Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Remember the Sabbath? (Reflections on Pentecost 2, Year B)

 Boy, I really know I’m getting old. Yup. I’m getting old and grumpy. I’m starting to miss this guy, Charlie. He was a member of my parish who died last year, and if you looked up “grumpy” in the dictionary you’d see Charlie’s picture. He just couldn’t stand it that things weren’t like they used to be. He was the last guy who still wore a coat and tie to Sunday worship, who still came early for prayer time, who grew indignant when people talked too loud before worship or came to church wearing cut-offs or Eagles jerseys, or—God forbid—came late. Charlie raged when worship assistants didn’t show up for their appointed duties, when altar servers giggled and fidgeted during the sermon, or when announcements went on too long. Charlie just wanted the Sabbath done right, by golly!

And now I’m starting to get just like him. I’m getting annoyed when folks arrive late for worship and when they bring their Dunkin Donuts coffee into the worship space. I can’t believe my eyes when I see young people coming to funerals—funerals, mind you!—in shorts and T-shirts. I’m growing dismayed that summer worship attendance appears to be optional.

Okay. I don’t want to become a Puritan about this. I don’t believe that the Sabbath prohibits both work and recreation as those rather humorless folks in the 17th Century believed. I don’t want to put people in the stocks for missing church or coming late or leaving their used Kleenex in the pew. But just where, I wonder, is the respect for the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s House? When did we become such a nation of slobs?

I know. A rigid rule of Sabbath observance is just the thing Jesus is fighting against in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 2, Year B (Mark 2:23 – 3:6). In fact, Jesus even gets a little hot under the collar because the Pharisees are more interested in keeping control over the rule book than they are in showing mercy and compassion to the hungry and the disabled. For him, it seems, feeding and healing were the purposes of the Sabbath.

Martin Luther looked at it like this when he wrote his explanation to the third Commandment:

“We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear it and learn it.” (Small Catechism)

Gotta hand it to Luther, he really had a way with words. The two words which jump out at me for making Sabbath observance a feeding and a healing time in Luther’s explanation are “holy” and “gladly.”

“Holy” can mean spiritually perfect or belonging to God, but it also connotes something set apart as being beyond the ordinary. And that’s what I love about Sunday church. It’s not an ordinary time, but a time to take shelter from the ordinary and enter into the extraordinary. That’s why the church has liturgy and vestments and music and a special place in which to enjoy all of these things. That’s why Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel and why Bach composed music for worship and why buildings with majestic architecture have been erected to the glory of God over the centuries.

When I was a grad student at the University of Wisconsin many years ago, I worshiped at a beautiful cathedral-style church called Luther Memorial on University Avenue in Madison. The Senior Pastor at the time was the late Dr. J. Stephen Bremer, one of the loveliest human beings one would ever want to know. I asked him why the ritual at Luther Memorial was so elegant and high church. His answer was that he wanted those who worshipped to have a sense of the “Mystery of God.”

Wow. That’s something. To be able to sit for an hour or so in the wonder of God’s grace. To have at least one hour which is not full of cares or disagreements or the petty minutia of ordinary life, but is set aside—sacred—for being fed with wisdom and healed with the knowledge of forgiveness. To be in a place where love is spoken, food is shared, kindness is taught, sins are washed away, and a community comes together in song—how different that is from all else in our lives. Why would we not embrace this with gladness?

And, let’s face it, we need that difference, that “set-apart-ness.” The ordinary world so often neglects dignity and raises selfishness to an art form. Roseanne Barr tweets racist and Islam-a-phobic rants, our President regularly insults and accuses his opponents, our media news sources grow increasingly more biased, and “negative campaigning” has become the norm in America. We seem to be growing increasingly boorish and even thuggish at times.

We need a place to get away from all of this and be fed with the remembrance of who we are and who God created us to be. We need an extraordinary place, a place set apart and made different, where we can confess our shortcomings, be reminded that we are loved, and renew our respect for others. We need the Sabbath as a time to be fed so we can be feeders, and to be healed so that we can be healers.

