Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Reaching for Jesus (Reflections on Pentecost 6, Year B)

"Raising Jairus' Daughter" Paolo Veronese, 1546

I get this. I’ll bet you do, too.

This Sunday I’ll be preaching on the Gospel from the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 5:21-43) for Pentecost 6—the story of how Jesus heals the seriously ill daughter of Jairus, a Jewish religious leader.

Granted, I have no children who are the fruit of my own loins. The woman I call my daughter was already an adult woman by the time I started dating her mom almost two decades ago. Nevertheless, I’ve seen my daughter go through some ups and downs, and the downs have been pretty scary. She was deployed to the Middle East as part of the US Army Reserve, she was injured while in the service, she’s had major surgery, career challenges, and a variety of health issues.

I’ve learned from my wife that your kids never stop being your kids. It doesn’t matter how old they get. You will always worry about them, and the worst thing in the world—the thing you fear the most—is that something will happen to them. As the Barry Bonds of neighborhood funerals, I have often had the sad duty of witnessing parents who’ve had to bury their children. I’ve been with parents who’ve lost children to auto accidents, suicide, drug overdoses, and murder. There is nothing more tragic. So I get where Jairus is coming from. His twelve-year-old daughter is at death’s door and turning the knob, so he will do anything—even approach a weird Galilean faith healer without official credentials—to try and keep his little girl alive.

Mark marries this story with that of a woman whose been suffering with some serious “girl part” problems. This lady has been bleeding for as long as Jairus’ daughter has been alive, and she’s so desperate she’s even willing to commit the blasphemous act of touching a man who is not even her husband while she is ritually unclean (It’s one of those weird Jewish laws. You can look it up in Leviticus 15:25).

Desperate times, of course, call for desperate measures. A leader of the synagogue prostrates himself in front of a weird hippie preacher and a woman commits a ritually illegal act. If it were your child or your life, what would you do? I’d say that we’d all reach out for Jesus.

Please understand, that when I say we’d reach for Jesus I really don’t mean that we should pray wildly for some miracle cure (although that would be nice!). Rather, I ask you to consider what reaching out for Jesus really means. An old liturgy says, “…you gave your Son as a sacrifice for sin and as a model of the Godly life.”

Thank about that. “A sacrifice for sin.” Jesus’ death on the cross was meant to be a gift of all that he had to those who live under the oppression of sin. That means that Jesus thought you were worth dying for. In times of desperation we can reach for Christ to know that we are not our circumstances, but are loved and cherished children of God with intrinsic value from our Creator God. Value worth the suffering and the pain of the cross. Think about that. Can you find the faith to believe that about yourself?

Then there’s that “model of the Godly life” thing. We reach for Jesus to show us how to be. We reach for him to teach us how to put away fear and anger. We reach for him to show us compassion and how to be present. A great detail of this story is that Jesus felt the need of the woman with the hemorrhage. He experienced her even though he didn’t see her. He called her “daughter,” and let her know that she mattered. Reaching for Jesus means we have to get real with people.

Another cool detail here is how Jesus orders the people not to speak of the wonder he’s just performed. This is what smart Bible scholar guys refer to as the “Messianic Secret” in Mark’s Gospel, the fact that Jesus orders people not to talk about him. The best explanation of this is that he knows folks just aren’t going to get this “messiah” thing. They’re going to make a fuss and screw it up and cause a whole lot of trouble. Jesus just wants them to accept what he’s done and sit with the wonder of it.

I mean, it’s so like us, isn’t it? If we get a blessing, like, maybe, we get a good prognosis from the doctor after a serious illness, we really want to celebrate and be thankful to God and do some action to show our gratitude. Sometimes, however, we might just try to not make it about us. We might just want to sit quietly with our blessing and let grace be grace. Reaching for Jesus is our admission that we don’t really control anything.

If tomorrow a doctor told me that I have stage four cancer, you can believe that I’m going to reach for Jesus. I’ll be reaching for the assurance that I really am God’s child, worthy of the blessings God has given me because of who God is, not because of who I am. I will be reaching for that divine love. I'll be grabbing hold of the knowledge that my illness is not God's verdict on me. God's verdict on me is Jesus on the cross. I’ll also be reaching to Jesus to show me how to live with the dignity that he had—to bear my suffering, to be present and compassionate with those around me, to be quietly grateful and let God be God. If I can do that, then I know I’ll be healed. I may not be cured, but I’ll be healed.

