Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Saints! (Reflections on All Saints Sunday)

 Charles H. Conway, Jr. William-Markelwith-Obituary
Blessed are the ones who know their job. Yup. It’s pretty great to have some kind of clue as to what you’ve been put on earth to do and then to be given the opportunity to do it. I count myself pretty darn blessed to be a minister of Word and Sacrament, but on this All Saints Sunday I consider I am even more blessed to be able to tell the stories of the saints. That’s my particular specialty, you know.

As one of the last surviving full-time Protestant pastors in Northeast Philly, I get asked to do a lot of funerals. In fact, I think I am to non-member funerals what Barry Bonds is to home runs and what Donald Trump is to embarrassing Tweets—if anyone’s keeping score, I may just have the record. And I consider this a blessing. My ancient Welsh ancestors used to have these guys they called “bards.” Their job was to tell the stories of the local heroes in poetry and song and make them sound really terrific. As a modern bard, my job is to tell the story of ordinary folk—everyday saints—and show how they walked with God and how God touched their lives. The beauty of remembering the saints is not just that we get inspired by their lives, but that we see our own selves reflected in their stories. We feel less alone, and we get to appreciate the grace of God which blesses us with the qualities we may only recognize in others.

Our Gospel text (Matthew 5: 1-12) begins by describing the saints as “blessed.” In Greek it’s “makarioi” (makarioi) This is a tough word to translate. Some have said that it might be better translated as “happy” or fortunate.” “Blessed” sounds so holy, doesn’t it? Yet it’s hard to think of those early Christian martyrs who were tortured and killed for their faith as being particularly happy or fortunate. This “happiness” isn’t about being perpetually cheerful, and this “fortunate” isn’t about hitting the Power Ball. Rather, the saints are those who know that by grace they’ve been gifted with God’s favor, that God walks with them, and they trust that the good gifts of God may be experienced in their lives.

This year I’d like to tell you about three very special saints from my community whose lives illustrate the Gospel.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (v.5). Ruben Romero was one of the most humble men I’ve ever known. In his day he was a brilliant and gifted musician. He played the organ at Faith Lutheran for twenty years and directed our choir. He steadfastly brushed off compliments about his work and directed the glory to God. He worked with volunteer singers who weren’t always appreciative of his musical selections or particularly attentive to his directions. They teased him for his thick Puerto Rican accent, and sometime I felt like he was trying to bring order to a group of unruly kindergarten students. Yet never did I hear him raise his voice or seem the least bit perturbed. Never did I hear a cross word from his lips. Never did he fail to honor a request. In later years, when he was confined to a wheel chair and a nursing home because of his Parkinson’s disease, I never heard a word of complaint from him. He was gracious, thankful, and always pious. Often I would discover him reading his Spanish Bible, finding strength in the Word. The nurses at the home always remarked on his patience and good humor. Even in deep affliction, joy, gratitude, and respect for others shown on the face of this gentle saint. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (v.6) If Ruben Romero was blessed for his humility, Charlie Conway was blessed for his irascibility. Charlie wrestled with his faith. He was a man deeply concerned about righteousness. There was a right and a wrong and nothing in between in Charlie’s world. He was a paradox in that he couldn’t believe a literal interpretation of scripture, yet he couldn’t accept a non-literal interpretation. He challenged God for allowing evil and sorrow into the world. But like Job, he refused to curse God and die. He doggedly and steadfastly questioned, but just as doggedly and steadfastly worshiped. He may have grumbled about changes in liturgy and music and acceptable morals—and church attire—but he never refused to serve. He was an usher, a lector, a volunteer behind the scenes, and one of the most generous men I’ve ever known. Last January, at age 77, he was involved in a serious auto accident which might’ve taken his life. He continued to wrestle with God during the last nine months as he fought to regain his health and vigor. God won the match, as God always does. Charlie became more accepting, more forgiving, more appreciative. As Shakespeare would say, “Nothing in his life became him as the leaving of it.” It was an honor and a joy to be with him these last months, and to see how God was working in his heart.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (v.8) Pure in heart? Bud Markelwith. He had been with Faith Lutheran from the very beginning, and he was faithful to the end. There was a great simplicity about Bud. He smiled even when he told you that his knees hurt and it was hard for him to get around at over ninety years of age. Yet he never missed a Sunday. Affability radiated from the man even when he was disappointed or frustrated. Rarely have I known a man so sentimental and affectionate. His greatest concern was for the welfare of his beloved Jean, his wife of 68 years. He’d be close to tears if he thought she was hurt in any way, and he was not afraid to cry at the loss of a friend or family member. He was generous in his estimation of people, and always quick to share a compliment about others. When his health permitted, he was the go-to guy. He’d fix what needed fixing, paint what needed painting, install what needed installing, and never asked to be thanked. I cannot remember him without an enormous sense of joy.

