Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Evangelical Corban (Reflections on Pentecost 15, Year B)

This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me…” (Mark 7:6b)

I wasn’t on the guest list for the White House dinner last Monday to honor evangelical leaders, even though I am a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Of course, I’m not much of a leader, but I noticed that our ELCA Presiding Bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, didn’t get an invite either. About 100 other pastors, evangelists, and Christian commentators did get a free steak dinner with President Trump, however, and some fifteen or so of them spent half an hour publicly praising the Commander-in-Chief for the great work he has done on behalf of Christianity here in the USA.

(The balance of the program was taken up with Trump publicly praising himself for his pious and righteous good works for the Kingdom of God. The President pointed out that he has ended the government’s “attacks on communities of faith,” so I guess we can all come out of hiding now.)

Texas mega-church pastor Jack Graham even commented that, although religious leaders are often charged to speak truth to power, the White House dinner was an opportunity for conservative Christians to speak “love to power.”[i]

The faithful 100 praised the President for his pro-life stance, his ending of the Johnson Amendment, his support of religious liberty, his support for the military (I’m not sure why that is a Christian value, but James Dobson seems to think it is), and his support for Israel.

Yessiree, these multi-million dollar mega-church preachers sure do love the Donald. And why not? You know how we Americans love our freedom. We want to be free to own as many guns as we please. We want to be free to make as much money as we please—free from burdensome government regulations and taxes. We want to be free to shout “Merry Christmas!” without being accused of political incorrectness.

And we Americans are so good at extolling our virtues in order to cover up our neglect.

In the Gospel lesson appointed in the RCL for Pentecost 15, Year B (Mark 7:1-23)[ii], Jesus calls out the religious leaders for their pure hypocrisy. The Pharisees, the “religious right” of Jesus’ day—the guys who were all about the rules and regulations and purity issues—start giving Jesus a hard time because his disciples haven’t ritually washed their hands before eating. They don’t seem to care that Jesus’ peasant disciples might just be too hungry to stand on ceremony. Jesus fires back that these critics abandon the commandments of God in order to keep to human traditions (v.8).

To me, the verses which really speak to me today are verses 9 through 13. Jesus gives an example of how the religious purity code goes against God’s command to love with compassion. He reminds the Pharisees of their tradition of Corban, a term which relates to the Temple treasury. If a Pharisee made a pledge to give money to the Temple, he was exempt from taking care of his elderly parents. That is, he could make himself look like a big shot at the expense of the old folks.

When I hear the pastors of these gilded mega-churches talk about “Christian Values,” I often think of Corban. They preach about protecting unborn babies, but they don’t seem to care what happens to babies who are born in poverty. They rail against abortion, and do so by advocating cutting the funding to organizations like Planned Parenthood which serve to protect the reproductive health of millions of American women. They talk about “defending the family” by outlawing gay marriage, but they are silent about creating workplace child care centers. They cheer for Israel, but forget that Palestinians (many of whom are Christians) were also created in the image of God.

The unfortunate fact here is that we all are guilty in some way of trying to disguise our vices as virtues. When we are criticized we try to explain away our thoughtlessness or our neglect as necessary to protecting some higher standard. Either that, or we turn on our critics and accuse them of being greater sinners than we are. In this portion of Mark’s Gospel Jesus is calling us to look to our own hearts and examine our own motives. He also calls us to look to our own sense of obedience to the command to love and sacrifice with compassion.

One of my jobs this past week was to fill out the church’s renewal application for a reduced “church rate” from the Philadelphia Water Department. The form asked me to state with examples and in full sentences how our congregation benefits the neighborhood. I certainly appreciate that we hold public worship, celebrate the Church’s sacraments, and teach children the Christian faith, but I am most grateful that our religious practice leads us to a compassionate response to the poor, the addicted, the elderly, and the homeless.

I feel very blessed to serve the parish I serve, and to see many individuals who willingly sacrifice their time and treasure so that this church may serve the community. At the end of each day I try to ask myself if I’ve truly served the Kingdom. Have I lived out the commandment of God, or only serviced the human tradition? It’s not a bad question to ask.