If we approach it in the spirit of holiness and gladness, I won’t even complain if you come in your cut-offs.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

John 3:16 - From Slogan to Reality (Reflections on Holy Trinity Sunday, Year B)

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“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Oh crap. It’s Holy Trinity Sunday again. I really should’ve asked to have this Sunday off so I don’t have to preach another sermon on the Holy Trinity. I mean, what do you do? Recite the Athanasian Creed?

What’s worse is that the Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday is John 3:1-17, the visit of Nicodemus to Jesus by night. What’s so bad about this, you ask? Nothing. It’s a great piece of scripture, except that it includes that all-too-famous verse which I’ve cited at the top of this post. You know it. You memorized it in Sunday School. Tim Tebow used to write it on his face during football games (Really, Tim..?). People put it on their car bumpers. Some people make “John 3:16” signs and hold them up at sporting events. But this verse isn’t just a slogan like “I like Ike” or “Make America Great Again.”

As crucial as this verse is in the Scripture, I fear it has become the whole theology of American Christianity. As I’ve often said, we seem to have dumbed our whole thinking about God down to “Believe in Jesus so you won’t go to Hell.” And that kind of limited thinking robs us of the richness of God’s message and makes us smugly judgmental of others.

This whole section from John 3 is chosen for Holy Trinity because it brings together the persons of the Trinity: God loving the world, Jesus being lifted up on the cross (v. 14), and the concept of being “born from above” or “born again” by the Spirit (v. 3).

(By the way, the Greek word here, anwqen [pronounced ah-NO-then] can mean “anew,” “from above,” or “from the beginning.” So take your pick as to how you want to be born of the Spirit.)

I think we’re supposed to look at this passage in light of its Trinitarian message (which makes sense since we’re reading it on Holy Trinity Sunday!) and try to see if it can say something more to us than just that we should assent to a Church doctrine. I mean, what does this passage have to say about the way we live our lives and experience the world?

If you’ve been a Christian for any time at all you probably are familiar with this section of John’s Gospel.  Nicodemus sneaks over to Jesus’ place by night (maybe he doesn’t want to be seen with this radical guy) and starts by flattering him. Jesus responds by messing with the old guy’s head and telling him he can’t see the kingdom of God unless he is born anew or from above by the Spirit. This is the part that catches my imagination today as I re-read this familiar passage. Do you want to see what God is doing? Do you want to have insight into the way and rule of God? Then you have to be open to reimagining God.

Trinitarian theology sees God in creation and in the sacrificial love of Jesus. But it also sees God in us. We are part of God’s creation, but we are also part of the love of Christ. The Spirit is God’s breath of life. It’s what creates us, animates us, and connects us to all of God’s creation. Unfortunately, we don’t just automatically see or comprehend this.

I was listening to NPR in my car a few days ago and I heard a story about a stand-up comic (I forget the guy’s name. I’ve tried to look up this story online to make sure I have my facts right, but I can’t seem to find it. Sorry.) If I heard correctly, he faked his own death via facebook. Now, this guy was a real tool. He drank too much, did recreational drugs, and was, like many tortured souls who go into comedy, regularly abusive to the people who were close to him. He was just obnoxious. Period.

When his “death notice” appeared, however, he was in for a shock. Even accounting for the fact that nice people don’t like to speak ill of the dead, the reaction to his “passing” was overwhelming. People poured out their love and appreciation for this man. People he’d been snide to recounted how he had assisted them. People remembered him as their friend. There were testimonies about things he thought were insignificant, things which he’d long forgotten, which were remembered as being loving and meaningful to his “mourners.” Most shocking of all was the fact that, after the hoax was revealed, his friends forgave him for fooling them. They were just glad that he was alive and okay.

People saw God in this man. They saw the love of God which he was incapable of seeing in himself. When he realized it, he was born again.

Now, before you accuse me of Pelagianism (the ancient heresy which asserted that even fallen children of Adam contain a spark of Divine Goodness which allows us to find our way back to God—and by the way, I hate it when you do that!), please consider that the guy in my anecdote could not see his own goodness unless it had been revealed to him through others. The doctrine of the Trinity requires that we know God only in relationship. If the spirit of the Creator God’s love is in me, I have to accept that it’s in everyone else, too. But, just as I can’t see my own face without a mirror, I can’t see God’s love in me unless it’s reflected in others. As a Christian, I need to look to the cross and see a man whose love was so great that he was willing to die for people he’d never met, and recognize that God meant that love for me—and also for you.

