Thursday, January 25, 2018

With Authority (Reflections on Epiphany 4, Year B)

Image result for Images of Jesus healing a man with an unclean spirit
Many years ago, I was playing a pick-up game of basketball with my brother-in-law, Bruce, and I actually made a fairly decent half-court shot. I’d given the ball a pretty enthusiastic heave, causing it to thunder against the backboard before dropping through the net. Bruce smiled at me and gave me the compliment, “With authority!

Authority? What is that exactly? In the gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 4, Year B in the RCL (Mark 1:21-28) Jesus is said to teach with authority. Webster’s Dictionary gives a boatload of definitions for this word. It can mean the power to command (which Jesus certainly has in this passage), or the reliability of information, or self-assurance and expertness among other uses.

These days, I’m more than a little concerned about “authority” being used as “reliability.” If you haven’t noticed, there’s been a pretty intense attack made against the whole notion of reliable, authoritative information here in America. We keep hearing the term “Fake News,” and a lot of folks are wondering just who to believe these days.

Once upon a time, the church and clerics like my own dear self were considered “authority,” but in the current culture any boob with a computer can become an “ordained” minster with a few mouse clicks on some website. When the Westboro Baptist Church spews its hateful, homophobic poison, when TV evangelists preach more about wealth than compassion, and when we are still feeling the stinging pain of the sexual abuse of children by men who were supposed to be their spiritual guardians, who wants to locate authority in the church or its pastors?

For us as Christians, of course, there’s only one source of authority and that’s Jesus Christ. Jesus is our reliable norm and compass because of who he is and what he has done. The folks in the gospel story call him authoritative because he doesn’t just parrot old doctrine but speaks from his heart. And he proves his authority by what he does.

The Bible—which is our authority because it has revealed Jesus to us—tells of Jesus as a healer and one who casts out evil spirits. We also see him as one who breaks barriers of ethnicity, gender bias, and social class. We see him as a generous feeder of the multitude. We seem him as one who is willing to die in order to speak truth to the powers of this world. We see him act with humility. We see him encourage faith. We see him forgive enemies and heal with his words of forgiveness those who are tormented by their own sins. Because we have seen him living a life of love which speaks truth to our hearts, we want to listen to what he says. His deeds give weight to his words.

If I have any authority within my own congregation, it’s only because I have spent time here, taken time to get to know people, been present at significant moments in their lives, been patient during times of worry, and have convinced them that I genuinely love them. If my actions haven’t proven my integrity, my seminary degree and clerical vestments won’t either.

We in the church always have an opportunity to reclaim authority, but we can only do it by recognizing that all authority comes from Christ. When I stand at the font during the Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness, I can only repeat the words, “As a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Christian is as Christian does. We are called to be healers. We are called to be champions of forgiveness. We are called to speak for the poor and the ones left outside of society. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter, the homeless, welcome the stranger, protect the earth, and be givers of hope. If we can do all those things, the world will know that what we say is real.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Saints of the Month: Doug Pederson and the Philadelphia Eagles

Philadelphia Eagles logo
“…but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like E-A-G-L-E-S..! (Isaiah 40:31)

Holy cow! It looks like our beloved Philadelphia Eagles are going to the Super Bowl! Indeed, this has been an astounding season, and I’ve been caught up in the euphoria of it just like everyone else here in Philly. The NFC Championship game played last Sunday against Minnesota started off as a tense battle and ended as a massacre. I’ll bet there are a lot of unhappy Lutherans up there in the Twin Cities, but here in Philly there are, I think, lots of reasons to rejoice.

First, the excitement and enthusiasm of a hometown win knocked the embarrassment of the (mercifully temporary) government shut-down off the front page. Democrat or Republican, black or white, rich or poor, all of Philly was high-fiving and fist-bumping together as our Birds soared to victory. The innocence of the game reminded us (I hope) that, whatever our differences might be, there still are things which can unite us. If the two Koreas can march together in the Winter Olympics, there just might be hope for the human race after all. Truly, we have more in common than we have differences.

