Thursday, December 28, 2017

Cool Old People and Opposition (Reflections on Christmas 1, Year B)

"Simeon's Song of Praise" Aert de Gelder (ca. 1710)
“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples…” (Luke 2:29-31)

I really love the gospel appointed for Christmas 1, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 2:22-40). Granted, I don’t often give myself the opportunity to preach on it. In years past I’ve kind of figured that good American Lutherans, wiped out by the bacchanal of the Yule, always want to sleep in on the Sunday after Christmas and nurse their sugar-cookie hangovers. Church attendance goes into the dumper on this Sunday. Subsequently, I’ve often taken this Sunday off and not taken the time to prepare a message on the beautiful passage the lectionary gives us. That’s too bad, because the imagery in this lesson is really exquisitely lovely. At least I think so.

Liturgical purists will recognize verses 29-32 as the Nunc Dimittis, a canticle that’s part of evening worship settings such as Compline or Evensong. For a Lutheran like myself it’s more familiar as the canticle sung right after the reception of the Holy Eucharist. In our gospel, Simeon, a pious and devout Jew who believed he wouldn’t die until he’d seen the Messiah, cradles the baby Jesus in his arms and tells God he’s now ready to hang it up. It’s actually a joyful and thankful admission, so it’s appropriate that we sing it right after we’ve encountered Jesus in the Lord’s Supper. You can find musical arrangements of this prayer in Evangelical Lutheran Worship’s first two settings of the mass (ELW pg. 113 and pg. 134 in case you want to look it up). Personally, I wish we’d include it in all settings.

I mean, how cool is this image? Here’s an old dude at the end of his life hugging a little baby boy at the very beginning of his. The old geezer is thanking God that his tradition is going to live on after him. He’s taking joy in the life and vitality he no longer has but knows this child will enjoy. As a cleric who has officiated hundreds of funerals, I can’t even count the number of times family members of the deceased have expressed gratitude that their elderly relative lived long enough to see a grandchild or great-grandchild born. It’s an affirmation of life itself.

This gospel lesson also celebrates the wisdom of the elderly. I’ve had Simeons and Annas in my congregation, and there’s something to be said for vintage Christians who have lived lives of prayer, learned mercy and forgiveness, and have figured out that you don’t need to take all the crap so seriously. Simeon and Anna know who Jesus is, and because they know, they are full of optimism for that which is to come.

(By the way, an interesting little—but certainly not unimportant—detail in this story is found at verse 24. Mary and Joseph, expected to either give their firstborn son to God per the statues in Exodus 13 or redeem him at a price, come to the Temple to do the latter. I find it significant that the sacrificial price for the Redeemer of the World is only two lousy pigeons. Since there was no Republican tax plan in New Testament times, I’m assuming that the low price was offered to those of limited means, and that rich folks were expected to make grander sacrifices—like a cow or a sheep—as their means permitted. By including this detail, Luke reminds us that our Savior came from the peasant class. Jesus loves the poor because he was poor himself!)

This gospel lesson is both celebration and foreboding at the birth of this child. Any parent gets this. Having been in my current parish for almost two full decades, I’ve had the privilege and delight of watching a whole bunch of whacky kids grow into adulthood. At Christmastime, they all come back to go to church with their parents and grandparents. The first baby I baptized from this congregation now speaks with a bass voice and towers a good head taller than his pastor. I love seeing them, love hearing about what they’re up to, and love the fact that they still show up for worship—if only once or twice a year.

BUT: Like every parent, my joy is also coupled with worry. When two lads I’ve known since they were rug rats put on the uniform of the United States military, I’m filled with both pride and dread. When the adorable little girls set off for college, I start thinking about the unsavory tales I’ve heard about campus parties and sexual assault. Over the years I’ve been so very well-pleased by the accomplishments of my “church kids,” but I’ve been saddened by their misadventures, too.

