Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Saints of the Month: Emilio Carranza and American Legion Post 11

Image result for emilio carranza
I wrote the following post for my church newsletter. I hope you enjoy it.

“…I was a stranger and you welcomed me…” (Matthew 25:35b)

For the past three years, on the second Saturday in July, my wife, Marilyn, and I have participated in a very special memorial celebration. Marilyn is a member of the American Legion Post 11 Auxiliary, and she has invited me to join her as the post observes the anniversary of the death of one of the heroes of early aviation, the Mexican Air Force pilot Captain Emilio Carranza.

Carranza, who was known as the “Charles Lindberg of Mexico,” flew a small, single engine plane from Mexico City to Washington DC in 1928 as a gesture of friendship between our two nations. Tragically, the young pilot perished when his plane was caught in an electrical storm on his return flight. A group of young veterans of the Great War from the Mount Holly, NJ American Legion set off on an expedition through the New Jersey Pinelands to rescue the brave aviator or recover his body. They brought Carranza’s body back to Mount Holly, covered it in the American flag, and posted an honor guard around it until it could be repatriated to Mexico.

For 90 years, every second Saturday in July, the American Legion Post 11 pays tribute to the pioneer flyer and to the young men who attempted his rescue and showed so much respect for his courage. There is a remembrance ceremony held at a monument erected at the crash site, and a luncheon is held at a nearby high school. The memorial is attended by veterans, representatives of the Mexican Air Force, dignitaries from the Mexican consulates in New York and Philadelphia, members of the Carranza family, and many local mayors, politicians, Legionnaires, and VFW members. I have been invited to offer the table grace at the reception and assist Marilyn in manning the beverage station.

I guess when many of us think of the American Legion we might imagine a bunch of old guys with beer guts wearing garrison caps and sitting around the bar in their post headquarters swapping jokes and war stories. My imagination, however, goes to those first Legionnaires, guys in their late twenties or early thirties who had fought a war more terrible than any the world had yet seen, marching through the wilderness to rescue a fellow warrior. The nationality of the pilot didn’t matter to them. They respected his courage and treated him as a fallen comrade. When Post 11 holds its annual observance, the friendship between nations is always emphasized. It isn’t a political event, but a “people to people” event, an event which recognizes that we have more in common with our neighbors than we have differences (In fact, Marilyn has been given an open invitation from Carranza’s niece to stay with her if she’s ever in Mexico City!).

When God looks down on the world, God doesn’t see borders or frontiers. As Americans argue over immigration policy, I think it’s important for Christians to emphasize Jesus’ command to love our neighbors and welcome the stranger as if we were welcoming Jesus himself. Here at Faith Lutheran this command of Christ’s is lived out in very real ways. It’s not just about saying “hello” to new people who join us in worship. We go beyond that. We provide a welcome through Interfaith Hospitality to those who have no place to lay their heads. We have also started a relationship with the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia, a religious home for many first and second generations Americans from southern Asia, the Middle East, and other parts of the globe. I am hoping to extend a welcome, also, so we can meet our neighbors of the Beersheba SDA fellowship, many of whom are Haitian or Haitian American.

I think in these times it’s more important than ever to be Christ’s ambassadors. Our congregation always has an opportunity to make the statement that all of us, regardless of race or nationality or even religion, are people made in the image of God. And all are welcome here.

PS-If you'd like to learn more about Captain Carranza's trip to America, just click on this Wikipedia link here: Carranza

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Feeding 5K and Walking on Water (Reflections on Pentecost 10, Year B)

Image result for Images of Jesus feeding 5000
“Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5)

Okay. So it’s here again—that five week stretch in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary when we talk about Jesus being the “Bread of Life.” This is always a stumper for me. I try to find something about this that I haven’t said before. As always, I turn to my go-to gal for all things preaching John, Dr. Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN, who gives me the valuable advice to just talk about what the Bible says and not to try to be too clever or novel about it. If you’ve heard me say this before, well, just suck it up and consider we’re all getting a refresher course on two of the more memorable of Jesus’ miracles as they are told in the Fourth Gospel (John 6:1-21).