Why do we look to the saints? Because in them we have seen Christ. As I always say, our daily job as Christians is to see Christ in others, and to be Christ for others. We can’t just let the love of Christ be an abstract concept. It must be a living reality in flesh and blood. As St. John said, “…those who do not love a brother or a sister whom they have seen cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Look to the saints around you, and look for the things of Christ Jesus. When you can see Christ, you can be Christ.

Thanks for letting me share! Please drop by again.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Saint of the Month: Chancellor Angela Merkel

Image result for angela merkel
Comedian Seth Meyer called her “The Leader of the Free World.” I’m not so sure he was just joking. She is certainly the world’s most prominent and important Lutheran; therefore, as we prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Luther’s audacious criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, I think it’s only fitting that I give a shout-out to Germany’s Angela Merkel.

The German Chancellor, the longest-serving head of state in the European Union, was born the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. As a young girl, she moved with her family to East Germany. There, in spite of the communist state’s official atheism, she attended church, Christian youth camps, and developed the faith and character that would serve her as a servant of the German people.

As country after country in the Euro Zone faced economic chaos, Merkel has proven to be the adult in the room—a feisty pragmatist who is willing to steer the ship through some very rocky waters. Perhaps she’s a little too practical and errs too much on the side of fiscal responsibility (I’m not sure I’d vote for her if she were an American politician, but I will admit that she shows a lot of common sense!). Nevertheless, as the great humanitarian catastrophe—the tsunami of refugees from the conflict in Syria—flooded over Europe, Merkel’s was the voice raised in compassion and mercy.

Jesus has told us, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25: 35 and 40).

So what is the Christian response to the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War? I don’t think it’s to impose a travel ban on those who are homeless and desperate to escape violence. It’s not to lock the boarders. Mercy and charity demand that people of good will do what is necessary to comfort and welcome the afflicted. In spite of heavy opposition, the chancellor opened Germany’s doors to receive immigrants from Syria and Africa. She has suffered politically as a result, but her willingness to put mercy ahead of politics speaks to her character.

Standing her ground against xenophobes and extreme nationalists, Merkel remarked in 2011 that Germany did not suffer from too much Islam, but from too little Christianity. She would later declare, "I am a member of the evangelical church. I believe in God and religion is also my constant companion, and has been for the whole of my life. We as Christians should above all not be afraid of standing up for our beliefs.

I admire the chancellor for her courageous compassion during this humanitarian nightmare. I will pray for her as she faces opposition from the ultra-nationalist Alternative for Germany Party, with whom she must now share governing responsibilities. But I will also ponder the words on the Statue of Liberty and wonder what has happened to American leadership.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

What Luther Might Say Today (Reflections on Reformation Sunday)

Martin Luther - Protestant Reformation - Biography.com
What I wouldn’t give to hear a sermon delivered by Martin Luther himself! For this Sunday, which celebrates the 500th anniversary of the posting of Luther’s 95 Theses, my quirky imagination would love to see the ghost of Luther standing in the pulpit of my congregation and speaking a 16th Century word of wisdom to a 21st Century audience. Can you imagine him? There he is, rotund with Katy’s good home-made German beer, adjusting his academic robe, clearing his throat, taking a good deep breath—perhaps uttering a silent prayer that his words might penetrate our hearts and bring us closer to God.

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Good morning my friends of the Twenty-first century! First, may I say that I am humbled that you still choose to commemorate this day when I posted my Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (I believe you call it The 95 Theses) in Wittenberg. I must be honest with you, however, and say that I had already prepared the Disputation for publication long before that All Hollow’s Eve when it made its appearance on the door of our Castle Church. But that is no matter. I am honored to know it is still read these many centuries later. (I am a bit embarrassed, however, that you choose to use my name for your church—please remember that you belong to Christ, not to Luther!)

“I composed the Disputation which you honor today in an attempt to call the learned men of my time into a discussion of God’s grace and the means by which we are forgiven and reconciled to our Maker. But for you to understand my thinking, I think it might be best that I first tell you how I arrived at my theology.