This Gospel story is an example of reaching for Christ in a time of desperation. I’m working on trying to reach for him when I’m not desperate.

Wish me luck.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Saint of the Month: John the Baptist (Reflection on the Feast of John the Baptist)

19th Century French engraving of people celebrating John's Feast with a bonfire.

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.” (Luke 1:68)

God is good. All the time. Amen..?

Of course, Amen! There’s cause for rejoicing even when we don’t seem to have too much to rejoice about. That’s part of my take-away from celebrating the Feast of John the Baptist which falls on June 24th. The Gospel lesson assigned for this festival day in the RCL (Luke 1:57-80) starts with the tale of how John got his name and ends with his dad singing a glorious and ebullient hymn of praise. If we consider that John’s name (Jochanan or Yochanan in Hebrew) can be translated as “Yaweh Has Been Gracious,” we can pretty much figure out that this is a happy occasion. Get out the birthday cake, the ice cream and the party hats, because it’s time to party.

I know. I was as shocked as you were to discover how festive this day is historically. We don’t usually put John the Baptist and “party” in the same sentence. He’s a pretty serious and intimidating character when he shows up in the Gospels—shouting for us to repent, calling folks "a brood of vipers," and warning us about the coming retribution. But, interestingly enough, the observance of his birth has been quite festive over the centuries.

St. John’s Feast is a little weird because, unlike other saints’ days, we celebrate his birthday instead of the day he died (or was “born” in Heaven) as we do with the others. Of course, we don’t really know when John was born, but we put his birth at the summer solstice because Luke’s Gospel tells us that his mom was some six months along at the time that Mary conceived Jesus (Lk 1:36). If Jesus’ birthday is observed at the winter solstice, then we back the calendar up six months for John.

Christians have been celebrating this feast since at least the year 506. For centuries Europeans have marked the vigil of this feast by lighting bonfires on hilltops. The day is supposed to be full of enchantment according to Wikipedia (and you know they’re never wrong about these things!). It’s the time to carve your divining rod, find a hidden treasure, or grow your healing herbs. In fact, herbs picked on St. John’s Day in Germany were traditionally brought to the church to be blessed. Scandinavian and Slavic traditions see the Eve of St. John’s as something like Halloween when the spirits get a “Get-Out-of-Jail-Free” card and are allowed to roam the earth, causing children to make a lot of noise to scare the spooks back to where they came from. Kids also go around demanding treats at this festival in some countries. Personally, I would guess that the presence of spirits at this time of year might have been part of the inspiration for the mischievous ferries of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Why so much frolicking and rejoicing? First off, his birth story is a big win for the underdogs of this world. John's dad, Zechariah, is low-level holy man. His mom is thought to be too old to have a baby, and to be childless in the world of this text is considered a curse. I’ll bet all the other priests’ wives were showing off pictures of their kids and grandkids and giving poor Elizabeth patronizingly sympathetic looks. But God does the unexpected, comes to the poor priest with a promise of better times, and blesses his “cursed” wife with a baby boy whose very name declares God’s favor.

Also, let’s consider that when John shows up, Jesus can’t be far behind. John’s whole message is about getting ourselves ready to receive the good that God intends for us. In Luke 3:10-14, John is the voice of economic justice. He also promises a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. That’s pretty cool stuff.

I sometimes wonder what John would be telling us today. I can’t help feel that since the 2016 presidential election we Americans haven’t exactly been bearing fruit worthy of repentance. In fact, I think we’ve started to see a side of ourselves which I’d rather not see. On one hand, we get a President who thinks nothing of taunting and insulting others. We see Nazis and Klansmen marching in Virginia. We’ve developed a disdain for the opinions of the rest of the world. We seem to have turned our backs on the environment, we’ve dismantled healthcare, and we’re giving tax breaks to billionaires. This makes some folks pretty mad.

At the same time, however, we have one of America’s most respected actors insulting the President by dropping an “F Bomb” on national TV during the Tony Award broadcast, and a talented satirist calling the President’s daughter the “C – word.”

What’s happening here? Why are we allowing ourselves to become a nation of slobs? Why is there no standard of civility? If John were here, wouldn’t he be telling us to watch the fruit we’re bearing? In a recent interview on CBS TV’s Late Show with Stephen Colbert, TV commentator Chris Matthews said, “We have to uphold a sense of nobility.” This was a reminder, I think, that we are judged, not on our policies, but on how we treat people. Can we, in our angriest moments, still remember that we are all children of the same God?