Secondly, I am struck by the sense of affectionate comradery expressed by the Philadelphia players in their post-victory interviews. I get the feeling that these guys genuinely like—maybe even love—each other. There is a spirit of humble unity and a lack of unsportsmanlike ego that seems to come from this team. For this, I can only give credit to Coach Doug Pederson. It is a testament to this man’s leadership that he was able to imbue this group of athletes with a sense of respect and common purpose. It was inspiring to see the injured Carson Wentz—a hero deprived of the glory of a championship game—on the sidelines giving selfless support to Nick Foles. It’s amazing what can happen when egos are put aside and replaced with a dedication to common purpose.

I was also impressed with the way our Eagles performed under pressure. When Viking quarterback Case Keenum was threatened by a rushing Eagles defense, he frequently threw incomplete. Nick Foles, regardless of the onslaught from the Viking line, hit his receiver, demonstrating great grace under pressure. Maybe he remembered that this was only a game and not a cause for panic. Foles’ performance in that game reminded me of a quote from John 12:25:

“Those who love their life lose, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

Now, I feel quite certain that, at this moment, if there’s anyone who’s loving his life, it’s Nick Foles. But to understand this passage, you need to know that in ancient Greek, the word which is translated as “hate” doesn’t necessarily mean “despise intensely.” Rather, I think it’s used in this sense as the antonym of “love.” That is, if to love is to feel great passionate affection for something or someone, then its opposite is simply not to feel great passionate affection. Perhaps the verse would be better translated, “Those who are indifferent to the things of this world will give their hearts to eternal things.” In other words: don’t sweat the small stuff. Save your love for the God-pleasing nature of your daily work, your family, and your compassion for all of God’s children and God’s creation.

It’s so easy to lose ourselves when we are under pressure, and to turn an inconvenience into a catastrophe. As individuals, as Christians, as church members, and as Americans we all should be taking a page out of Nick’s book and keeping perspective. Events may be rushing at us, but there are always larger things to consider. As the holy season of Lent approaches, we will again be reminded that we are only dust, and to dust we will return. For my part, I would rather leave behind a legacy of compassion rather than indignation. I want to keep focused on things that really matter.

I compose this article weeks before Super Bowl LII is to be played. I certainly hope our Eagles are victorious, but—sorry, Coach Lombardi—I can’t believe that wining is the only thing. Win or lose on February 4th, our team gave us an exciting year, and I’m grateful enough for that. Besides, the excitement of the season aside, I’m beginning to think that victory is overrated.

When we look down the aisle of our churches, above the altars, and into the apse, we don’t see the image of a victorious general or a great potentate. We see the image of a man facing humiliating defeat—a crucified criminal who has lost his freedom, his dignity, and his life out of love and compassion for the human race. In John’s gospel Jesus tells us, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). No matter what the world throws at us, Jesus loves us enough to enter into our anguish and humiliation. With such grace and love given to us, can we be anything but winners?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

It's All About the Gathering (Reflections on Epiphany 3, Year B)

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15)

Have you ever heard young people say they don’t believe in “organized religion?” That phrase always gives me a bit of a smug chuckle. I want to tell the unbelieving slacker, “Dude, if it’s not organized, technically it’s not religion. It’s just some weird stuff that rolls around in your head. It’s not a religion unless you can share it. To share it, you have to have an agreed upon vocabulary and context with someone else. Once you’ve agreed, you’ve organized it.”

Yup. That’s the thing about religion. It requires cooperation. We have to agree on a common mythology, a common interpretation, a way to regularly recognize that common story through rites and rituals, and a common understanding of how that story should play out in our code of behavior and interpersonal relationships. When some millennial tells me that she’s “spiritual, but not religious,” I just think she’s too lazy and self-involved to want to deal personally with a community.

Okay. So maybe I’m just a grumpy old fart, but look around. We in the US are a bunch of folks growing increasingly more isolated. We drive alone in our cars, spend incredible amounts of supposedly interpersonal time staring at the touch screens on our cellular devices, work in cubicles, and shut the world out with our ear buds. I go to my local Starbucks and see a table of millennials supposedly sitting together, yet each is half focused on a cell phone in his or her lap. Our technology, instead of pulling us together as was promised, is drawing us further apart as we each sink into the oblivion on our computer screens and hear only the voices we’ve chosen to hear. I’ve heard that young Muslims have become radicalized—not through fanatical imams in their local mosques—but through zealots on the internet who have tapped into the young person’s feelings of alienation and estrangement.