Simeon tells Mary that Jesus will be destined for the “falling and rising of many in Israel” (verse 34), but a sword will also pierce Mary’s heart. With the child’s greatness will come opposition and sorrow. It cannot be otherwise.

As we embrace the baby Jesus, we’ll find in his gentleness and humility our own sense of identity and, for want of a better word, pride. But we will also find opposition, and we will hurt along with him.

I dearly hope that this sense of hurt does not stem from cultural indignation. Personally, I couldn’t give a rat’s ass if we say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” here in America. I don’t care if we don’t have “In God We Trust” on our currency or the Ten Commandments on our courthouse walls. I care when the ones Christ came to save are violated. When God’s children become refugees, or heroin addicts, or are incarcerated, or are dying from war-related famine—that’s when the sword should pierce the heart of the Christian. And, I guarantee you, any attempt to address these situations will certainly bring opposition from someone.

At such moments of opposition it might be a good idea to remember dear old Simeon. He believed the promises of God, and we will, too. So we hold onto the baby Jesus, give thanks, and move forward into a new year.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

We Need a Little Christmas

“…I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” (Luke 2:10)

“For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute
Candles in the window
Carols at the spinet
Yes, we need a little Christmas now!”

Do you recognize these lyrics? I’ll bet you heard Andy Williams singing them on your local all-Chrismtas-muisc-‘til-you’re-ready-to-barff radio station. Do you know where this song comes from? It’s actually from the Broadway musical Mame. There’s this scene in the play when the characters are having a really rough time, so they decide to celebrate Christmas early in order to lift their spirits. It’s a great scene.

Whenever I hear this song played on the radio, I think of the production of Mame I saw around Christmas time in 1994 at Philadelphia’s legendary Walnut Street Theatre (the oldest continually producing professional theatre in the United States, I’ll have you know!). I went with this guy named Melvin Rumpf. Mel was a professional dancer who’d danced on Broadway. He was African American and, I’m quite certain, gay. I met him when I was a seminarian. He was my “project” for my pastoral care class. The professor assigned me, the former actor to, to visit with Mel, the former dancer. We hit it off pretty well, too.

Mel was living at a now-defunct ELCA facility called Betak, a nursing home for those suffering from HIV/AIDS. His AIDS was full-blown, and it was obvious to me that he was dying. Not actively dying, mind you, but he was most certainly terminal. He had the emaciated frame and the distant stare of one who would not be long for this planet.

Somehow, this stricken hoofer had come into possession of two tickets to the Walnut Street, but he had no one to take him. I borrowed a car from one of my classmates, and the two of us set off on that cold December night for an evening of live theatre—very possibly the last one Mel would ever enjoy. I remember that evening, not for the stage performance (which was excellent), but for Mel’s company. We had a great time together, made all the more precious by the knowledge that his time was short and that this was a brief moment of defiant joy in the face of a horrible illness.

So now, whenever I hear “We Need a Little Christmas” on the radio, I remember that night with Mel and I give thanks that I had the chance to share it with him.

But this year, I think of another verse of that song:

“For I’ve grown a little leaner
Grown a little colder
Grown a little sadder
Grown a little older
And I need a little angel
Sitting on my shoulder
Need a little Christmas now.”

I don’t know about you, but, for me, this has been a pretty rough year. My congregation has experienced death in the family with the loss of two long-time and much beloved members. I’ve buried numerous victims of the heroine epidemic, too. There have been devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. As I write this the wildfires are still burning in California. An arrogant little man is threatening the world with missiles from Korea, and Nazis and Klansmen have marched openly in Virginia. A madman shot over 500 people from a hotel in Las Vegas, and another demented soul opened fire and killed dozens in a church in Texas.

Sometimes I just feel helpless at the thought of it all. That’s when I need to turn to the Christmas story—and not a sanitized, Christmas card version, but the true, human story behind our celebration.