Thank you for spending this time with me.

[i] No shit. He actually said this. You can read the article from the Christian Post at ttps://
[ii] Verses 9-13 and 16-21 are mysteriously omitted in the RCL, but you really need to read them to get the whole sense of this passage.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Word and Sacrament (Reflections on Pentecost 14, Year B)

Última Cena - Da Vinci 5.jpg

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56)

So here we go, one last time with the Revised Common Lectionary’s slow and painful slog through the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. How many more times do I have to preach on this series before I can retire, I wonder? But, hey! It’s scripture, and it certainly has something to teach us if we’ll be patient with it. Unfortunately, there’s so much stuff jammed into the assigned Gospel for Pentecost 14 (John 6:56-69) that discussing it all may seem like a lecture in Biblical studies and will probably end up being dryer than a snake’s fart. I’ll try and make this as painless as possible.

First, this section of John’s Gospel starts with the rather disgusting quote I’ve cited above. This sounds pretty yucky, doesn’t it? It’s like Jesus is suggesting cannibalism—which is doubtless what some of Christianity’s earliest critics imagined. But the folks who first read this Gospel surely knew that it was a reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Here’s the dealio: John’s gospel doesn’t actually have the story of the Last Supper in it the way this tale appears in the other Gospels. I think—and others may agree—that old John is taking a little poetic license when he tells the Passion story. He doesn’t have Jesus break bread and say, “This is my body,” because he figures everybody knew that story already. Instead of having Jesus eat the Passover meal with his disciples, he has the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest take place before the Passover, and has the crucifixion occur on the day when the Passover lambs were slaughtered. This underscores his theology of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It makes Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” as he has John the Baptist say in John 1:29.

Pretty much everyone who read John’s Gospel in the late first or early second century of the Common Era understood the reference to Holy Eucharist. There was undoubtedly some divergence as to what this special meal signified, but I’m thinking all Christian communities observed it.[i] John always wanted his community to know that Jesus gave his life as an atonement for our sin. When we take communion—among other aspects of this sacrament—it’s pretty important to recall that this man Jesus loved humanity so much he was willing to undergo an excruciating torture and death so we could get our collective act together. If we’re looking for God, we can find no better place to look than to the flesh-and-blood reality of sacrificial love.

In verses 60 – 65 John tackles the rather uncomfortable truth that many early followers of Jesus drifted away from the faith. If you figure that John’s writing around the year 100 CE, this makes perfect sense. There had already been a pretty darn nasty persecution of Christians which became official Roman Empire policy by the time John wrote his Gospel. If you’re going to get tortured and killed for your faith, you might want to think twice about it. It took real guts to be a Christian in those days, and a lot of folks begged off.

This sparks two thoughts in my little brain. First, being persecuted for being a Christian is a lot more than just not being able to say, “Merry Christmas” at a publicly sponsored gathering. For the record, there is no persecution of Christians in the United States of America. For all those whiney anal sphincters (metaphorically speaking) who complain that Christianity is under attack in the US, I suggest you move to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan and try to be a Christian there. If you meet the Christians of those nations you’ll come home with a whole new appreciation of what it really means to suffer for your faith!

Secondly: Not everyone is going to “get it.” As Jesus points out in the parable of the sower[ii], not everyone who hears the Gospel is going to stick with it. People come into our communities for different reasons and different seasons. It’s not our job to judge them, just to love them. Where this gets sticky in the text we’re looking at is verse 65 where Jesus says, “…no one comes to me unless it is granted by the Father.” Reading this passage could give rise to the notion of “predestination.” That is, the belief that God simply decided that some people were just meant to fry in Hell and there’s nothing you can do about it.

My answer to this is always in remembering that John is a Jewish guy. In the Hebrew Scriptures it’s pretty much assumed that everything that happens happens because God decrees it to happen. For example, Pharaoh acts like a tyrannical, oppressive bastard because God wants him to—just so God can have the joy of crushing him later[iii]. This doesn’t seem like the kind of God Jesus would have us believe in, does it? So, what do we do with this passage which seems to suggest that only a certain elect are granted to come to Jesus? Is it because God capriciously decided to create an exclusive club?