If I can rethink God and Jesus as being part of me and part of everyone else, I may not drop to the ground sobbing or run around shouting “Hallelujah,” but I will certainly be living in a new reality. John 3:16 won’t just be about me, but about how I encounter the world. It won’t just be a one-off confession. It will be my every day truth.

God loves you, my friend. Thanks for reading.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Why I Love Royal Weddings

It is, perhaps, a curious thing for an American to admit, but I just love watching members of Britain’s Royal Family get married. Like a lot of folks, I got up early last Saturday to watch the TV coverage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s nuptials broadcast live from St. George’s Chapel at Windsor, and I was truly in my element. If you know me, you know what kind of a liturgical junkie I am. I may be Lutheran, but I so envy the beauty and dignity of the Anglican High Church. This wedding displayed the sumptuous liturgy of that tradition, showcased within the walls of a gorgeous house of worship with soaring Gothic vaults and rich stained glass windows. There was live classical chamber music and the great poetry of the Book of Common Prayer read by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his splendid cope. It was such a lovely, dignified service that I almost wanted to weep.

Even better than the above, the service was augmented by the gospel singing of an Afro-British choir, the talented music of young Afro-British cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, and the rousing homily of the Most Reverend Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, who preached in the ebullient style of the American black church—a style which speaks to the heart as well as to the head. Having done my seminary field education in an African American congregation in South Philly, I have a great love for the way folks of African ancestry do church here in the US. The fusion of the Anglican high liturgy and the power and passion of the black church made for one of the most satisfying worship experiences I could ever imagine. It wasn’t a clash of cultures, but a beautiful interface of the best two cultures have to offer. And it worked perfectly.

(Of course, as a Welsh American, the cherry on my sundae was the singing of Cwm Rhondda, that quintessentially Welsh hymn which my ancestral people sing with great hwyl—spirit, passion, and love—as a second national anthem. I’m told it’s often sung at rugby games in the UK, and I suspect its inclusion in the weddings of both Harry and William had more to do with football than theology, but I love to hear it sung—and to sing it myself—all the same!)

Maybe the most satisfying aspect of the recent Royal Wedding was the fact that, at least for a day, it knocked Donald Trump and the never-ending clown show of his Twitter Tweets off the front page. In a time when America could elect such a personality as our Commander-in-Chief, when the British public is willing to pull out of the European Union (possibly in abhorrence of open immigration laws), and much of Europe is turning xenophobic, what a glorious thing it is to see the British Monarchy—quite possibly the most Caucasian of all institutions on the globe—lovingly embrace a foreign-born, bi-racial, divorcee with a passion for supporting LGBT rights as one of their own. Way to go, Windsor family! And way to go, HRH Meghan, Duchess of Sussex! Your pride puts a smile on all of our faces.

I see the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as yet another small victory in what I’ll call the Second Battle of the Bulge. I liken the current political situation to the moment in World War II, during the winter of 1944, when the retreating army of the Third Reich made one last desperate attack and broke through the Allied lines. They fought fiercely, but eventually they ran out of gas both literally and figuratively. While Hitler raved and raged against surrender in Berlin, his Wermacht’s bulge was flattened out by the unstoppable wave of the armies of Democracy. Today the voices of wounded entitlement, xenophobia, racism, and status quo nationalism might be shrill and loud, but they can’t stop people from loving and accepting one another. The tide is still rising towards inclusivity, diversity, mutual respect, and love of neighbor. Old institutions can be made new by the infusion of new blood from formerly marginalized people, and the bulge of resistance will soon be flattened out.

Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain. 
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
(Isaiah 40:4-5)

And that’s a good thing.