You see, Mary and Joseph were helpless, too. They were peasants at the mercy of a powerful and oppressive regime which ordered them to travel seventy miles over open country while Mary was eight months pregnant. They were homeless when she gave birth—forced to nestle the Savior of the World in a filthy trough for animals. The men who came to ogle that baby were also homeless—“abiding in the field” (literally, living in tents)—and could offer no shelter to our Holy Family.

The lives of those shepherds, frankly, sucked. Their lives were hard and brutal on the morning of the day when Jesus was born, and they would be hard and brutal on the day after. The only difference might be a new sense of defiant joy, and the knowledge that things would not always be as they currently seemed to be. It would take time for that baby to grow up and live into God’s promise, but someday—some glorious day—God’s love and favor would be revealed.

These days we seem to be so hung up on certainty that we have forgotten the joy of hope. Christmas and faith are all about believing that there really is light in the darkness. That’s why we need this story. We need a little Christmas. It’s not just a cute anesthetic for our worries and sense of powerlessness. It’s a defiant act of joy. If we can’t appreciate the darkness in it, we’ll never learn to embrace the light. A poor, unimportant, un-wed teen mom conceived and bore a child in cave used to stable livestock, and we call him Jesus—the name means “savior.”

When we embrace this child—his love, hos compassion, his sense of sacrifice, and his sense of thankful joy for what the Father has already given us—the world will change.

Be joyful and triumphant, my friends, and have yourselves a very merry Christmas. 

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

"Hail, Mary" (Reflections on Advent 4, Year B)

Image result for images of the annunciation of mary

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28)

Lutherans, as a general rule, don’t pray the rosary, but on Advent 4 (Year B) we get the origins of that lovely prayer which is so dear to our Roman brothers and sisters. The Latin translation of the angel Gabriel’s words in Luke 1:28 is “Hail Mary, full of Grace. The Lord is with thee.” (“Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb…” come later in the chapter at verse 42 when Mary meets her cousin Elizabeth). Martin Luther, although he adored Mary, hated the Latin translation of the salutation in verse 28. He would’ve been much more pleased had the angel said, “God bless you, dear Mary!” He maintained that no good German would ever say “You are full of grace.” He translated it as “thou gracious one,” feeling this was a sweeter and more complimentary way of saying hello.

However we interpret the angel’s greeting, we may have to admit to ourselves that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is a pretty tough one to believe. When I was in seminary we debated whether belief in the Virgin Birth was truly necessary for salvation. But Luther comes to our rescue once again when he quotes the writings of St. Bernard of Clairvaux who pointed out that this story actually contains three miracles. First, it’s a miracle that the virgin should become a mother (which Luther considered was no big deal for the God who had created the universe from nothing). Second, it’s a miracle that Almighty God would be willing to take on and share our human experience and become one with us. Third, it’s a miracle that this young lady—a child of her time, culture, and circumstances—would actually be willing to say “yes” to being the bearer of God to the world.

Luther thought that the last one was the greatest miracle of all.

Just think of our girl here. She must’ve been very young. She was engaged to be married, and if she were found to be pregnant, at the very least, her boyfriend would have the right to dump her. If he married her anyway, her child would always be the subject of snide speculation—he’d be what was called a mamzer. That’s an individual whose parentage was in doubt and could not be considered to be authentically Jewish. At the very worst, she could be accused of adultery and stoned to death as a whore.

And yet she said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

Verse 29 tells us she was “perplexed” by the angel’s words. The Greek word for this is dietracqh (I’d pronounce this dee-trak-thay) which literally translates “troubled.” From the context, it might be better to translate it “scared spitless!” I mean, wouldn’t you be? Pregnancy alone is a scary thing. So many things can go wrong, and I can’t imagine any first-time mom who doesn’t face childbearing with a certain amount of fright. And if pregnancy is frightening, parenthood is freaking terrifying!