In the gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 3 (Mark 1:14-20), Jesus is creating community. He’s calling people into a fellowship which continually gathers and welcomes newcomers like a fisherman gathers fish in a net. That’s what religion is supposed to do—gather people together. We’re all subjects in the kingdom of God, but we could use a little work these days on the togetherness issue.

For my part, as a parish pastor in beautiful Northeast Philadelphia, I’m going to try to work on three issues. The first is young people. If you look at our gospel text from Mark, you’ll see that Jesus really gets his recruiting motor revved up after radical John the Baptist gets locked up for speaking truth to power (v.14). I think it’s interesting to note that Jesus heads right into the neighborhood where John had been preaching. He doesn’t run away from a dangerous mission, he runs toward it. I think young Americans are just itching to speak out, make a difference, and see that justice, mercy, and fairness exist in this country. What better leader could they have than Jesus?

Can we in the mainline Christian church see ourselves as recruiters for those who want to make a change in society? Can we gather those who see Jesus’ love of the poor as a call to mission to redistribute wealth through acts of charity and a voice against the structure which seeks to give tax breaks to billionaires and cut aid to children? In any event, I’m going to make it one of my priorities this year to involve younger Christians in the work of social justice, and—just maybe—teach them a little about the gospel while doing it.

I see another call to gathering in our relationship with Christians of other traditions. My Lutheran congregation shares its worship facility with the loveliest congregation of Seventh Day Adventists. These folks have given us an exceedingly generous facilities use offering, and have been splendidly cooperative and accommodating to our activities schedule. They keep the church clean, and are unfailingly polite. Unfortunately, the way they worship, look, and speak is vastly different from the way we worship, look, and speak. Because of this, we might forget that they worship the same God and Lord Jesus Christ that we do. I think there’s a great need to bring our two communities together at some point so we can know each other, appreciate our differences and similarities, and give thanks to God for the gospel we all share. It’s far too easy for American Christians to think of renter congregations as “those people” who use “OUR church.” The church belongs to Christ, not to us, and our SDA friends belong here just as much as we do.

(Additionally, President Trump has just declared that our Adventist friends—who are Haitian and Haitian-American—are somehow less desirable than people who’ve come from other parts of the world. He should meet these people. They are kind, cheerful, intelligent, respectful, and talented. It is an honor to have them as partners in the gospel.)

Finally, I’m going to try to gather a new part of our community into the net. I have an appointment next week at the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia. Our Muslim neighbors have asked Christian churches in the neighborhood to help them articulate their mission, so I’m going to see what I can do to help. I want to practice what J. Paul Rajashakar called the “Theology of Hospitality.” That is, acknowledging what I don’t know about my neighbor’s faith, and trying to see if we can come up with a vocabulary to focus on the beliefs we hold in common rather than dwelling on our dissimilarities. I think God will be glorified by the effort.

I’ll admit that getting together isn’t always easy. Sometimes we just don’t want to engage our neighbor. The Hebrew Scriptures text from Jonah (Jonah3:1-5, 10) is a reminder that God’s desire for togetherness and unity is not always our desire. Jonah didn’t want those dreadful Nineveh people to be redeemed by God. But God wanted it.

That’s what counts, don’t you think?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Jesus Calling (Reflections on Epiphany 2, Year B)

Image result for images of Nathaniel under the fig tree

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  (1 Samuel 3:9)

Have you ever asked yourself why you keep going to church? That’s assuming, of course, that you do keep going to church. What draws you? What are you looking for, and what is the result you hope to find? How does your faith change you, and why is it important that you’re a Christian? Just what is it that you do with this faith you have?

What is your sense of call? That’s the question which comes to my mind when I look at the scripture readings assigned for Epiphany 2, Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary. Both the story of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:1-20) and the story in John’s gospel (John 1:43-51) deal with a call to discipleship and mission.