PS – Just in case you’re wondering what a High Church junkie like me is doing as Pastor of the low-ceilinged, low liturgical, and hopelessly informal blue-collar Faith Lutheran Church of Philadelphia, all I can say is that it hath pleased Almighty God to place me in this parish, and I am grateful to be here. We may not be elegant, but we’re never dull! What we lack in dignity and piety we make up for in fun and love. You should come and visit us if you can!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Birthday Wish for the Christian Church (Reflections on the Day of Pentecost, Year B)

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“…we, who valued above everything else acquiring wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common fund, and share with everyone in need; we, who hated and killed other people, and refused to live with people of another tribe because of their different customs, now live intimately with them.”
(from The Apology of Justin the Martyr, ca AD 150; quoted by Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: Random House, 2005)

Happy Birthday, Christian Church! If we are to believe the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ age and the length of his ministry, and trust that the guys who cooked up our current calendar got it right, Christianity turns 1,985 years old on Pentecost Sunday.

The Gospel appointed for the Day of Pentecost in Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary (John 15: 26-27, 4b-15) is Jesus’ promise to the disciples that the Advocate—that would be the Holy Ghost—would surely come and reveal everything to them and give them everything they needed to carry on Jesus’ mission here on earth. In the Pentecost story (Acts 2:1-21), we see just what the old girl does when she shows up: She empowers the apostles to reach beyond the divisions of class and nationality and culture and proclaim God’s deeds of power—power which pulls all people together. In doing this, the Christian Church is born.

(Again, please note my habit of referring to the Third Person of the Trinity with feminine pronouns. So, okay, it’s a little PC of me, but it also reflects that in Biblical Greek and Hebrew, the words for “spirit” are feminine nouns.)

Through the Spirit’s intervention, the early Christian Church must’ve been a pretty darn exciting enterprise. It was actually looked at as being subversive in that those first believers considered themselves to be a family, a designation which often insulted their own nuclear or biological clans. They called one another “brother” and “sister.” They didn’t make any distinction between rich or poor or slave or free. They practiced radical generosity and radical hospitality (See the quote from Justin Martyr above). They renounced wealth, tribal identity, and the institutional religion of the Roman Empire which honored the emperor as a god.

People hated them.

But others flocked to be part of this special family of individuals who had this wonderful sense of love and belonging.

Martin Luther, in the Small Catechism, reminds us that the Spirit of God calls and gathers us together. I think she’s still doing that, but I often wonder if we in the American Church have stopped heeding that call. Togetherness doesn’t seem to be too high on our priority list these days, even if our souls hunger for a sense of belonging and a need to be welcomed and understood. I think the emphasis which has been placed on individual salvation has made the Church more about “me” than about “us.” And that’s a cryin’ shame. If it’s just, “Confess Jesus and be saved,” what do we really need the Church for?

There’s some stuff which makes the Church the Church. I’ve been watching this cool TV show on NBC called Rise. It’s the story of a Rust Belt town and the high school drama teacher who’s trying to reach his students by having them perform a production of the 2006 musical Spring Awakening. The play is controversial, but it speaks honestly to the emotional needs of the students. By inviting the kids into this venture, this common goal of creating something beautiful and meaningful, the teacher also creates a safe space for the students to be themselves and unites them in a common purpose. This is something which should describe the Church at its best—a place of safety where we are united in a common mission for the healing of the world through our willingness to be servants to the worlds’ needs. This is what our early Christian ancestors did.

A few weeks ago, if you’ve followed my blog, you’ll know that some members of Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia accepted the invitation of our Muslim neighbors to dine with them and share a little about our faith traditions. The spirit of welcome and hospitality was overwhelming. Everyone who attended the event knew that the strangers we would be meeting where people who believed that God calls all of us to love and respect our neighbors. The spirit of love was palpable in the air at the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia, and it felt like the safest place in town. Here is also an example of the Spirit’s power in the Church: the ability to love people who are outside of the Church and to be grateful to have the opportunity to do so.

Another example of what the Church is called to be I find in the seven Alcoholics Anonymous meetings held in our church building each week. The people who come to these meetings all know they have problems. They don’t pretend to be perfect. All they want to do is support one another in a spirit of forgiveness.

Here’s my point: I believe the Holy Spirit, the glue which holds the Church together, calls us to the same sense of family and mutual purpose found by people in a theater troupe or a chorus or a sports team. She gives us a call to servanthood which also unites us as a family. I believe she calls us to a sense of openness and forbearance of all people, similar to that which we experienced when we dined with our Muslim neighbors. I believe the Spirit wants us to acknowledge our own brokenness and be there for each other humbly, just as those who attend 12-step meetings are called to do. When we live these ideals and believe in the Spirit’s call, we are truly the Church. If we focus only on our own salvation, institutional survival, and a vague sense of “correctness,” we become leftovers left in the back of the refrigerator too long.

