Monday, April 30, 2018

Saint of the Month: Father Pat Conroy

a man wearing a suit and tie standing next to a woman: Rev. Patrick Conroy, Chaplain of the House, attends the 2013 National Days of Remembrance ceremony in the Capitol rotunda to honor the victims of the Holocaust.
“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

So, okay. Father Pat Conroy didn’t exactly lay down his life last week, but he did sacrifice his job. And it was a pretty cool job, too—Chaplain of the United States House of Representatives.

It seems that Father Pat, in his prayers before a major House vote on the tax reform bill, just couldn’t stop himself from being a Christian. He remembered that Jesus told us when we do for the least of our brothers and sisters, we are doing for Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). As our elected representatives prepared to vote on whether or not we should give billionaires massive tax breaks and, inevitably, cut service to the poor in order to pay for those breaks, Father Pat prayed:

“May all members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”

Now, this prayer may seem to you like a pretty reasonable request to the Almighty, basically asking God to put the needs of the poor into the minds of our dear elected leaders. Speaker Ryan didn’t seem to think so, however. He concluded that this was a “political” statement, and has requested—and received—Father Pat’s resignation.

In his letter of resignation, the good priest pointed out that leaving his chaplaincy wasn’t his idea but was a request of the Speaker’s.

I’m thinking, “Good for you, Father Pat! Tell it like it is!”

Yes, Father Pat has recognized that a rising economic tide, the type the new tax bill will bring, will lift all yachts. Unfortunately, the little fishing huts on the beach are likely to get flooded out as the federal deficit rises and our government reduces any number of social safety-net programs to plug the fiscal gap.

God bless Father Pat Conroy for speaking truth to power and being honest about Paul Ryan’s attempts to silence him. It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak. That is basic Christianity, and I am grateful to the now former Chaplain for making the voice of Christ heard.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dealing with the Drama (Reflections on Easter 5, Year B)

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Have you seen this thing on NBC called Rise? I have to say: every once in a while NBC gets it right. They’re a TV network that has done some super stinkers in the past. I’m thinking of Super Train, The Book of Daniel, and a show that I actually appeared in back in my show biz days called Something Is Out There, a crime drama-science fiction hybrid that was so awful I think it was cancelled before the first commercial break. But this show Rise is actually really good.

Rise is about a small town in Pennsylvania and a well-meaning English teacher who takes over the high school drama program. It’s got all the elements of the realistic drama faced by Middle America. There’s the deeply-slashed public school budget, the kid who comes out as transgender, the couple getting divorced, the overstressed teens, the pregnant teen, the beleaguered single mom, the kid with a drinking problem, the Muslim immigrant who has to keep a low profile, the polarized community, etc.

Of course, you might wonder why would any of us, facing all the stress our own lives throw at us, think it would be relaxing or entertaining to watch a story about other people facing real-life problems? I think it’s because we want to know that we are not alone in our own difficulties. We need to know that someone—maybe even some Hollywood TV writer—has figured it out that life is hard for all of us. Maybe we want to know that our troubles are not just our own, but they have a universal quality to them, that our sufferings—however great or small—are part of something mythic and human.

I’ve been pastor of Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia for almost twenty years, and I think I could (if it didn’t violate my call to confidentiality) write my own NBC drama from the struggles I’ve seen in my own parishioners during that time. As I look out at our congregation from behind the altar every Sunday I know that there’s a lot of hurt in the room. There have been worries over jobs and finances, fears for our kids, and myriad health issues—cancers, surgeries, and orthopedic problems. There have been losses which have seemed impossible to get past. There have been divorces and multi-custodial child-care situations. There have been the ongoing worries over the care of aging parents. There have been some outrageous emotional health issues. And there’s the inescapable truth that none of us is getting any younger. We are all facing the loss of our hearing and eyesight and mobility and friends.

As a pastor called to minister to the wider community beyond my church, I’ve presided at the gravesides of those who have died in auto accidents, by suicide, from drug overdoses, and those who have been brutally murdered. I’ve seen a LOT of hurt.

How do we handle it?

We abide in Jesus. We live—make our home—in Christ’s reality. It’s about claiming the cross of Jesus for ourselves. In the cross is every pain we will ever suffer: abandonment, betrayal, disappointment, helplessness, physical pain, shame, and loneliness. We are called to look to the cross and realize that even from that horrendous place Jesus bore fruit. He did the work of the Father. He spread compassion to his fellow sufferer, created relationship between his mother and the disciple, forgave those who tormented him, and proclaimed faith in God. “Father,” he said, “into your hands I commend my spirit.”

A vine can live if a branch is cut off, but a branch cannot live without the vine. Perhaps if we’re willing to see ourselves in Jesus, we can have the faith to see Jesus in ourselves.

Keep bearing fruit, my dears. Thanks for spending this time with me.

