Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Watching the Signs (Reflections on Advent 1, Year B)

Ruins of the Jerusalem Temple (Eugene Kaspersky, photographer)
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

Truth be told, I really don’t like the lectionary gospel for Advent 1. When I was first called as pastor of Faith Lutheran in Philadelphia on Christ the King Sunday of 1998, I was told I’d have the next Sunday (Advent 1) off as the substitute pastor had already arranged pulpit supply for that date. Hey! Fine with me. I just don’t like preaching all of this apocalyptic stuff. It makes me thank of the 1970’s when everybody was reading Hal Lindsay’s monumental load of steaming crap, The Late, Great Planet Earth, and waiting for the Rapture. For years I’d invite guest preachers to come and preach Advent 1 so I wouldn’t have to do it.

Unfortunately, it looks like I’m up to bat this year, so I better come up with something reasonably meaningful to say about Mark 13:24-37. The best I can do, I think, is to try and put it in some kind of historical and Biblical context. If you go back to the top of the chapter, you’ll see that Jesus and his buddies are in Jerusalem. He’s just predicted the destruction of the Temple, and goes on to explain that some other really nasty stuff is definitely in the forecast. The political and cultural fecal matter is about to go SPLAT! against the rotary air conditioning system (metaphorically speaking), and it’s not going to be a day at Disneyland for anybody. But not to worry: God is near, and the Word of God will not pass away. The righteous will be vindicated in the end.

Smart Bible history guys suggest that Mark (whoever he really was. A first and second century bishop named Papias of Hierapolis claims that Mark was a disciple of Simon Peter’s in Rome.) was writing around the years 64 to 70 of the Common Era when official Roman persecution of Christians was in its heyday and the Roman Empire was busy putting down a Jewish revolt with all the ruthless brutality we’ve come to know and love. This revolt resulted in the Temple of Jerusalem being destroyed, thereby crushing the Jewish sense of identity. This defeat, as you can imagine, really sucked. In fact, for some, it was the end of the world.

But here’s the thing: stuff is always ending, because stuff is always changing. Mark ends this chapter by gluing together two parables. In the first, Jesus tells his followers to look at the fig tree. If you see it’s starting to bud, you know the seasons are changing and it will be summer soon. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure out that something is coming to an end. The question is: how will you accept the change? You see, your spiritual life isn’t going to be about what happens to or around you. It’s going to be about how you embrace it.

For my own parable, I think of my beloved Borders Book Store. I used to love Borders. I’d browse in there for hours. But there aren’t any Borders Books anymore. I guess the folks who ran the chain never figured on Jeff Bezos and Amazon stealing their business by selling books, movies, and music on line—even developing that nifty little device, the Amazon Kindle, on which we bibliophiles can shop and download our books for a lot less cash. Barnes and Noble, on the other hand, recognized the signs of the changing times, adapted themselves to e-commerce, and have lived to tell the tale.

Do we in the American church see the signs of the changing season? Or are we too much in love with our own cultural preferences—do we fear the pain of loss too much—to accept what God might be doing?

The second parable mark uses is that of the master who goes on a journey and leaves his servants in charge of the house. Will the servants be alert when the master returns, or will they be caught napping? It’s possible that Mark figured the resurrected and ascended Jesus might come back during his lifetime, and he’s admonishing everyone to be in as close to a state of pure grace as they can be when that day comes.

But what if Jesus doesn’t make a return trip during your watch here on earth? I’ll still bet you dollars to doughnuts that something will happen which will shake and rattle your world the same way the destruction of the Temple shook the world of Mark’s time. And that will be the time when you’ll have to keep awake for what God is really doing.

Someone may come into your life. Someone may go out of it. Your health may (and eventually will) change. You may lose a job. You may take a new job. Your home may be damaged or destroyed. You may have to move. You may face bankruptcy. You may hit the lottery. A natural catastrophe or a horrible criminal act may impact you out of nowhere. Where will you see Christ when that happens?

I guess I see this gospel lesson as an admonition to keep awake to the changing times and to keep open to new possibilities—God’s possibilities, which may be at odds with our own desires. Things will change, and they won’t ever be the same. But they might be very good nonetheless.