For my money, I think it’s good to remember that the rain falls on good folks and the bad folks alike. None of us chose to be born. None of us invented the beauty of this world. None of us created the air we breathe, the food we eat, or the water we drink. None of us invented love. Every good thing—and even every bad thing which we can turn into a good thing—comes from the Creator God. We didn’t choose to have Jesus suffer on the cross. We don’t choose to have a gracious God. God just is that way.

I like to look at John 6:65 as a reminder that I didn’t think any of this up. I’m just fortunate to know God’s goodness because God happens to be good. I don’t deserve it. I see in Jesus’ sacrifice the meaning of true love, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought to give myself up in love like Jesus did if it hadn’t been shown to me first. The Father has granted it all. I didn’t do anything. I think it’s best, therefore, to view this passage, not as judgment, but as a reminder of God’s grace.

The really cool passage in this section of scripture is verse 68 where Jesus asks if the disciples want to bail on him like some of the others have done. Peter responds, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This final lesson in the John 6 marathon includes reference to both the Sacrament and the Word. If we’re going to be Christians, let’s remember that we need a steady diet of both. Religion is both belief and practice. If you really, really want to walk the path, you need to experience eating with your fellow repentant sinners around the altar of the Lord and remembering the love and compassion of Jesus. You also need to feast on a steady diet of the words of eternal life.

Thanks again for stopping by. 

[i] I wrote more about this a few years ago in a post entitled “I Am the Bread of Life” posted on August 12, 2012. It’s in the Popular Posts column to the right if you want to check it out. Better yet, read Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography by Bruce Chilston (New York: Random House, 2000).

[ii] Matthew 13:1-23, Mark 4:1-20 and Luke 8:4-15—just in case you want to refresh your memory.

[iii] See Exodus 9:12 and 10:1. I don’t know about you, but I feel really smart when I use end notes!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Saint of the Month: Heather Heyer

Image result for heather heyer
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." (Matthew 5:6)

It's been a year since Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, was killed while marching in a counter-protest against white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. There's not a whole lot I can say about Ms. Heyer myself. There are plenty of tributes online to her character, her kindness, and her desire for justice and equality. She didn't expect to be a  martyr. She simply believed, as all moral people should, that hate speech must not go unchallenged.

Since the start of the current administration in Washington, I have felt extremely uneasy about the tone of discourse in the nation, the message we Americans send to the world, and the direction in which our leaders have chosen to take us. There is a horrible anger here. There is also a blatant and unwelcoming message that the words carved on the Statue of Liberty no longer apply. I find this deeply distressing.

My wife asks me why I get so upset with the nightly news. How do the words of the President or the actions of Congress directly effect me? Certainly, I am concerned that the tax bill passed by our leaders with the ebullient blessing of our President is an egregious error. We can't increase the Federal coffers by decreasing the revenue stream. It simply does not make sense. This absurd decision--which so obviously favors the wealthiest Americans--will undoubtedly result in budget cutbacks for programs for the poorest and most vulnerable among us. It, along with the President's tariff trade war, may very likely lead to a financial disaster which will effect all of us except the very wealthy. Naturally, I am concerned.

What really burdens my heart, however, is the blow which this tax bill, the Muslim ban, the retreat from the Paris Climate Accords, the immigration policy which rips children from their parents, and sundry other actions taken since January of 2017 by the President and Congress has dealt to my sense of what it means to be an American.

I am the proud son of a World War II veteran. I remember growing up thinking that we were the good guys--that we stood for something proud and noble and were meant to be blessing to the rest of the world. Now I feel that we only stand for greed and bigotry.

I recently heard an NPR interview with Heather Heyer's mom. She said that Heather's favorite quote was, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention." But what do we do with our outrage? Sometimes I chastise myself for not taking a more active part in the opposition to an administration which has betrayed our national values. Heather Heyer, and thousands like her, were not content to sit by like timid Germans in 1933 who claimed they had gone into "internal exile." She went out and took her outrage public. She reminded us that we still live in a democracy, and that our raised voices cans till carry the day. I think it highly significant that the "anniversary" white nationalist march last weekend in front of the White House was a ridiculously small and laughable affair compared to the counter demonstrations at the Lincoln Memorial.