On this birthday of the Church, let’s all of us dream and vision about what our Church is called to be, and what we can do to be a part of it. God's peace to you all.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Saints of the Month: Lewis Carroll and Anthony Trollope

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Anthony Trollope

I really love Victorian British literature. It’s sort of a hobby of mine. It’s all in public domain now, so I can download it for free on my Amazon Kindle and relax from the cares of parish ministry by retreating into a world where manners were everything, English prose were mellifluous, Victoria sat enthroned in Britannic glory, and Donald Trump did not exist at all.

Of course, the great paragon of this period of English letters was Charles Dickens, and I have read through most of his canon with delight and relish at his quixotic and unforgettable characterizations and brilliantly convoluted diction. But Dickens wasn’t the only grand voice of Good Queen Vicky’s reign. I’d like to take the opportunity to celebrate two other gentlemen who also speak to my sense of lyrical whimsy.

We all should know Lewis Carroll as the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. These two wonderful volumes have amused children of all ages for over a century. They are delightfully whacky and nonsensical. What you may not know, however, is that Lewis Carroll—whose real name was Charles Dodgson (1832-1898)—was, in addition to being a mathematics lecturer at Oxford University, an ordained deacon of the Church of England.
tinted monochrome 3/4-length photo portrait of seated Dodgson holding a book
Lewis Carroll
I’m including the Reverend Mr. Dodgson in my hagiology because, after reading a biography of this deeply spiritual man, I found him to be remarkably liberal in his thinking and, actually, quite ahead of his time. I’ll site only one example:

As a man of letters, Dodgson was naturally very fond of Shakespeare. He was also a great, if platonic, friend of the famous actress Ellen Terry. In a letter to Terry he shared a thought after having attended a performance of The Merchant of Venice. Although he always enjoyed the play, Dodgson was deeply disturbed by the ending in which the Jew Shylock, after losing his court case, is forced to be baptized as a Christian. Dodgson expressed that he felt forcing the Jew to abandon his faith was unreasonably cruel and marred Shakespeare’s otherwise happy ending. He suggested to Terry that the line about Shylock’s forced conversion be cut from future productions. This seems to me to be extremely enlightened and ecumenical in a man of the 19th Century. It speaks to Dodgson’s sense of compassion. As a cleric who is now dealing with interfaith issues, I have to applaud Deacon Dodgson for expressing a thought which might have been distasteful and controversial to other churchmen of his day.

My other champion of Victorian literati is the far-less-known Anthony Trollope (1815-1882). I doubt students are ever forced to read Trollope in American high schools, and I guess his effect on English letters is far less substantial than that of Dickens, Hardy, Elliot, or even Lewis Carroll. But Trollope certainly speaks to me.

Why? Because he painted so may clerical portraits in his novels. Many of his characters are Church of England priests, and I have to say he really seems to get it. (It also surprised me how little has changed for pastors in over 100 years!) In The Vicar of Bullhampton, a country parson attempts to rescue a “fallen woman” in his flock, and wonders if he’d care so much about her if she weren’t young and pretty. In a collection called The Barsetshire Chronicles, Trollope paints convincing pictures of a henpecked bishop, a conniving chaplain, a morally conflicted cantor, an archdeacon obsessed with maintaining respect, and a young, single priest pursued by an amorous parishioner. All of these characters seem very real to me, and I found comfort in Trollope’s attempt to characterize his clerics as three-dimensional human beings. After all, pastors are people too.

What most qualifies Trollope for sainthood in my book, however, is the characterization of women. Whereas Dicken’s women are either virginal paragons of demure virtue, frightful harpies, or eccentric crones, Trollope’s ladies are often witty and realistically vulnerable. His heroine’s aren’t always pretty, and they are frequently complex. Rachel O’Mahoney of The Landleaguers is feisty and downright acerbic and has many of the more humorous lines in the novel. Miss Dunstable, the homely but massively wealthy heiress in Doctor Thorne and Framley Parsonage is at once comic, wise, and truly touching.