PS – If you haven’t seen Rise, you may want to check out an episode. It’s pretty good. Just click on Rise

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Defining the Good Shepherd (Reflections on Easter 4, Year B)

Flock of sheep.jpg
“I know my own, and my own know me.” (John 10:14)

I always have a rough time with these “sheep & shepherd” passages. This is ironic since I’m a Welsh-American, and there are parts of Wales where sheep are more plentiful than people. Still, having grown up in the good ol’ USA, I don’t have much of a cultural reference for ovine imagery.

Fortunately, however, I can always cheat while I’m preparing sermons and go on the Working Preacher website. This week, Professor Osvaldo Vena of the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary of Evanston, IL shared some insights about the gospel lesson the RCL assigned for Easter 4, Year B (John 10:11-18) in which Our Lord describes himself as “The Good Shepherd.” Professor Vena makes the rather obvious comparison that, if Jesus is the “Good” shepherd, then there has to be a “Bad” shepherd too. If we look at John’s gospel in the time it was written, it’s not too hard to figure out who’s getting reamed out here.

John, the good professor reminds us, wrote his gospel around 90 AD. This is some twenty years after the Jewish war with Rome and the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. During the siege of Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders—our friends the Pharisees—high-tailed it out of the capital to a safer location in Jamnia. Jesus, on the other hand, never sought to save his own skin, but was obedient to the Father. He stood up to oppression, got himself crucified, and gave his life willingly out of great love for all people. The Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep. A “bad” shepherd cares more about himself than he cares about others.

Two things impress me about this week’s lessons. The first is the need for relationship. In verses 14 and 15 Jesus talks about knowing and being known. Isn’t that what all of us really want? To be known by someone for our true selves? Jesus has a relationship with his followers just as he has a relationship with God. To me, this means that God’s people are always called to be in relationship with each other and with the world. The Church can’t end where our congregation’s parking lot meets the street, and our participation in the community can’t end with sitting for an hour in the pew on Sunday morning, politely sharing the peace of God with a handshake, and then leaving the building without knowing the names of most of the people around us. Like the Good Shepherd, we’re called to get to know each other and to become invested in the well-being of others.

The other thing which strikes me here is that Jesus isn’t condemning the theology of the “bad” shepherds, merely their behavior. I write this because I’m having a bit of a hard time with the First Lesson in the RCL, Acts 4:5-12. That last verse is a killer:

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we may be saved.”

If you’re like me, you’ve always grown up in America believing that this means, “Believe in Jesus or go to Hell.” That’s a pretty tough positon for me to take as I am preparing for a community event to focus on neighborly kindness with the local Muslim youth center and a Jewish educational organization. So I’m going to run for safety to this verse in the gospel lesson:

“I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (verse16)
As one who is involved in projects with people of a number of faiths, I certainly recognize that we don’t all belong to one flock. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t share the voice of Jesus. I just don’t want to see Jesus pictured as some sort of holy bouncer, standing behind the velvet rope of Heaven, checking his clipboard to see whose name is or isn’t on the guest list. If we dumb down Christianity to mean only that those who confess Jesus are “saved”—that we have justification by correct doctrine—than we really are missing out on the beauty of our tradition, and we’re opening the door to be smugly prejudiced against our neighbors.

I think, rather, that as Christians we’re called to enter into relationship with those who “do not belong to this fold,” and to hear their voices, get to know and understand them, and to be willing to sacrifice on their behalf as well as our own. That would be the most Christ-like position to take, don’t you think?

I welcome your comments. May God bless you this week.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

We Are Witnesses (Reflections on Easter 3, Year B)

Bernardo Strozzi "Peter Cures the Beggar" Italian, 17th Century

“…To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name…” (Acts 3:15-16)

My wife and I went to a beautiful wedding a few weeks ago. It was for the daughter of one of our neighbors.  She’s a nice, Christian girl and she married a nice Christian boy and the couple referenced their faith in the vows they wrote for each other. The bride’s brother offered a pious and heart-felt dinner grace at the reception, and her sister gave a tender and sentimental toast. I was very much touched by all of it, and I made a point to compliment the parents of the bride on raising three young adults who were all loving, hard-working, and (miracle of miracles!) active in their church.

“Show me a good kid,” I told the mother of the bride, “and nine out of ten times I’ll show you an excellent parent.” The bride’s mother thanked me for the compliment, but asked, “You know who’s really responsible, right?” “Their father?” I asked. “No,” she replied. She pointed to the ceiling and said “HE is.”

I think this was more than becoming modesty on the part of our friend and neighbor. Rather, it was an honest confession of faith. It’s true that we are called to be Christian witnesses, and that the most important audience to our testimony may be our own children. Still, as I always like to point out, the definition of “parent” is one who has complete responsibility for something over which they ultimately have no control. In the end, we are dependent on the grace of God.

In the first lesson appointed for Easter 3 Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 3: 12-19), we get to hear Simon Peter witnessing. It’s hard to imagine that this is the same guy who was denying Jesus in order to save his own butt just shy of two months ago. He and John have just astounded everyone by healing a lame beggar. The now former beggar is so jazzed that he no longer has to mooch spare change for a living that he’s actually leaping for joy in the Temple. Peter explains all of this to the amazed crowd by saying that he and John didn’t heal the man. God healed him through the name of Jesus Christ.