Clearly, Heather's voice was heard.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

More Bread (Reflections on Pentecost 12, Year B)

File:Foster Bible Pictures 0065-1 The Israelites Gather Manna in the Wilderness.jpg
Charles Foster: "The Israelite Gather Mana" 1897

“Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:47)

The above quote is from the Gospel lesson assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 12, Year B (John 6: 35, 41-52). As if it wasn’t enough of a headache preaching a third consecutive Sunday about bread (and with two more to go, no less!), as a pastor I have to deal with John’s jazz about believing.

I don’t think I’m a heretic, but I have to be honest: this business of dumbing down the Gospel to “Believe in Jesus or go to Hell” just doesn’t work for me. I mean, was John that much of a doctrinal chauvinist? Did he really think that only Christians are God’s children and entitled to eternal life? Is he saying that our eternal salvation is dependent on having correct doctrine? How would he know?

Probably the most painless way to get around our theological heartburn about the issue of judgment and whose beliefs or lack of beliefs will land them in the eternal deep fryer is to remember that John is writing for an exclusively Christian audience. This guy never met a Hindu or a Buddhist or a Muslim, and he still thinks he’s a Jew. And, by the way, he’s not even trying to write an exact history. Just consider that the smart guys of the Jesus Seminar consider very few of the words he has Jesus speak in his Gospel are actually direct quotes from the Savior. He even changes the chronology of events from the timeline agreed upon in the other three Gospels. What John’s probably doing is writing to other Christians of his time who were getting all jazzed-up on gnostic doctrines—supposed “secret” teachings of Jesus—and were forgetting the crucified Jesus himself. John doesn’t want us to forget that Jesus, not some esoteric doctrine, is the true center of the Christian faith.[i]

Another thing to think about is how we interpret the word “believe.” I don’t think we want to interpret it merely as assenting that something is true, like saying, “I believe what I read in the papers.”  The Greek word used in the Bible carries a somewhat stronger meaning. The word here is pisteuon (or pisteuwn for those of you who like to read the Greek—and who doesn’t?), and it means “to believe, to have confidence in something or someone, or to entrust.” It’s not just about saying, “Yeah, I think that’s right.” It’s about relinquishing control to that concept, relying on it as a certainty, and acting with assurance. It’s the difference between saying, “I believe you’re a nice person” as opposed to “I believe you can look after my child.”

So what does it mean to say we believe Jesus is the bread of life? “Bread” itself is usually interpreted to mean that which we need for survival. It’s synonymous for “food.” Also, back in the sixties, didn’t we use “bread” as a slang word for money? Bread is the stuff by which we survive, live, and thrive. So if Jesus is the bread of our lives, that would mean we live and thrive based on who he is for us.

If I’m going to call myself a Christian, then I’m going to look first to Jesus and see the presence of divine love—that special, sacrificial, counter-intuitive love that can come only from God. I’m going to see forgiveness—forgiveness for me and my call to forgive others. I’m going to see the value of humanity, and I’m going to recognize that I’m God’s child forever and always in spite of the stupid bozo I know myself to be. And, best of all, I’m going to see the one who suffered everything I will ever possibly suffer, yet rose on high to eternal life—as someday I will too. This “bread” is going to color the way I walk through life and inform all of the choices I make and all the relationships I have. It all comes from Jesus.

And here’s another thought about this Gospel lesson: John figures all of his readers know the story of the Exodus. In verse 41 he has the Jews complaining about Jesus, and I’m sure his readers will see the parallel between this and the Israelites in the wilderness complaining about Moses, the lack of food and water, and the impossibility of regaining the Promised Land from the formidable Canaanites who had taken up residence in real estate which once belonged to God’s Chosen. Those whiners of old were the poster children for disbelief. In the Gospel, Jesus reminds his hearers that the complainers died in the wilderness (v.49). In fact, not even Moses got to enter the Promised Land. It was only the kids who had grown up seeing and believing in God’s care who were able to realize the promise.