The Gospel lesson in the RCL is the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 and then walking on the water. The problem with most of the miracle stories, I think is that they’re, well, miracles. That is, they describe stuff that just doesn’t happen in our neighborhood. They stretch our powers of belief, so we either just file them away and try not to think about them, or we try to explain them away with some kind of rational excuse. But for me, I think the fun and some of the real meat of these Bible stories are in the details.

First, notice that there’s nothing in this story which suggests that Jesus or the disciples have to feed these folks. After all, they didn’t tell this mob to follow them. These people want some free healthcare, and they think they can get it from Jesus. He’d be perfectly within his rights to do what the disciples suggest in one of the other Gospels: send these folks away before it gets too late. They ought to be on the hook for their own dinner. I mean, they’re getting free healing from Jesus. Do they really expect him to feed them too?

But Jesus comes from a place of compassion. He knows he’s dealing with peasants here, and he decides to see to all of their needs. In typical Jesus style, he yanks Philip’s chain a little and asks him where the food is to come from. Philip recognizes the logistical problem, but Jesus remains confident. He knows that God provides. The problem isn’t one of too many people and not enough resources. It’s simply a matter of faith and careful distribution.

Meanwhile, Andrew finds a young fellow who prudently packed a lunch and is willing to share it. It never ceases to amaze me that the people who seem to be the most generous are the people who have the fewest resources. I guess there’s something about surviving on very little that lets you know you can survive. Already this story has pointed to compassion, faith, and generosity.

So what does Jesus do? My favorite detail here is verse 11. He gives thanks for the little he has. Don’t just write this off as ritual piety. I think Jesus is being a kind of “glass-half-full” Savior. He may not have the ideal amount, but he’s going to praise God that he has something. He’s going to teach people about gratitude. Then, he gets everyone to cooperate. They all sit down and share together.

Finally, Jesus shows some prudence and has the leftovers collected. It’s great when God shows us that we’re blessed whenever we receive what we need, but it’s also important in this hungry world to remember my German grandmother’s favorite mantra, “It’s a sin to waste.” And that sin goes for unnecessary consumption and mismanagement of God’s gifts—whatever they may be. There’s a word of judgment here about how we use our resources. In my home church in California there was an older woman named Helen who always used to say, “There’s room on this planet for everyone but the greedy.”

Of course, Jesus handles the food situation so well that the folks want to make him a king (v.15). He’s okay with being called a prophet, I guess, but “king” really stretches things. Truth be told, however, Jesus was already their king. His love and compassion for them was the embodiment of God’s will. Unfortunately, seeing that folks just don’t seem to get this “grace” thing without trying to turn it into something which it’s not, Jesus has to duck out.

Now, admittedly, walking on water is a pretty tough trick to master. I won’t even try to rationalize this part of the story. I’m just going to stick with an allegorical interpretation. In the ancient world, water was often seen as a sign of chaos and uncertainty. Just look at the duck boat mishap in Missouri recently and you’ll understand why the ancients looked at water and weather with awe and trepidation. My take on this is, in spite of seeing compassion, faith, generosity, gratitude, and gracious humility, the disciples are still lost at sea without Jesus.

Remember the late, great Soviet Union? I always thought those guys had a great creed; “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That sounds almost Christian, doesn’t it? The problem was, however, that they left Jesus out of their boat. They thought that an atheist state with high ideals could create utopia. They were wrong.

We need to see God’s way in human form. For Christians, that means finding it in relationship with Jesus. This relationship, this dialogue with Jesus, is our constant seeking after righteousness. Whenever we want to be righteous, when we want to take Jesus into the boat, we’re already on solid ground.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, July 20, 2018

The Sheep Keep Coming (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year B)

Image result for Images of Jesus healing the sick
"Jesus Healing the Sick' Chris Gollon, British (1953-2017)

“He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” (Mark 6:31)

Freakin’ Andy was back today. I thought I’d seen the last of this guy. He’s a local character who comes by the church every once in a while looking for a hand-out. I don’t mean to sound heartless, but I keep trying to remind Andy that we’re not his personal ATM, and he might be able to save a good deal of cash himself if he’d give up the cigarettes which run almost nine bucks a pack in Philly. Also, this congregation—like just about every small Protestant church in Philly—is running on “E” and is held together financially with Scotch tape and dental floss! We don’t have a safe with unlimited cash for every panhandler in the Northeast. We don’t even have a petty cash box or food vouchers, and the pastor doesn’t have unlimited time to listen to the sob story of everyone who comes along trying to bum a few bucks off of him.