In the Hebrew scripture lesson we have the story of the young Samuel who has, basically, been offered up to God as a sacrifice by his mom, Hannah, because she was just so stinkin’ glad to have been able to get pregnant with him. If you know the story you’ll remember that Hannah was having a little trouble with conception—a medical situation which the gals in her neighborhood considered to be a curse from God. The local thinking was that any woman who couldn’t bear a son was somehow on God’s naughty list. Hannah prayed her butt off to be able to conceive, and promised that she would dedicate her son to God’s service if God took away the disgrace of her infertility. She got pregnant, had Samuel, and gave him up to be raised by the Eli, the priest and prophet.

Eli had two grown boys of his own, Hophni and Phinehas, who were going into the family business of being priests, prophets, and judges over Israel. Unfortunately, like a lot of P.K.’s (Preacher’s Kids), these boys were pretty unruly. There was no Me, Too or Time’s Up movement back in the day, so Hophni and Phinehas figured they could hit on the church usherettes all they wanted to. They also had their fingers in the offering plate. This really pissed God off.

One night, God spoke to the boy Samuel while he was sleeping. Sam thought it was Eli calling him but, after some misunderstanding, Eli figured out that God was speaking to the young fellow, so he advised Samuel to listen and be obedient. Unfortunately, God’s message to young Samuel was a word of condemnation of Eli’s sloppy parenting. God was going to smite Hophni, Phinehas, and their “I-spared-the-rod-and-raised-two-rotten-brats” father, Eli. To his credit, Eli took the Louis C.K. attitude, admitted he was wrong, and submitted humbly to the punishment God was willing to dish out (This happened to be killing the two miscreant sons and letting Eli die from the grief by falling off his bench and cracking his head open. God’s kind of a badass in the Old Testament if you haven’t noticed.). Samuel, young as he was, was then called by God to take over as Prophet and Judge of Israel and clean up the mess left by the previous administration.

In John’s gospel, we hear the voice of God coming through an enthusiastic disciple of Jesus, Philip. Philip is kind of an interesting character in the fourth gospel. He’s not the impulsive, in-your-face guy Peter is. He’s excited, but cautiously so, and he seems to have a healthy dose of skepticism in him at times. All the same, he really believes that Jesus is the guy Moses was talking about in Deuteronomy 18:15. He feels a sense of call to share this with his buddy Nathaniel. Nathaniel’s reaction is to make a smartass comment about the hick town of Nazareth, but he’s willing to come and check out this Jesus all the same.

When Jesus meets Nathaniel, he makes a little joke about an Israelite in whom there is no deceit (v. 47). Israel, of course, is the name God gave to the deceitful Jacob back in Genesis 32. Nathaniel, smartass that he is, rebuffs the joke by asking Jesus—whom he doesn’t know from Joe Blow—how he can make any judgments about his character. Jesus tells him that he saw him earlier under a fig tree.

Now, dear reader, you may well wonder what that reference means. Me too. I haven’t got a clue. I even checked a bunch of resources, but nobody seems to know why Nathaniel was so astounded by being observed under a fig tree. The point, however, is that the guy seemed to be really impressed and moved by Jesus’ words—moved enough to accept the call to discipleship. I guess he had to feel that Jesus really knew him or understood him. They shared something personal.

This encounter with Jesus would lead Nathaniel (whom Bible scholars always say is the same guy as Bartholomew mentioned in the other three gospels) to preach the gospel in India and Armenia and later be martyred in any number of very unpleasant ways depending on which legend you choose to believe. One legend (recorded in Fox's Book of Martyrs) says his personal calling was to translate Matthew's gospel into the language of India.

So when did Jesus become personal to you? Who called you out of yourself to seek a deeper relationship with Jesus? What do you want from that relationship, and what are you expecting the church of Jesus Christ to be? What are you willing to do to make that vision a reality?

I started thinking I had a sense of call when I was middle school special ed teacher in Los Angeles. For the first time I met kids who were victims of institutional poverty and a really inadequate school system. I started to think that this could be made better if people took their commitment to Christ seriously. I might not have been a Samuel who was called to go and fix the system, but I could try to be a Nathaniel Bartholomew who could carry the message that Jesus wants more from us and can give us the power to be more because he’s already seen us under the fig tree and he knows our potential.

What’s your call? What message are you to carry, and how are you to carry it?