And yet she said, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

She was not an important person. She was from a hick town. Her most important relative was small town priest. Being female, she wasn’t even considered a full member of society, just an appendage to her father or her husband. But God sent a messenger to her, because God’s eye is always on the little folks who, in their simplicity, patience, and faith, have found favor with God.

For me, the great joy in this Advent story is how God loves to show up in unexpected places—like, maybe, your house. And as he hears you pray “Thy will be done,” he invites you to be carriers of his Word.

Thanks, Mary. May we always be inspired by your faith.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Light It Up! (Reflections on Advent 3, Year B)

Mini Lights
“He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” (John 1:7)

Don’t you just love Christmas lights? I do. I’ve started putting my lights up the week of Thanksgiving, and I can’t wait to see my whole street and neighborhood illuminated. Christmas lights just make me feel happy—especially the way some of my neighbors decorate. In this part of the world a house isn’t properly decked-out for Christmas unless you can see it from the International Space Station. By Advent 2 the street where Faith Lutheran sits looks like the Las Vegas Strip. I love it!

Lights, of course, have been part of our celebration for a very long time. It’s generally believed that the date on which we celebrate our Lord’s birth was chosen sometime in the 2nd Century. Since Jesus didn’t have a birth certificate, we don’t really know when he was born; however, our Christian ancestors decided to take the pagan Roman festival of Sol Invictus (the “unconquered sun”), celebrated on December 25th to commemorate the winter solstice, and re-purpose it as Jesus’ birthday. The pagans would light lots of bonfires and such in the hope of encouraging the sun to come back, bring longer and warmer days, and grow the crops. Apparently there was much whooping-it-up and festiveness at this time, and the early Christians figured this was as good a time as any to rejoice in the birth of the Savior.

It makes sense to me. Now of days, when there’s so much darkness around us, we really need to look to the light. It’s time to brighten things up. The gospel lesson assigned for Advent 3 Year B in the RCL (John 1:6-8, 19-28) throws a different “light” on our friend John the Baptist. Last week John was calling us to repentance. This week, he’s pointing to Jesus as the light of the world.

You have to give John the B credit: for all of his flamboyant weirdness, he’s a remarkably humble guy. He’s always pointing past himself—discounting his own importance—in order to shine the light on Jesus. This Sunday, I would hope we would see a joyful light. The third Sunday in Advent is traditionally known as Guadete Sunday, or “Rejoice Sunday.” We get a little break from watching for Christ and, like John, we are called to point to Christ as we see him already active in the world (and we get to light that nifty rose-colored candle, too!).

So..? Where have you seen the light of Christ this week?

Today I had a conversation with a woman in the parish who has just lost her thirty-eight-year-old son to sudden heart failure. In the darkness of her grief she told me of how her son’s co-workers had taken a collection and presented the young man’s widow and orphaned children with over twenty-one hundred dollars in gift cards. Such a sign of love and respect is a little candle in the darkness, and an echo of the sacrificial love which Jesus came to share.

I heard on the local TV news last night the story of an anonymous donor who paid literally thousands of dollars to a Walmart store in Northeast Philly to cancel the balances on all lay-away merchandise, thereby reducing the debts owed by an untold number of Christmas shoppers—people he or she has never met and will never meet.

I look at the work done by my own congregation, and I see our light shining in the darkness. We offer support groups for the addicted, food for the hungry, clothes for the poor, shelter for the homeless, Christmas gifts to orphans, and funds for the victims of natural disasters. We may only be shining in a small, dim way, but we are still shining. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it

I look, also (as my go-to gal for sermon help, Dr. Karoline Lewis, has pointed out in her “Dear Working Preacher” column on to the light of truth that is now shining in our country on the darkness of sexual misconduct, assault, and harassment. Wicked behavior has been hidden in the shadows for a very long time, but now we can rejoice that a light is being switched on and we can hope for a more respectful and honorable society to emerge as a result.