What do you do with a guy like Andy who won’t take “We have no money or grocery script” for an answer?

What would Jesus do?

I gave the guy the six dollars I had in my pocket and let him pillage the cart of donated food we have set aside for the local Lutheran food cupboard called Feast of Justice. He asked if we had any tuna fish, so I gave him two cans which the wife of my bosom sent with me to make my lunch. I also gave him some juice boxes from the VBS, a few bottles of water, and a plastic take-out container so he could mix some tuna and mayo for a sandwich. What was I supposed to do, let the guy starve?

It never ends. The need is always there. The doorbell rings and there’s the local sad sack. The phone rings, and it’s the shut-in lady telling you her woes. There are sermons to write and bulletins to edit and old folks to be visited.

Sorry. I don’t mean to complain. Really I don’t. But I really get why Jesus, in the gospel lesson for Pentecost 9 (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56) wanted to take the twelve with him to a deserted place after they had done so much ministry. Everyone needs a break at times. Unfortunately, most of us don’t even know what that is. Jesus isn’t taking them to a place of amusement. They aren’t going to Disneyland or to the Jersey Shore or even to a day spa.

No. They’re going to a deserted place—a place in the wilderness with no distractions. They are going to a place where they can be alone with Jesus and where he can speak to their tired spirits (v. 32). Sometimes, you know, we just have to be alone with our own souls. We have to find that place where we can talk to God and figure out who we are. We need to find the place where we can face the truth about ourselves honestly without the distractions of our constant “doing.”

I never forgot a sermon I heard in a Lutheran church in Huston over forty years ago. The pastor said that the trouble with Americans is that we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship. Think about that.

Our Gospel lesson, alas, doesn’t say that Jesus and the twelve got much of a spiritual retreat. The needs of the world kept crowding in like paparazzi around the latest rock star. Fortunately for us, the compassion of Jesus for the constant bleating of the lost sheep (guys like Andy) is limitless.

Like I always do, I ask myself, “Who am I in this story?” Am I one of the disciples who’s wearied by doing mission? Or, rather, am I one of the sick who is reaching out to Jesus in need of healing? Truth be told, I think I’m one of the later. I may never have the time or the patience or even the maturity to really come face-to-face with my relationship with Jesus, but I’m reaching out for the hem of his garment all the same. And I believe that will be enough.

I hope you all find rest for your souls, my friends. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Donald Trump Isn't Satan (Reflections on Pentecost 8, Year B)

Image result for beheading john the baptist
"Beheading of John the Baptist" Carel Fabritius, Dutch 17th Century

A lot of folks are mad at President Trump these days. I’ve even heard some say they think the President is evil. But, if you ask me (and thanks for asking me!), I think these riled-up folks are being way too hard on the Commander-in-Chief. Donald Trump is not Satan. He’s not even Hitler or Stalin. In fact, on the egregiously bloodthirsty and totally evil scale, he still has a long way to go to catch up with his buddy, Vladimir Putin.

You see, to be really evil, you have to work at it. You have to enjoy mass murder and the suffering of others just for its own sake. You have to be dedicated to bringing that kind of suffering about. I dare say that most of us couldn’t be really evil if we tried. We just don’t have that kind of obsessive viciousness in us.

Most of us, I think, have too much conscience to spit in the face of God’s holy law outright. So instead, we just sin through weakness, vanity, and foolishness. We’re dumbasses, wounding God and the world just a little, tiny bit at a time by doing and saying stupid things and not considering the consequences. Either that, or we’re wimps who shy away from our prophetic responsibility, finding the acclaim of other dumbasses more satisfying than the will of God.