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Thoughts on the Epiphany of Our Lord

“…we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matthew 2:2)

I think one of the things that gets in our way when we look at these Bible stories is our own familiarity with them. We kind of know the story so well that it doesn’t seem to have any surprises left for us. What can I tell you about the Epiphany story that I haven’t already told you and you don’t already know?

Well, for one thing, you probably should know that Matthew’s telling of the birth of Jesus doesn’t exactly match up with Luke’s version. Over the years we’ve tended to mash the two versions together and make cute Christmas cards with the three Wise Men kneeling at the manger along with Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds; however, if you look at the details and read what smart scholarly folks say about these stories, you’ll see that there’s a bit of disharmony between the two accounts.

But that’s cool. If you insist on the stories matching exactly and your faith in the Bible is destroyed by any lack of agreement, you’re missing the point. You’re also thinking like a modern person, and you’re not quite getting the idea that our Christian ancestors weren’t all hung up on empirical data like we are. They told stories to make a point, and Matthew and Luke each have their own points to make which are still valuable to us today. So—please—take each story for what it is and get over yourself.

(Okay. If you’re into the details, Luke times Jesus’ birth when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). According to the Roman historian Josephus, Quirinius didn’t become governor until some years after the death of Herod the Great, under whose reign Jesus was born according to Matthew (Matthew 2:1). That’s the contradiction, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over this if I were you.)

What makes Matthew’s version so cool is a couple of things. Just as Luke chooses to make the first worshipers of Jesus poor folks (the shepherds), Matthew makes the first worshipers foreigners. Matthew starts the story out on a note of evangelism. Jesus came for everyone in the world. People from the East who aren’t even familiar with the Jewish tradition and aren’t even looking for a deliverer from Roman tyranny are still looking to find this special baby. There is a universal hunger for who Jesus is and for what Jesus can do.

(Please excuse another digression, but, as I’ve written earlier posts about the Epiphany of Our Lord, tradition has numbered these seekers as three because of the three gifts they brought mentioned in verse 11. Matthew doesn’t really say how many there were. Early Christian iconography always depicts them as a young man, a middle-aged man, and an elderly fellow to symbolize that Jesus came for all ages. They’re also depicted as a European, a swarthy Middle-Easterner, and a black African to symbolize that Jesus came for all people. They received their Western names, Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar, sometime around 500 AD, but they’ve also been known by other names.)

Another cool Matthean detail is that the Wise Men have come to worship. In verse 11 they “knelt down and paid him homage.” They followed this sign in the heavens to find something bigger and grander than themselves, and the child fills them with humility and generosity. I think this image speaks universally to us. Isn’t our life just one long journey to find that which fills what a seminary friend of mine called “the God-shaped hole in our souls?”

Matthew also introduces us to that insidious character from history, Herod the Great. Herod, like a lot of politicians, feigns a certain piety (verse 8), but his heart is far from God. Historically, he was an ambitious and murderous s.o.b. who wasn’t above assassinating his own children in order to secure his power. He isn’t sure when this baby was born so, to be on the safe side, he plans to kill every baby boy under the age of two who was born in Bethlehem.

Granted, no history besides Matthew’s gospel records this outrage (Matthew 2: 16-18), but it’s certainly something this vicious guy might’ve done. The inclusion of this plot point should remind us that we live in a world of genocide, a world that has produced Adolf Hitler and Bashir Al Assad, and innumerable tyrants who have put their own position of power and wealth above the value of innocent life.

Matthew says that Joseph is warned in a dream to take the child and his mother to Egypt to escape the murderous rage of Herod. I’ll bet Matthew knew his Jewish readers would remember the story in Genesis 39 of another Joseph who went down into Egypt and wound up rescuing the whole nation of Israel. For me, listening daily to the stories of those fleeing violence in Syria, Myanmar, and other places, I am struck with the idea that Jesus was a refugee.

So why do we celebrate the Epiphany? I always ask myself who I am in this story. Am I a seeker who longs to find something I can worship, or am I a jealous fool who wants to put Jesus out of the way so I can get on with the business of glorifying myself? Where is this Jesus to be found, and what kind of star can we follow to lead us to him?