Trollope also takes aim at British class culture. For a man who seems to deeply love the institutions of his native land and time, he has quite democratic tendencies, and often takes sly aim at people in high places. Quite naturally, he writes with the strong moral views of his age, but I don’t think these views are in anyway amiss today.

Should you get the chance, read a little Trollope. You might enjoy him. Or re-read  Alice in Wonderland. It will do your heart good.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Some Words for Mothers' Day and the Feast of the Ascension (Reflections on Easter 7, Year B)

"The Ascension" Dosso Dossi, 16th Century

“Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them…” (John 17:7-8)

As I compose these reflections, a lady in my congregation is lying in a hospital bed. She is ninety years of age, and, quite frankly, I don’t think she’s doing very well. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if she were called home to the Lord by the time I get around to turning these written reflections into a preached sermon on Sunday. I’ll be sorry to lose her. She’s been a member of my parish ever since it was founded, and she’s an awfully sweet and faithful old gal.

Her sixty-year-old daughter is by her bedside now—just as a faithful child should be at a moment like this. She knows her mom’s time is probably short, but she’s having a hard time keeping that torturous vigil. If you’ve ever been in her place, you know how tough this is. Even though your mom is old, sick, and suffering, it’s still hard to let her go. She’s still your mom.

Unfortunately, we all face a time when we have to let our mothers go. They also face a time when they have to let us go, too. You know what I mean—kick us out of the nest and see if we can fly on our own. It’s time to see if we can hunt our own prey, make our own decisions, create our own meaning and purpose based on the guidance they’ve given us.

There’s an old saying that learning doesn’t start until the lesson is over. That is, if we still have our teachers with us, if we can rely on them for direction, we don’t really know what we’ve actually learned. It’s only when they’re gone that the lessons become internalized and become part of us. So, in a sense, our teachers—and our mothers are some of our most profound instructors—never really leave us.

I am eternally grateful that my mom was a woman of faith who often spoke about her understanding of God to her children. She shared bedtime prayers with me and my sisters when we were little, and she was once my Sunday School teacher. She was also devoutly Lutheran, and, as I’ve often told people, some of the things I heard in lectures in seminary I’d already heard from my mother. What had been given to her, she passed on to me. I am where I am today because of her.

The gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Easter 7 (John 17: 6-19) is part of a farewell discourse from Jesus. He knows he’s going away, but he’s given the disciples the truth and wisdom which he received from God. It’s theirs now. Now they have to make choices on their own (See the First Lesson from Acts 1: 15-17, 21-26). Now they are the ones entrusted with God’s word. This is when they make that big, scary jump from being disciples (students of Jesus) to being apostles (representatives of Jesus). I’m sure none of those guys wanted to see their friend and teacher go; nevertheless, they had to let him go or they’d never be grown-ups in the faith he had given them.

But here’s the comforting thought: Jesus delivers this discourse in the form of a prayer. “Holy Father,” Jesus prays, “protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (v. 11) It’s awful nice to know that someone is praying for you, isn’t it? That’s what moms do for their children, and that’s what Jesus is doing for us.

Mother’s Day is May 13 this year, on Easter 7 and three days after the Feast of the Ascension. Maybe we can observe it by contemplating the things our moms taught us, or by considering the prayers they might be praying for us—whether they be prayed here on earth or before the throne of Heaven.

A blessed Mothers’ Day, my friends. Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Thanks to Our Muslim Neighbors

It only required an invitation.

Last fall  the niece of one of the charter members of Faith Lutheran dropped by the church on a Sunday morning and asked for a few minutes of my time between services. At first, I thought she was concerned about her aunt who had recently lost her husband. I was quite surprised to discover that she was actually acting as an ambassador to our parish from her optician, who happened to be on the board of the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia. Dr. Iftikar Chaudhry, a Pakistani American, was issuing an invitation to the Christians of Far Northeast Philly: Please come and meet us and be our neighbors.

The Muslim Youth Center has been open for a few years now at the site of what was once St. Luke's United Church of Christ, just around the corner from Faith. Our UCC friends--always active partners in the Far Northeast Ministerium--have sold their much-loved but now too expensive building and moved to a storefront. The availability of the former church property answered the prayers of the Muslim community which had been looking for a permanent home for several years. 