Case in point is our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 8, Year B (Mark 6:14-29), the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. King Herod Antipas isn’t really an evil king. He’s nothing like his dad, Herod the Great, who murdered his children and his girlfriend and, according to Matthew 2:16, ordered the killing of all baby boys under two years of age just so he could remain in power. Herod Junior doesn’t have the kind of energetic, satanic wickedness his old man had. He’s just a foolish, vain, and weak king.

(Short digression here because I love Victorian literature so much: Oscar Wilde’s 1893 play Salome is probably the culprit responsible for making us think that Herod Antipas was wild with lust for his dancing stepdaughter whose name, as we know from the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus, was Salome. Mark’s Gospel, however, never says or suggests that. We don’t know how old Salome was when she danced for Herod or what his feelings for her were. What Mark does have to say about Herod is much more important I think.)

Herod commits three acts of real folly in this story which are unbecoming of a leader—or anyone else for that matter. First, he breaks a Jewish religious tradition by marrying his brother Philip’s cast-off wife. Granted, this doesn’t seem to us like such a big deal, but it was against the law in the world of our text. If the king is an obvious law-breaker, what example does that set for the people? It’s like your dad saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” It cuts the gonads off of your moral authority.

Second, Herod knows that John is a righteous and holy man (v. 20). Nevertheless, he bows to the pressure of his wife and locks this guy up—for speaking the truth! As a husband, I know how important it is to keep peace in the home and let the Missus have her way. But for cryin’ out loud..! Sometimes a spouse just has to put his or her foot down and say moral integrity is worth causing a little upsetment in the home. I mean, if your husband opens a meth lab in your basement, I’d say it’s okay to walk out on the guy. You know what I mean?

Third, the big show-off opens his pie hole and makes a very rash promise at his birthday party, swearing to give Salome anything she asks. Not only was that a phenomenally dumb thing to say, but Herod lacks the vertebrae to admit that he’s made a mistake when he gets backed into a corner and asked to do a thing which he knows is unjust. He becomes a total mollusk, and is more concerned with appealing to his base and appeasing Herodias than he is with upholding righteousness.

Self-preservation at the cost of honesty is deadly. Just look at our Roman brothers and the faith-annihilating disappointment they caused by their response to the scandal of priests sexually abusing young parishioners. This was pure cowardice on the part of many in authority. It was not only the horrible acts of child abuse—which were shocking enough—which caused the outrage, but the insistence of church leaders on hiding the truth, not punishing the guilty, and fearing the opinions of people more than they desired to do the will of God.

There’s a lesson in this for little Protestant congregations like mine, too. We can pray for institutional survival for its own sake, but at what cost? There are those who say that the community garden which feeds the hungry uses too much water, sheltering the homeless in our basement runs the air conditioning bill up too high, and a properly trained and credentialed nursery attendant for our children is just too expensive. We could circle the wagons, tighten our belts,  and defend the institution, but if we try to hold onto our position at the cost of doing justice and mercy, then our position isn’t worth holding onto.

I’ll bet none of us ever think of ourselves as being genuinely evil. Nevertheless, it’s fear and ego and weakness, and apathy and ignorance which allow evil to ooze into our lives and our society and cause hurt to others and to ourselves. We need to keep looking constantly to the strength of Christ on the cross lest we give in to the pressures of this neurotic world.

When I read any Bible story, I often ask myself, “Who am I in this text?” I think all of us—Donald Trump included—could profit by recognizing bit of Herod in ourselves and rethinking our purpose and values in this, God’s world.

Thanks for stopping by. Please come again!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

So Prophesy Already! (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year B)

The prophet Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones (Quentien Metsys, Ygr., c. 1589)

“Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (Mark6:4)

As I think about the lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 7 this year, I guess the best place for me to start is with the question: What is a prophet? In the Gospel (Mark 6:1-13), Jesus refers to himself as a prophet, but just what the heck is that? The RCL marries this Gospel reading with a Hebrew scripture reading from the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 2:1-5). We all know that Ezekiel is a prophet, right? So let’s start by figuring out what a prophet is.