So what about you? If eternal life is eternal, aren’t we living it now? Our realization of God’s promise for us, our joy in how we live, depends on what bread we’re taking on the journey.

God bless. Thanks for reading, and do come again!

[i] If you want to read more about this, may I suggest reading Elaine Pagel’s wonderful little book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York: Random House 2003)

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

An "Alternative Gospel" (Reflections on Pentecost 11, Year B)

Image result for images of bread

“…Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…” (John 6:35)

So okay. In this age of “fake news,” I’m going to take a page out of Kellyanne Conway’s book and present an “alternative Gospel” to the Gospel reading assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 11 (John 6:24-35). Here goes:

“So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they said to themselves, ‘Dang! That was really something! This Jesus fed us and we didn’t even ask him to. How loving and compassionate this man must be!’ Others said, ‘He has shown us love. He has done works of healing and managed to see to all of our needs out of pure grace. Truly this must be the Messiah we have longed for. Let us go and find him that he may teach us the way of God.’ So they themselves got into boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they knelt before him and said, ‘Thank you, Rabbi, for being the vehicle of God’s generosity. Our hearts are touched, and we long to learn more from you. What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘We have seen the sign of God’s blessing from you. We will believe and obey.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You have spoken well and wisely. Put your trust in God and in me. The Father provides, so do not fear. Be generous and open yourself to loving sacrifice as even I will do. Pray for one another, be kind, forgive one another, and know that your sins have been forgiven. Love your enemies, and you will taste the true bread which will satisfy your hunger.’ They answered him, ‘We believe that you are the bread of life.’ And they went on their way rejoicing.”

But, of course, the above is NOT what the Bible says. My little experiment in creative writing couldn’t be the Bible story, because it’s not the human story. We just don’t get it. We’re sinful, selfish, and frightened, and this story just never seems to fall out the way I’ve imagined it.

Yup. Those pesky Judeans went hunting for Jesus alright, but their motives left a lot to be desired. I love how they try to schmooze Jesus with small talk in verse 25. “Rabbi, when did you come here?” They knew good and well where Jesus was going, and Jesus immediately calls them on their transparent BS. He knows they’re following him in order to get another free meal, and he advises them to hunger after the things that will fill their spirits. Worldly provisions will always run out. A relationship with God, however, is eternal. It is the way to navigate through a dangerous world. Without it, we are left with nothing but our own selfishness and fear of privation.

I can almost imagine Jesus slapping a palm on his forehead and rolling his eyes when they feed him the line in verse 30, “What sign are you going to give us so that we may see it and believe you?” I mean, for cryin’ out loud!! Didn’t he just feed 5000..??!! Hasn’t he been healing the sick all along? How many more signs of God’s grace do these people want?!

But how many more signs do you want?

Walking with faith in Jesus isn’t easy. No matter how many signs of God’s grace and providence we see, we keep hoping God will give us just one more. We keep wanting to test God. We long for security. Faith, however, is always stepping out blindly, hoping the loving arms of God will catch us.

Look. I don’t do this faith thing any better than anyone else. Just this week I got a distressing email from the church finance chair. I started to panic. What will happen to our congregation? Will we have to shut down?

I’ll admit it was an effort for me—and it always is—to remember how God has made much out of little. I have seen unexpected manna turn up time and again. And, even if God doesn’t choose to provide the way I and my congregation want God to provide, God will provide something else. God’s like that.

We pray all the time, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Every day, even on the crappiest day we might be having, God gives us food and water, shelter, people to love us, and the Word to inspire us. It is prudent, of course, to look at the signs and try to plan for the future. It is also prudent, to see the signs of God’s goodness in the past and in the present, and rejoice—and believe—in the goodness of the Lord.

Thanks for reading, my friend.

PS-Of course, not everyone gets enough daily bread. The 2018 Northeast Philadelphia CROP Hunger Walk is scheduled for October 28. Our goal is to raise $10,000 or more for global and local hunger issues. You can sponsor the Faith Lutheran Team by clicking on and typing Faith Lutheran in the “Find a Team” box.