“When I was a young man of eighteen I enrolled at the University of Erfurt as it was my parents’ wish that I study the law. One summer, when I was twenty-one, I was returning to Erfurt from a visit to my parents’ home when a terrible storm blew up. Perhaps in your world you would not be frightened by such a thing, but in my time a thunderstorm was a horrifying portent of death and damnation. You see, I had been brought up to believe in witches and devils and all manner of evil spirits. I feared the devil himself was prowling around in that dark rain and wind and lightening like a hungry wolf ready to snatch my soul. I’d been told that only the holy church could prepare a man to die—that a man must make confession and do penance. To die with sins left unconfessed before the priest meant torment in Purgatory or the loss of Heaven itself. As lightening crashed around me, I feared for my life and my soul. I made a rash promise to God (I spoke to St. Ann, the mother of Mary, fearing that my impertinence in addressing God directly would be offensive) and asked that, should he spare my life, I would renounce all earthly pleasures and become a monk.

“So I became a monk.

“And yet the fear of God’s wrath did not leave me. For years I prayed in the monastery. I went to chapel and confession. I was ordained as a priest—a terrifying experience since one should tremble even before earthly royalty. How much more should I tremble before the body of Christ! I tried to distract myself by pursuing academic scholarship and teaching, yet the fear of my sins still haunted me. I mortified my flesh with fasting, sleeplessness, endless prayer, and scourging. Once I locked myself in my cell as a punishment and my brother monks had to knock down the door to rescue me. You see, I had fallen unconscious from hunger and thirst.

“The Augustinians, my order, sent me on a journey to Rome in 1510 when I was twenty-six. I hoped a pilgrimage to the city where Saints Peter and Paul had been martyred would be an indulgence to ease my eternal fear of God’s judgment, but Rome turned my stomach. It was a sewer in which religious expression was openly for sale. I visited church after church and heard masses said with careless indifference. I heard ghastly stories of the crimes of past popes. I saw holy relics by the thousand—a thorn from Christ’s crown, a twig from the burning bush, the stone which sealed the tomb of Jesus, a lock of the Virgin’s hair—all on display for a price. I even tried to rescue the soul of my grandfather by climbing the 28 steps of Pilate’s palace on my knees and saying an Our Father on each step. As I reached the top, I wondered if it were really true.

“I returned to take up a position as professor of Bible studies at the University of Wittenberg, but my faith in my church was shaken. Was I doomed to Hell for this?

“For the next few years I determined to devote myself to the Holy Scriptures and less to church dogma. I had a heavy burden of work to do. In addition to lecturing at the University I also was called to supervise younger monks in eleven Augustinian communities. I was given a room on the second floor of the monastery in Wittenberg which served as my office and study. I was studying Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans when I suddenly recognized the answer to the problem of sin and forgiveness: Romans 1:16-17

“’For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to EVERYONE who has faith…For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, the one who is righteous will live by faith.’

“You see, my friends, I had fallen for a trick of the devil. He was telling me that only God is righteous and man is sinful. A sinful man cannot stand before a holy God, no matter how he tries. So the man must either live in fear all his life, become a slave to despair, or try to escape by renouncing faith in God and becoming a slave to something else which his own sinful ego embraces.

“But we know that the just live by faith, and that it is faith in God’s love which holds us fast—apart from works of the law. God does all the work, you see. God in Christ becomes human and joins with us to endure our suffering while we join with him and receive his everlasting life.

“So now—in your time—our old friend the devil tries a new trick. You no longer fear God’s wrath, you say? You have confessed Jesus and now you are ‘saved?’ So now there is no need to hunger for God’s righteousness. You have bought your indulgence for free—you have said the right confession.

“But the one who is righteous shall LIVE by faith—not just confess it and forget it. LIVE by faith. In everything you do you search for the gracious love of God. You have become the priest now. Once a priest was the mediator between God and humanity, but now, because God in Christ dwells in you, YOU have become that mediator, that conduit of God’s love. You can show it in your work, in your home life with your family, in your community. No longer do you need a saint to intercede, YOU can make the intercession for those around you. And YOU can let your light shine that other may see your good works and glorify your Father in Heaven.

“Isn’t this wonderful? God is calling you, sinful as you are and beloved of him as you also are, to a holy vocation. It’s not one of mumbling prayers and observing fasts, but a vocation to rediscover the joy of your freedom. Be glad, people of the Twenty-first Century! There is much Godly work for you to do! Amen.”