A blessed Advent to you all.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

The Humble King (Reflections on Christ the King, Year A)

 Image result for images of crowns
In my theater days I had the chance to work with a remarkable director named David. David was a senior tutor at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and frequently visited the United States. Over the years I worked on four classical stage productions with this quixotic, brilliant, and mercurial man. David had a phenomenal grasp of Shakespeare, a wonderfully creative mind, and a prodigious ability to consume alcohol with no visible effects (Drunk or sober, I think he was just naturally crazy!).

David also possessed a very regal bearing. He would warm-up his actors’ voices by having us repeat soliloquies from Shakespeare’s King Richard II. He’d read a line and we’d repeat after him, trying to match his majestic baritone. David proudly told us that he was something like seventy-sixth in line to the throne of England. My mind boggles at the thought that, should seventy-five royal personages meet an unexpected demise, my Shakespearean friend could be crowned King of England!

I recall that one of my fellow actors once asked David why Britain, in this modern age, still had a Royal Family. He explained that the monarch was the last resort in the justice system. Should a man be convicted of a crime and lose all appeals before the courts, he could still apply to the Queen for pardon. I kind of like that idea: the job of the monarch is to dispense mercy.

Of course, now of days, I look at Britain’s monarchy with a sense of envy. Here’s a country with a class of people whose job it is—regardless of what political party is in power—to represent the nation with pride and dignity (We’re not so lucky in America these days!). The monarch represents all of the people. That’s why, I guess, kings and queens get to refer to themselves in the first person plural, and Brits refer to “Her Majesty’s government,” or “Her Majesty’s army,” or “Her Majesty’s Postal Service.” That which belongs to the monarch actually belongs to the nation the monarch represents. If one serves the monarch, one serves all of the people.

The king in the gospel lesson appointed for Christ the King Sunday in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 25: 31-46) actually reverses this representation. Here, if one serves the least of the people, one has also served the monarch. Similarly, if one of the least has gone hungry or homeless or threadbare, the monarch has suffered. This monarch shares personally with the hungry, the poor, the forgotten, the persecuted, the sick, and the imprisoned. This king has a radical sense of identification with the lowliest of his subjects. This is the king who is the last recourse for those who need mercy. But this king is also a judge, and he doesn’t easily forget when his majesty, in the guise of one of his suffering subjects, has been slighted.

Christ the King is the newest festival in the liturgical year. It is less than a century old and was established by the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and other liturgical denominations after the gruesome slaughter unleashed by World War I. The world which emerged from the senseless carnage of that conflict had little use for royalty who reigned by divine right. The Church, after seeing how pompous Kings, Emperors, Czars, and Kaisers had screwed up civilization, knew she had to teach the world to look toward the King of Kings. The world needed the humble king who rode a donkey rather than a war horse, who came as a homeless baby born in a stable to an unwed mother and laid in an animal’s food trough, who died as a criminal in shame and disgrace. The world needed to look to the King who was and is the final word of mercy. The world needed the king who lives in and for the broken and the forgotten and the discouraged and the oppressed. 

People are still fascinated, of course, by the grandeur and romance of earthly royalty. David said that some in Britain are so besotted by the Royal Family that they have been known to faint dead away in their presence. Just imagine having that same sense of awe for our King of Kings. Martin Luther once said that if a man should tremble before an earthly prince, how much more should he tremble before Almighty God? Could we honor our King by approaching each individual as if we were in the presence of a royal and exalted personage?

Christ the King is the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar. Perhaps it’s a good time to make a sort of “New Year’s Resolution?” Let’s take this festival as the starting point for a renewed sense of the awe and mystery of God. My little church in Northeast Philadelphia is, I’ll admit, rather casual. Lately, however, we seem to have slipped from the “casual” to the “impious,” and are on a downward trajectory to the “disrespectful.” Let’s decide that we’re going to up our game and show a bit more reverence in the King’s presence. Simple things like coming to worship on time, faithfully honoring service commitments, keeping reverent silence during the Eucharist, and generally showing respect for God’s house (You wouldn’t bring your Dunkin Donuts coffee to an audience with the Queen of England would you? Why would you bring it into church?) are really good ways to revive your sense of the sacred. If you can honor the King in his house, you will learn to honor him in your neighbor.