That’s a pretty powerful statement. It’s a witness to Peter’s own powerlessness and to God’s great authority through Jesus. Peter—a guy who liked to micro-manage everything—has finally learned to turn it all over to Jesus, and the result is that people are being blessed through his witness. I wonder what the other disciples are thinking. Can you imagine them saying to each other, “Get a load of Peter! He’s a new man—brave and modest at the same time!” His bravery and his modesty are both manifestations of his trust in God through Christ, and they speak as eloquently for his life of faith as do his words.

In the gospel reading (Luke 24:36-48) we see another appearance of the resurrected Jesus to the disciples. It’s the third time we have him showing his wounded hands and feet and inviting them to touch his wounds so they would be absolutely sure that this was their living, breathing, flesh-and-bone friend. He even asks for some lunch and eats it in front of them so they know he’s not a ghost (I guess he was little hungry since he left the disciples in Emmaus before eating dinner! See verse 31).

There are two things which really pop out to me in this passage. The first is that the disciples encounter a real, human Jesus. He’s not a ghost. He doesn’t exist in the abstract. If we’re to witness to him, we have to witness in a flesh-and-bone reality. My definition for the Christian life is always that we see Jesus in others (see Mathew 25:31-46) and be Jesus for others. If we can’t see him, we can’t be him. We need to connect to others, touch their wounds, and be willing to feed their hunger.

The second thing that I take away from this week’s gospel is Jesus’ declaration in verse 48: “You are witnesses to these things.” My go-to-gal for all things lectionary, Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN noted in her commentary on this passage that Jesus doesn’t say, “You will be witnesses” or “You can be witnesses.” He says we ARE witnesses.

We are both people who have witnessed—seen and experienced—the goodness of God, and people called as witnesses to testify to that goodness and power. We are called to claim both the modesty and the courage to speak Christ to this wounded and hungry world. We are marked with his cross and sealed with his Holy Spirit.

How cool is that?

Keep up the witness, and thanks for visiting.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

"Show Me Your Hands" (Reflections on Easter 2, Year B)

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (John 20:29)

I’m an old movie buff, but I’ve seen so many flicks in my time that I can’t remember them all. I think the scene I’m thinking of was in the 1937 version of The Good Earth, which starred Paul Muni as the Chinese peasant farmer, Wang Lung.

(Of course, there’s nothing like the old Hollywood racism of casting an Austro-Hungarian Jew in the role of a Chinese peasant. I do have to admit, however, that, Chinese or not, Muni was pretty good in the part. He was always good, and won two Academy Awards to prove it. Unfortunately, he is mostly forgotten these days. That’s a shame. But I digress.)

If I remember rightly, there’s a scene in the movie in which Wang or one of the characters goes begging for a job. An employer demands, “Show me your hands.” Upon inspecting the smooth hands of the supplicant, the employer turns him away declaring, “You have never worked.”

Sometimes folks just have to see the proof before they can believe you. I think we’ve always given the apostle Thomas a bad rap for not believing his buddies when they tell him that Jesus has risen from the grave. I mean, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, don’t you think? We are none of us much different from the “Doubting Thomas” of this Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 20:19-31). In an era of “Fake News,” we all want some way to know the truth. We all might be the ones to ask, “Show me your hands.” I want to know if this Jesus thing is real. I want to see if you’ve put work into your faith or if you’ve suffered like I have. I want to see the marks of the nails.

The first disciples took this pretty seriously if you look at the First Lesson from this Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary (Acts 4:32-35). These guys really put their money where their mouth was.

“There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.(Acts 4:34-35)

This early community of Christians probably never heard the word “socialism.” They wouldn’t know a socialist if one bit them on the butt. What they did know was the love of Jesus of Nazareth. They knew the man who gave up everything to die on a cross out of love for people he had never physically met. So they knew how to sacrifice their possessions in order to give life to others. In their generosity they revealed their faith, and the proof was a community that did not have to fear hunger or neglect.

Today we are told that about 20% of our American population has no religious affiliation. Nevertheless, the same polls declare that of these “Nones,” many still believe in God and many still pray. They just don’t want anything to do with the organized church. Our friends at Wikipedia give three reasons for the decline in American religiosity:

1.      There have always been a bunch irreligious folks among us, but these days it’s okay to admit it.
2.      The changing culture, the internet, and other societal shifts have made us more of a self-centered people than a community-centered people (Note that church attendance isn’t the only thing that has declined in recent decades. There’s also an overall decline in civic involvement and membership in secular organizations, too.).
3.      Young people just don’t think too much about eternal things like God, heaven, their souls, or the meaning of life.

But, maybe, those irreligious “Nones” are just waiting for us to show them in real, practical terms what faith in the resurrected Jesus can do. Maybe they want to know that we, like the early believers, have enough faith to sacrifice part of ourselves—our time, our treasure, our talents—to make a lasting change for the healing of the world. Maybe they just want us to show them our hands.

May God bless you and inspire you during this Easter season. Thanks for stopping by! Do come again.