I was first told about the sale of the UCC church by St. Luke's pastor, my friend and honored colleague, the Rev. Terri McNamara. Terri was initially a little worried that there might be some neighborhood backlash to the sale. After all, this is post-911 America, a place where suspicions and prejudices still abound in the mostly Caucasian and Roman Catholic Far Northeast of the City of Brotherly Love. I am happy to report, however, that in the time the MYCP has occupied its new home there have been no overt acts of vandalism or threats of violence leveled against it. At least not to my knowledge.

Unfortunately, there has not been much interaction between the Muslim and Christian communities in this neighborhood. President Trump's highly-touted but unconstitutional ban on immigration from largely Muslim nations has not exactly got us all singing Kum By Yah. So: Dr. Chaudhry reached out and invited the Christians to dinner.

Well, to be honest, it wasn't specifically a dinner invitation even if that's how it turned out. The invitation was just to make contact. Through a series of emails, I was put in touch with the MYCP's Director of Education, Madiha Irfan. Madiha is a second-generation Pakistani American who, if not for her hijab, would be taken instantly as a typical young American woman (And perhaps the day will  soon come when the hijab is seen as just as "typical" as any other type of head covering!). She has a delightfully sweet, unassuming "kid-sister" personality which makes her immediately lovable. She is however, a scholar of formidable proportions. She holds a Harvard Master of Divinity degree and speaks several languages fluently. It doesn't take one long to recognize her superior intellect. Madiha invited me to meet her at the MYCP to plan an event to bring our religious tribes together. I met with her and with Teresa Hadjali, a social worker who holds two masters degrees and is a convert from Roman Catholicism to Islam. Madiha suggested that the theme of our event should be "Neighborly Kindness," and we agreed that it should be held some time between Lent and Ramadan. 

At Teresa's suggestion, we added the Jewish community to our get-together in the person of a brilliant scholar and irresistibly ebullient individual, Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein, the Director of BeYachad and Co-Presdident of the Cheltenham Area Multi-Faith Council. Dr. Epstein is affectionately known as "Sunnie," and anyone who meets her will know this nickname is more than appropriate as a more radiant personality than hers does not exist on this planet. 

Fast forward to May 6th. A dozen or so members of my parish came to meet our Muslim hosts. The Jewish tradition was represented by the husband and mother-in-law of one of my members. The MYCP community had prepared a banquet for us with decorated tables, a buffet, and warm handshakes and words of welcome. I won't describe the program in detail, but I will say that after moving presentations by Sunnie and Madiha there was much hospitality, much talking, much hugging, much joy, and much better understanding. Also much eating. All the participants agreed that the three monotheistic faiths represented teach that we, as people of faith, are bound by religious duty to love our neighbors. In meeting, greeting, and eating (in addition to a tour of the MYCP's beautiful worship space), we put names and faces to the "other." We came as strangers, but parted as friends.

The following morning, members of my church council began to discuss how we could include our Muslim neighbors in our community activities. There is talk of a joint anti-addiction workshop, a health fair, and a movie night. All the participants from my congregation seemed to be glad that they came, and there is now a strong desire to continue the connection. The ice has most certainly been broken.

I am extremely grateful to Dr. Chaudhry, Madiha, Teresa, and Sunnie for this opportunity to push back the powers of darkness and ignorance just a little bit further, and crack open the door for the light of human connectedness. 

I like to think we made God smile.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What We Do for Love (Reflections on Easter 6, Year B)

"The Angel and Cornelius" Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, 17th Century

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9)

Every week, it seems, I find myself scratching my head and trying to figure out why the dudes who composed the Revised Common Lectionary chose to marry the First Lesson (Acts 10: 44-48 this week) with the Gospel Lesson (John 15:9-17). I have to ask: what kind of connection do these guys see in these two readings?

(Please note: I assume the RCL was compiled by men, because no one who could possibly give birth to and nurse a child would ever intentionally create the kind of emotional chaos we sometimes find in the RCL!)

So okay. This week, I’m going to go with the cost—the inconvenience, if you will—of Christ’s love.