John the Baptist’s message is always that we will receive the good things of God. No matter how dire things appear, God is still in control. But we need to look to ourselves, to maintain the discipline of people who have been washed and forgiven. Martin Luther would remind us that we don't obey God's command to love one another in order to win God's love. Rather, we obey this command in response to God's love.

All things—even governmental administrations—are temporary. God is eternal. Celebrating John’s Feast is a reminder that we have the God of the Universe in our corner—a God who sees us with a different standard, who wants to shower us with forgiveness, and who has blessed us with a gracious standard of righteousness to uphold. That’s reason enough for a party for me.

Happy midsummer, my friends. Rejoice!

PS – If you didn’t catch the Late Show interview with Chris Matthews, you can click on his name here and watch it. He makes some interesting points. Chris Matthews

Monday, June 11, 2018

Now WE'RE the Counter-Culture!

I had one of those weird epiphanies right in the middle of delivering my sermon last Sunday. I was talking about excessive, crazy piety, and I was referencing those hip, counter-cultural, storefront, Jesus Freak churches of the 1970’s. So many of those “non-denominationals” morphed into glitzy, mega-churches. You know—the ones with the big video screens and really cool, professional praise bands. Once upon a time these were the churches of the discouraged hippies. They were the churches that rejected the stuffiness of the “mainline” denominations. They had a new look, a new energy, a new musical style, and they attracted a new generation of believers.

I’ve suddenly realized that these “counter-culture,” “non-denominational” churches have now actually become the mainline. It’s little churches like the one I pastor which are suddenly the new counter-culture. I always thought that I was pretty “establishment.” I mean, I like traditional hymns, I wear traditional vestments, and I really get off on traditional liturgy. But somehow my traditional church seems like it’s cruising the shoulder of American Christianity on a Vespa scooter while the mega-churches hog the main road in their SUV’s.

I’ve been to the fancy mega-churches and they’re pretty cool. I have nothing against them. They preach the Gospel and they do a lot of good. They just lack the weirdness factor which, I think, makes my little blue-collar Philadelphia parish so special. I would bet you dollars to Dunkin Donuts munchkins you’d never see stuff in one of these super Christian centers like you see at Faith Lutheran.

Without going into detail, there have been, and still are, some pretty interesting characters who come through our doors. Some have developmental disabilities, and some have been just plain whack-o. Sometimes there are inappropriate interruptions during worship, but we’re a forgiving people, so we just carry on. We know who are “special” people are, and we love them.

Our church is also pretty tiny. We’re like an ameba compared to the giant church in the shopping mall up the street. But that’s cool because we all know each other. If you’re new, we know you’re new and we all greet you. We like to greet so much that the “passing of the peace” before Holy Communion looks more like your elementary school at recess. Everybody gets out of their seats and shakes hands or hugs. It’s usually chaotic, but there’s a great family feel to it.

Our church is also noisy. Some mega-churches won’t let kids under twelve worship in their main sanctuaries. We have kids running all over the place. They come to the communion rail for blessings, sometimes they sing in worship, or come for kid sermons.

Where the mega-church is brilliantly organized with an almost corporate structure, my little congregation is virtually a co-op. We take turns making the bulletins, cleaning the bathrooms, and vacuuming the narthex. We have virtually no structure, and yet things always seem to be accomplished. If the assigned worship assistant doesn’t show up, somebody jumps up and volunteers and the job gets done.

We welcome LGBTQ folks. We figure Jesus does, too.

Our building gets used by all kinds of people from the neighborhood. We figure Jesus would want us to welcome the stranger. To that end, we have seven AA meetings a week. There’s a bunch of senior citizens who play bingo on Wednesday afternoons. We provide a worship home on Saturdays for a Seventh Day Adventist fellowship comprised of the nicest bunch of Haitians and Haitian-Americans you’d ever want to meet—and we don’t ask to see anybody’s green card. We have homeless people sleeping in our basement during the month of August. We even just had a meal with our Muslim neighbors from the mosque around the corner. Now that’s pretty radical in my book!