 The light of Christ, as Matthew 25 always teaches us, is seen in the guy with the cardboard sign asking for spare change at the freeway onramp, the guy ringing the Salvation Army bell in front of the drugstore, or the kid who comes to your door selling Christmas candy to support his underfunded school program. The light shines whenever we have the opportunity to think beyond ourselves to the world’s needs. And we should rejoice to have the opportunity.

But before we get too happy about our own generosity, I remind myself again that John the Baptist’s job in the Fourth Gospel is always to point away from himself to the true light that is Jesus. No administration, program, charity, foundation, or individual act of mercy will enlighten this planet if we’re not first willing to be illuminated by the grace found in Jesus Christ. If we want a way to see in the dark, let’s first look to the one who showed us mercy, forgiveness, sacrifice, and the noble suffering of faithfulness. Then, as he said,

“Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)


Thursday, December 7, 2017

What Would John Tell Us? (Reflections on Advent 2, Year B)

“…the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Mark 1:3)

Man, you just gotta love John the Baptist! He’s as funky a dude as you’re likely to meet with his organic diet, rustic clothing, and penchant for out-of-the-way locals. He’s definitely an outsider, but that’s okay because at least it gets our attention.

And we need a little waking up, don’t we? John comes to us preaching a need for repentance, for changing our minds, because we might be so far in the weeds ourselves these days that we don’t even know we need saving. We’re not ready to encounter Jesus, because we don’t know what we need from him. In the Advent 1 gospel lesson Jesus told us to keep awake because the world is definitely changing. In Advent 2 (Mark 1:1-8) we’re being told by John that we need to look inside and do some changing ourselves.

And he’s right. The changing world has certainly changed who we are. Last week, one of my faithful, long-time parishioners, Harvey, handed me an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer by Dwight DeWerth-Palmeyer which warned us about things we don’t hear talked about. DeWerth-Pallmeyer is afraid that our reliance on cellular devices is warping our brains. Americans, he maintains, are reading less and growing more depressed. We spend more time staring at display screens than we do in conversation with each other. We have shorter attention spans, we’ve grown increasingly more individualistic, and vastly more myopic in terms of our views on the world. We don’t want discussion or reasoned debate anymore. We want someone to tell us what we’ve already decided we agree with, and we want to verbally bash those who disagree.

DeWerth-Pallmeyer, shouting a warning that John the Baptist might’ve envied, expostulates that church attendance is down, and so are a host of other forms of social engagement such as the Rotary Club or the Lions Club. Once we were a nation of joiners, but now we’re a nation of “I-don’t-wanna-join-so-leave-me-alone.”

In a letter to ELCA congregations, Steve Oeschlager (ELCA Stewardship Program Coordinator) notes that the suicide rate in the US is at a 30-year high, and more Americans die of drug overdoses than die from gun violence or auto accidents. And yet, we are willing to spend over $10 billion a year on books, programs, and techniques for “self-help.” This figure, Oeschlager tells us, is more than six times the amount collected annually in offerings by all ELCA congregations combined! Yet are we a healthier people for all that?

What would John the Baptist cry out to us today?

Maybe he’d just want to warn us about what a messed-up bunch of self-medicating, lonely, hungry souls we’ve become. Maybe he’d want us to recognize that we’re all hurting, and that we’ve run the bus off the road into the ditch and we don’t really know what to do about it. Maybe he’d just want us to “come clean” about what we’re feeling at this time of year when the culture tells us to be “merry and bright” while we’re feeling exhausted and scared and mournful.

If we listen to John, we might well be ready to receive Jesus. We’ll be ready to admit that we can’t do this on our own, and we need the Spirit of God to inspire us and to comfort us and to give us hope. Then we’ll be ready receive the one who is more powerful than we can imagine. Then we can begin to look for signs of him in our neighbor and in ourselves. Then we can pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Teach us to love, to forgive, and to believe. And come soon.”

May this time of Advent be a blessing to you, and may you receive Christ in your heart.