I think we in modern America use the term prophet to mean someone who can predict the future. You know, like someone with a crystal ball or something. The dictionary definition is a little different. My New World Dictionary says a prophet is an interpreter of God’s will. The word comes from the Greek profhth (pronounced pro-FAY-tay. You don’t really need to know what it looks like in Greek, I just dig the fact that I can make Greek letters with my computer. It makes me look smarter). This is a compound of the Greek pro (meaning “before” or “ahead of”) and phanai (meaning “to speak”). Therefore, a prophet is one who speaks for someone in advance of their speaking for themselves. In this case, that someone is God (I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling smarter already!).

Note that this does not necessarily mean that the prophet is one who tells fortunes or predicts the future in some mystic way. A prophet can be anyone who just takes an educated, adult look at the circumstances and says, “I don’t think God would like the way this seems to be going.”

Since the RCL gives us the call of God to Ezekiel, I thought I might share a little background info on this prophet. Can I just say that I really dig Ezekiel? He’s a pretty wild old dude. He’s called to be God’s mouthpiece to a stubborn people, Judah, just as that nation is about to fall to Babylon. Ezekiel gets deported into captivity in Babylon with all the other elite of Judah. When his wife dies suddenly (Ezekiel 24:15-18), he is forbidden by God to mourn in the traditional way. His stoicism in the face of real tragedy is his way of telling the wayward people of God that the calamity they face is their own darn fault, so they’d better stop their whining, suck it up, and take their punishment like a mensch—instead of like the big, self-involved crybabies they’ve become.

But Ezekiel doesn’t only speak words of rebuke. He has some pretty freaky visions which might make you wonder what he’s been smoking. My favorite—and yours too I’ll bet—is his vision of the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37:1-14). He sees the slaughtered army of Judah rise up from the dust. Their parched bones come together, the flesh covers them, and they breathe again as a great host, promising that God’s people will one day enjoy the freedom and favor they had previously known. God tells Ezekiel to “prophesy to the breath” (v. 9), which could also be translated as “speak to the spirit.” That’s a prophet’s job—to speak to our spirits, to try and touch the part of us which hungers for God and for reconciliation.

I’m taking two ideas away from the Gospel lesson for this week. The first is simply the way these folks don’t want to believe that little Jesus, the local kid they knew when he was in diapers, could possibly be the one who could open up the Kingdom of God to them. Why is it, I wonder, that we are so quick to reject the words of the ones closest to us? You might want to start considering the good advice you’ve been given in your life that you didn’t follow. Or, who was it who finally steered you in the right direction? Who was your prophet?

I’m going to suggest that our big screw-ups rarely happen because we weren’t informed. They happen because we didn’t listen or heed the information we were given. Even if that information came from a queasy feeling in our bowels. That might’ve been God telling us we were going the wrong way and we needed to sit and rethink our assumptions, our priorities, our morals, and our wants. God does not protect us from the consequences of our own stupid egos. In our Gospel lesson, even Jesus is powerless to help those who simply refuse to listen. I’ll even suggest that the loss of small, mainline churches in America might’ve happened because of a lack of prophetic acceptance—an unwillingness to read the signs of the times—and a lack of faith that God could bring about a resurrection.

My second take-away from this Gospel reading is that Jesus commissioned his buddies—these ordinary working stiffs—to be prophets and to proclaim the Kingdom on his behalf. Granted, he tells them to shake the dust off their feet of any place that won’t listen to them. Maybe that’s where the term “shake it off” meaning “get over it” comes from, you think? It seems pretty clear to me that Jesus knows folks aren’t always going to listen to what they should be listening to. Sin, pride, stubbornness, and ego are going to get in the way. There’s not much you can do about that. Nevertheless, you are commissioned to speak God’s word anyway—even if they don’t want to hear it.

After 9/11, there was a public safety campaign which exhorted people to vigilance. “If you see something, say something” was the slogan. That could just as well be our call to prophecy. When we encounter sin, intolerance, recklessness, disrespect, whatever, we are called to speak up for the Kingdom of God. Our words may not be heeded, but we are called to speak them just the same. The vocation of every Christian is to be a prophet.

Be inspired, Prophets of God! Speak to the spirits of those you encounter and be a blessing to them. Thanks for reading!