Let me know what you think. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Saint of the Month: Sgt. Mary Dague (Reflections on Thanksgiving)

Image result for Sgt mary Dague
This is a re-posting of an article I wrote in 2014. It's both a Thanksgiving and a Veterans' Day reflection. I am on vacation this week, so I hope you enjoy this "repeat." OG

Thirty-year-old Mary Dague describes herself as happy.

That's pretty easy to believe by looking at her picture. She's got luminous eyes, funky magenta hair, and a smile that seems to go all the way around to the back of her head. A Youtube video of a thoroughly enthusiastic Mary doing a tandem skydive (without a helmet, mind you!) might just convince you that this is the coolest chick ever. If I had to pick a word to describe her image, I'd say “joyful.”

I heard Mary's story a few weeks ago on National Public Radio's “Story Corp” series, and I thought to myself, “Okay. That's my Thanksgiving sermon!”

(Thanksgiving, I said. Not “Turkey Day.” Not the day before “Black Friday.” I friggin' hate, loathe, and despise those two terms. It is a revolting commentary on our culture that we so neglect a national holiday set aside to appreciate the goodness of God by nominating gluttony and excessive retail spending over gratitude. But I digress.)

I picked Mary Dague's story as an illustration for this national day devoted to gratitude because she seems to me to embody the very spirit of Thanksgiving.

If you check out her story online, you'll find that Mary was a rather shy, sentimental kid growing up in Montana. She was engaged to be married right out of high school, but her future mother-in-law scared her—unintentionally, I'm sure—with thoughts of an oppressive domesticity. Mary wanted to be something more than just a housewife. She broke her engagement and, determined to do something that mattered, joined the United States Army. In her second enlistment she rose to the rank of sergeant with the frightening Military Occupation Specialty of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), the “Bomb Squad” of the Army.

(She also fell in love and married a fellow soldier named Jared)

In November of 2007, while on deployment in Iraq, a small IED detonated in Mary's arms. She lost both of her arms slightly above the elbows, received lacerations to her face, and lost a good portion of her hearing. A newspaper article reports her reaction to one of the corpsmen who transported her to hospital: “Dude, this sucks.”

But if you listen to Mary's voice and hear how grateful she is to be able to share her story with other wounded warriors, if you get a sense of her whacky sense of humor, her compassion, and her new sense of purpose, you will quickly forget her injuries and see only her beautiful spirit. Mary Dague soldiers on with optimism and a collection of oddball graphic T-shirts displaying wry and darkly humorous references to her condition. Aided by her husband, a service dog, some sophisticated prosthetics (there's a great picture of her online feeding herself a strawberry with her new arm), pure Montana ingenuity, and a defiant sense of humor, this veteran is a living, breathing inspiration.

I don't know Mary, so I don't know what her religious beliefs—if any—are. I hope she wouldn't mind my using her story to make a theological point. But in seeing this courageous lady, I am reminded that God does not stop being good because we in our circumstances stop appreciating that goodness. Indeed, the crappiest day we will ever have will still be filled with blessings. There will be sky above us and beauty around us and glorious people to love us and help us through.

Mary Dague's story illustrates the point made in the appointed gospel lesson for the Day of Thanksgiving, the story of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19. There is a world of difference between being cured and being healed. Jesus cured all ten of the lepers in the story. That is, he restored all of them to their former conditions of health. But only the one was healed. Healed comes from a word meaning “to be made whole.” Wholeness suggests peace, acceptance, self knowledge, and appreciation. We can't be healed or whole without gratitude. Maybe Sgt. Mary cannot be completely cured (But then, none of us can. Being human is a terminal condition), but she certainly seems to be healed.

I am grateful just for the opportunity to gather with loved ones and recognize how good I have it, acknowledging that none of the blessings I enjoy come from my deserving them in the least. I guess the more I recognize this, the more thankful and the more whole I will become.

I saw a cool sign in front of a church I pass on my way to and from Faith Lutheran which sort of sums it up:

It's not a day. It's a way of life.

Or, as the old hymn put it:

Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided;
great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

And I am thankful to you, dear friend, for reading. A blessed Thanksgiving to you.