And, because our church is here to serve the PEOPLE, I would certainly be remiss if I didn’t point out that, like all good nonconformists, we’re growing an organic vegetable garden on the church lawn. Yup. We’re feeding the hungry through some urban farming. Do you know of any mega-churches that do that?

Our denomination was started 500 years ago by a pretty radical guy who liked to speak truth to power. If you check out the ELCA website or facebook page, you’ll see we’re still doing that. We may not look like hippies or radicals here in Northeast Philly, but we have a funkiness all our own.
I’m pretty proud of that. And if pride is a sin, at least I know I’m forgiven.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Are You Crazy? (Reflections on Pentecost 3, Year B)

Image result for jesus freaks
“When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (Mark 3:21) 

Some folks just act crazy at times. Back in the early ‘70’s, my sister Maryanne was an authentic, card-carrying Jesus Freak. You remember Jesus Freaks, right? They were a bunch of hippie-looking kids (You remember hippies, right?) who, instead of preaching sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, were getting high on the Gospel. They met in storefront churches, sang folk rock praise tunes, carried their Bibles everywhere, and went around with shockingly joyful and peaceful attitudes. They held a certain disdain for the established church which they saw as being stuffy and irrelevant. They were as much a part of the counter-culture as their zoned-out, doobie-toking, war-protesting, anti-establishment contemporaries. 

My sis joined their ranks to the shock and horror of our parents. She started going to Bible studies and church services almost nightly. She went to the breath-bereaving extremity of getting baptized a second time—an act tantamount to sacrilege to my Lutheran mother—and began to claim that some people at our local Lutheran congregation might not be “saved.” When the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973, she listened attentively to the radio reports, believing that this might be a sign of the End Times and the Second Coming. 

Crazy? Maybe. But even Jesus was accused of being crazy by his own family. Zeal for the things of God, for righteousness, can look pretty weird to “normal” people who don’t experience it. In the Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for Pentecost 3, Year B (Mark 3:20-35), Jesus’ mom and siblings are alarmed that he’s preaching and drawing a crowd. It just doesn’t seem right to them. The high religious muckety-mucks even claim that he’s possessed by Beelzebul! 

So how can you tell what’s “normal” and what isn’t? When does a loving religious family of fellow believers become a cult, or when does extreme piety turn into coo-coo for Coco Puffs? 

I’m going to suggest that we look at two factors: what are you willing to believe and how passionate are you about believing it?  

Here’s some examples: Some folks don’t believe anything that isn’t empirically verifiable. They are, however, extremely passionate about not believing, and they think the rest of us should join them in their unbelief. They’re sort of zealous evangelists for atheism. Then there are the ones who don’t believe anything, but don’t know they don’t believe anything because they never think about anything. (We call them teenagers.) There are also those who are all up and through supernatural mysticism—angels, faith healing, crystals, the zodiac, UFO’s, the Rapture, whatever you’ve got—but only when the subject comes up, or if they find themselves in a crisis. In times of trouble they turn to anything. They try to bargain with God. There are others who might rationally try to weigh mysticism with skepticism, but only when they’re forced to go to church on Christmas and Easter—or when the doctor tells them they have cancer. 

For my part, I try to be in dialogue between the mystery of God and my own common sense. But I don’t want to be too rational about it. I love having this mental conversation, and I want to have it all the time. I actually envy the mystics and the ancient hermits, and all of those who could live only for Christ. And maybe that’s crazy. 

I guess it’s the people whose religious fervor is so great that it keeps them from actually enjoying life who probably should seek professional help. In our Gospel story Jesus does not come to imprison people, but to set them free. He’s overpowering and tying up the “strong man”—our sense of sin and guilt, our stubbornness, our prejudice, our desire to be in control and make ourselves into God—so that all the things that are horded away—love, acceptance, joy—can be liberated. He’s here to cast out the things which make us afraid and sick and discouraged so that there’s room in our lives for the Holy Spirit. 

My crazy sister didn’t stay crazy for long. In fact, not many of the Jesus Freaks of the early ‘70’s did. Today those storefront churches are now multi-million dollar mega churches where nobody comes in bare feet, kids under twelve are not permitted, and worship is conducted with slick and glitzy sound systems and video displays. My sister traded the storefronts for fairly active participation in the Lutheran church. In later years she joined a Baptist congregation and was active there, too. She may have lost a bit of her counter-cultural zeal, but she never stopped being crazy for Jesus.