The First Lesson really cheats us because we should be reading all of Acts 10 in order to get the context. It goes like this: a really cool Roman centurion named Cornelius—a guy who figured out it’s easier to rule a conquered people if you try to understand their culture, participate in their community, show mercy and compassion, and not act like a total bastard—gets a message from God that he should meet Simon Peter. So he sends some of his underlings to seek Peter out.

In the meantime, Peter, who is napping before lunch, has a dream in which God presents him with some un-kosher food and tells him it’s okay to eat it. Peter—being Peter—thinks this is some kind of sly test of his orthodoxy and refuses to eat the unclean food. He does this three times before God tells him “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.”

Cornelius’ messengers find Peter and ask him to come to the gentile soldier’s house. Peter agrees, and discovers that these hated, conquering foreigners actually seem to be pretty swell folks. Putting two and two together, Peter figures out that his un-kosher dream was meant to prepare him for loving people he wouldn’t normally choose to hang with. He even tells them, “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean. (v.28)”

Cornelius explains to Peter why he sent for him, and eventually Peter makes a rather radical statement: “I truly understand that God show no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. (v.34)”

In the context of a Bible story, this sounds pretty cool, but even I have to confess that I’ve had a little bit of an issue putting that last verse into practice. The other week I attended a seminar at the Greater Philadelphia Interfaith Council on preparing multi-faith events that work. I happen to be preparing just such an event at the moment. I’m scheduled to be the Christian presenter at an interfaith dialogue between Christians, Jews, and Muslims at the new Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia which has opened around the corner from my congregation.

When I arrived at the GPIC headquarters, I was delighted to greet one of my Muslim neighbors and to be embraced by a distinguished Jewish scholar who would be a presenter at our local dialogue. I’ve participated in the past in the Lutheran/Roman Catholic Dialogues, and, as chairman of the Far Northeast Philadelphia Ministerium, I’ve had much involvement with people of many traditions. I’ve preached in Methodist and Presbyterian churches, and I’m scheduled to preach in a Baptist church early next month. I’m just Joe Ecumenism—always believing that God shows no partiality.

But then I saw them.

Yup. You can spot ‘em a mile off—the Samaritans of Christianity. There they were with their perfect, cheerful, Brady Bunch smiles, their button-down attire, and their little name badges identifying them as “Elder” and “Sister.”

Freakin’ Mormons..!

I was always taught that they were some kind of a cult. Not a real religion. They were blaspheming heretics who practiced polygamy and racism and had swallowed the Cool Aid of Joseph Smith’s flim-flam bogus theology. I can hug Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, and Wiccans, but Mormons..?

Truth be told, whatever I might think of the origins of the Latter Day Saints, I have to admit that just about every Mormon I’ve ever met was a really nice person. They do wonderful charity work, and they really love their families. This forces me to wonder: Could God use and bless people who practiced a faith I’m pretty sure was made up by a 19th century con artist? Could ol’ Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon actually contain something of God’s will for humanity? Could God use these people for the healing of the world, in spite of the specious origin of their faith tradition?

I had to consider that the Mormons I encountered at the GPIC were there for the same reason I was there—to foster greater understanding and love between people of different faiths and backgrounds. And that’s a pretty noble—and Christian—reason.

Our Gospel lesson tells us to love one another as Jesus loved us. And Jesus loved us by giving everything up for us. He humbled himself to wash the feet of the disciples, he welcomed the outsiders and the foreigners, and he gave his life on the cross. Loving like Jesus loved, I think, will always involve some inconvenience. It may involve surrendering preconceptions and the assumption of our own superiority. It will involve humility. It will involve, on some level, a loss, and loss will always hurt a little.

I will always be a pretty orthodox, Trinitarian Christian. I have Lutheranism in my DNA, and God speaks to me through high church liturgy and classical hymn-singing. I won’t give up my own faith or its practices, but one of its greatest practices must always be a radical love of neighbor and a willingness to surrender all judgment to God. In this, I believe, God’s joy is in us, and our joy is complete.

Thanks for stopping by .Please come again.

PS – For another take on the cost of loving like Jesus loved, do check out the post which immediately precedes this one on my Saint of the Month, Fr. Pat Conroy. Fr. Pat gave up a really cool gig in order to speak a word of God’s love.