big family reunion, and everyone was tickled to giggles about being together. That’s something I’ve always noticed about the whacky gaggle of actors, musicians, dancers and performers of various types who’ve crossed my path back in the day—there’s this great comradery between folks who’ve spent their time working together on something creative or inspiring. They become like a family. As I watched the crowd at Jody’ funeral, I thought to myself, “Damn. I wish Sunday morning church always felt like this!”

There are lots of different ways to be a family. You don’t have to swim in the same gene pool.  The gospel reading appointed in the RCL for Pentecost 14 (Matthew18:15-20) is all about how we are a family in Christ. It’s generally believed that Matthew’s gospel was written in the last quarter of the First Century, C.E. Christianity had spread all across the Mediterranean world, but the Roman Empire was taking a pretty dim view of it. There had already been one official persecution of Christians, and being part of the faith family had lots of drawbacks and dangers. That’s why Matthew emphasizes the need for togetherness and forgiveness. The family had to know how to stick together or the faith would be lost.

Verses 15 through 17 are about discipline within the clan. In fact, this formula for handling family spats is actually part of the Model Constitution for ELCA congregations. When someone screws up, you’re supposed to go to them privately so as not to embarrass them. If that doesn’t work, take a few friends so you have witnesses of what was said. If that doesn’t work, then you can involve the rest of the community. Nevertheless, the goal, as stated in verse 15b is to regain your brother or sister. Chastising someone for pissing you off—no matter how much you think they deserve it—is not as important in our faith as bringing them back into a loving and respectful relationship

BTW: The word the New Revised Standard Version Bible translates as “member of the church” in v. 15a is, in Greek “adelphos” (adelfos), which literally means “brother.” (The NRSV translators just didn’t want to use gender-biased language. I think that’s pretty nice of them, don’t you? I mean, given the times we live in, a little inclusivity is certainly appropriate—especially in the church!) Fellow believers are considered to be blood relatives or siblings. Maybe “brother or sister” would better serve our understanding here.

In verse 17b, Jesus tells us to treat someone who unrepentantly disrupts the fellowship as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” But think of this: Just how did Jesus regard Gentiles and tax collectors? Even though they were outcasts, he always tried to bring them back into his posse. We in the church might—as a very last resort—have to turn our backs on someone who is just causing too much trouble; nevertheless, we never lock the door on them. I’m beginning to think that Jesus’ comment about “binding and loosing” in verse 18 is more of a warning than it is a commission to let dumbass people like us decide who is and who isn’t fit for the Kingdom of God. After all, we keep asking God to forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to approach the throne of Grace having bound a grudge against someone to myself.

And speaking of “binding and loosing,” maybe the church has done just a little too much of this lately. An online Sojourners post quotes a survey from the Public Religion Research Institute which notes that Christian activism against things like gay marriage, decriminalization of marijuana, and abortion has been a pretty big turn-off to younger Americans. The church needs to be the place where we feel sheltered, included, and loved—not the place where we feel judged and ostracized.

I believe the hunger we have for belonging is growing greater every day. Our culture is starving itself for want of family connection. We live in suburban gated communities, drive around isolated in our cars, and have grafted ourselves to our cellular devices to the point that we’ve become cyborgs. Even in places like your local Starbucks, the sort of communal living room, no one talks to anyone. We’ve all got our eyes fixed on our touch screens. Facebook may keep us informed about each other (and perpetually competitive, too, but that’s another subject!), but it doesn’t allow us to have real, human interaction. We need to be together, eat together, sing together, pray together, and love together.

If we want to see the face of Christ, we have to come and see him in each other. We have to want to be a family.

Thanks for being my siblings. I love you guys.