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Rendering Unto Caesar (Reflections on Pentecost 20, Year A)

Image result for cross and flag pictures
And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar's. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's. (Matthew 22: 20-21)

I have a neighbor whom I’ll call “Ray” (Because that’s his name). Some years ago, Ray took issue with our federal government when it ever-so-politely requested he don a green uniform and travel to the Republic of South Vietnam. Ray was quite willing to acquiesce to Uncle Sam’s travel plans, but only on the condition that he be allowed to serve as an army medic and treat wounded soldiers and civilians. The army, however, felt Ray should be issued an M-16 and use said device to kill communist Vietnamese. Since this impasse proved irreconcilable, Ray elected to remove himself to Canada for the duration of the unpleasantness in Southeast Asia.

Recently, a certain Mr. Colin Kaepernick, greatly concerned over issues of poverty and injustice here in the USA, took to kneeling during the playing of our national anthem. Many other professional, college, and high school athletes have begun to observe this posture during the playing of the anthem—an act of protest which has drawn considerable opprobrium from many quarters.

As I look at the Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 20 (Matthew 22;15-22), I have to ask, “Just what does it mean to ‘render unto Caesar?’” What is a Christian’s responsibility to his or her country?

As folks in my congregation know, I’m always uncomfortable with the presence of the American flag in the apse of our worship space. Don’t get me wrong: I love our flag and my native country, but I am extremely uneasy when I see it venerated on equal footing with the symbols of the Christian faith. Once upon a time (about 100 years ago during World War I), good German American Lutherans—who still said mass in Luther’s German—started placing flags in their ethnic churches to prove that they were loyal to their adopted country. I get that. But I also get nervous seeing lapel pins shaped like the cross of Jesus Christ colored like the Star Spangled Banner. God is not an American, and God doesn’t like us best. God is the Father of all people.

When we start to talk about our responsibilities to God and country we first have to clear up some bad thinking. America is not, as some would say, “a Christian nation.” Constitutionally, Caesar is not allowed to meddle in the activities of the church and cannot dictate the faith of the populace. Even if we have a Christian majority, we have no right to impose a belief system on the minority. Prayer in school or the teaching of so-called “Creation Science” have no place in American public education.

Similarly, we shouldn’t mistake freedom OF religion with freedom FROM religion. Equally intolerable as Christian zealots are the arrogant nihilists who maintain that they believe in nothing and don’t want to be reminded that people of faith actually exist.

In his 1523 letter on Temporal Authority. Martin Luther defined the responsibilities of the church and the state. The state has the responsibility to protect the church. The church, in turn, has a duty to protect the state by speaking out against abuses and by influencing temporal rulers to do Godly work. Luther reminds us—as did Saint Paul in Romans 12—that all authority comes from God, and it is to God that we owe all our obedience before anything else.

So how do we “render unto God?” I’d say we start with God’s Law which, in a nutshell, admonishes us to love God and love everyone else. Christian obedience demands that we learn to love in compassion and actively seek the best for our fellow human beings and the world God created. In essence, we’re asked to grow a conscience and live by it.

For the most part, I find it pretty easy to “render unto Caesar” here in America. I pay my taxes and receive the benefits of our laws, infrastructure, social safety nets, public education, and myriads of other blessings of the Land of the Free. I obey the laws (usually—I do confess to being a bit cavalier where speed limits are concerned, God help me!), volunteer in the community, and donate to charitable interests. Nevertheless, there are times—as Colin Kaepernick and my buddy Ray demonstrate—when rendering to Caesar is at odds with conscientious rendering unto God. At such moments, it might be well to remember Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms: “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

For many, rendering to God will mean picking up a weapon and standing guard so that international law and the rights of the weak will be protected. For others, it has meant refusing to pick up arms or refusing to obey human laws which spit in the face of God’s Law. Luther himself was an outlaw, refusing to bend to the edicts of his emperor and pope. So where the hostlers of the Underground Railroad. So was Dietrich Bonhoeffer and thousands of other patriotic Germans who quietly worked to subvert the immoral edicts of the Third Reich. So were those who sat defiantly at lunch counters where they were not welcomed, or refused to move to the back of the bus. So, too, may be the “Occupy” demonstrators, the “Black Lives Matter” protestors, and the athletes who kneel in prayer for our nation rather than stand to give unquestioning obeisance to a nation where—if we’re to be honest—liberty and justice are not yet for all.

I’m all for patriotism, but being a good American won’t make me a good Christian. Being a good Christian, however, might just make me an excellent American.

(This Sunday, October 22, 2017, as a “kick-off” to a week of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the folks at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia will celebrate only one mass and will spend the afternoon rendering to both God and Caesar through a number of community service projects. We’ll be visiting shut-ins, making baby blankets, preparing our neighborhood garden for the winter, and patrolling our neighborhood to remove the effluvium of garbage which disgraces our streets. We like to think of this as love in action—just our way to give back to both God and the state.)