PS-Check out Mary Dague story by clicking on StoryCorp.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Got Oil? (Reflections on Pentecost 23, Year A)

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” (Matthew 25:1)

 Related image
Say what..?

The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (or the Ten Virgins, if you’re into translating the Greek [parqenois] literally) is kind of a whacky parable. The really smart guys of the Jesus Seminar aren’t real sure that it’s authentically one of Jesus’ own stories since it’s kind of boring. I mean, what’s the moral of this story anyway? Be prepared? Shoot. I learned that in the Boy Scouts.

The parable (Matthew 25:1-13) assigned for Pentecost 23 in the RCL tells the story of these ten chicks who are going to a wedding in the ancient Near East (and I don’t pretend to know anything about weddings in the ancient Near East), and they have to wait for the groom. It’s getting dark, so they bring oil lamps. Five of these gals are smart and figure that, if the guy gets hung up at his bachelor party, they might have to wait a little longer. So, they bring some extra oil for their lamps. The other five aren’t so sharp and don’t bring a reserve supply. When the groom finally shows up, the smart chicks have enough oil to light their lamps and help the groom (who may have been a little bleary-eyed from pounding shots with his single bros) into the banquet. The dumb chicks have to go off to the local Walmart and pick up extra oil, so by the time they get back to the banquet hall, the maĆ®tre d’ has locked them out.

So just what is Jesus trying to tell us in this story? Is it, “Get your act together, because I may come back any time, the world will end, and you’ll go to hell if you’re not ready?”

Boy, I sure hope not. I really don’t like those cataclysmic end-of-the-world interpretations. I don’t believe in a Hal Lindsay-the-Rapture’s-coming kind of theology, and I don’t believe such an interpretation is borne out by scripture. Besides, Stephen Hawking just predicted that the cataclysmic end of the world isn’t expected for another 600 years anyway.

But I do believe that there is power in this story if we look for it. The coming event may not be the end of the world, but it may be the end of something, and it may be pretty cataclysmic in your life. Will you be spiritually prepared? Will you have the “oil” for your lamp? And just what is your oil?

I’ll be honest with you: I think a lot these days about the end of the organized, institutional, main-line Protestant church that I’ve grown up with and known and loved. I wonder if it’s disappearing from the American scene. I wonder if I’m becoming an anachronism. Will America still need (or want) ordained clergy by the time I retire? Is the cataclysmic event coming, and am I just standing here with an empty oil lamp?

I mean, the future of American Christianity looks so different from the way I grew up. There’s a new generation taking over, and they’re not that interested in organized religion (although, if it isn’t organized, technically it’s not religion!). They’re “spiritual,” but not “religious.” They’re into cellular devices like cyborgs. They’re buried under great reeking fertilizer piles of student loan debt, so donations to religious institutions are the farthest thing from their minds. They’re fiercely individual and anti-institutional. Not only have they been raised outside of the church, but they’ve been raised in a media culture which has presented people of faith as either fanatics or hypocrites.

I keep feeling like something’s coming and I wonder if I’m prepared for it.

I believe I am. I have the oil of the gospel—the oil of Jesus Christ. This is more than just my baptismal anointing (although I put a lot of stock in that) and more than my Lutheran doctrine. This oil supply is the loving belief that God is knowable through Jesus. It’s a belief that in suffering, loss, and pain, there is a closeness to God and a transformative power. Jesus died to rise again, so when I suffer loss I will also gain.

The oil of the gospel is both faith and philosophy. Jesus is both my hope and my moral guide. I may not know the time or the hour when the great change is coming, but feel secure in knowing that I have the spiritual tool to navigate that change through faith in Christ.

A point I find intriguing in the gospel story is that the bridesmaids who aren’t prepared can’t borrow oil from the ones who are. Nobody can loan us faith, and we can’t share what we have with someone who isn’t open to receiving it. And sometimes that fact can be painful. How often have you watched someone suffer because their loss or pain seemed to have no meaning?

I think the best we can do, my friends, is fill up our oil supply with scriptural knowledge, prayer, meditation, Christian fellowship, love, and an openness to the will of God. Because the change is coming, and faith isn’t about what happens to us—it’s about how we embrace it.

Let your lamps burn brightly, and thanks for reading.