Wednesday, October 31, 2018

And So We Go On (Reflections on All Saints Day)

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“…and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.” (Isaiah 25:8b)

And so we go on.

The seasons change. The autumn comes as it must every year. The days get shorter and darker and colder. The leaves give one last explosive burst of color before shriveling and falling dead to the earth. And we, in both thanksgiving and dismay, recall the dead. All the saints who have gone before us whom we miss and mourn and will continue to love.

During the masses held on Sunday, November 4, 2018, the candles will again be placed on the altar and lit as the names of the dead are read. They will be the names of ordinary people. No generals or statesmen or rock stars. Just good folks who left their marks on the hearts of my parishioners. Just those whose lives were, in their way, every bit as epic as the lives of any hero out of mythology. They were people who knew all the joy and love and pain and disappointment of being a human being. Each one a sinner. Each one a saint redeemed by the blood of Jesus.

One name we’ll read will be that of John Bridel, a gentle, quiet, honest man in his late 80’s. He served his country in Korea, his family by being a hard-working husband and father, and his church in myriad ways. A man of extraordinary generosity and soft-spoken piety, John had served on the committee which called me to this parish almost twenty years ago. I visited him and his wife, Mary, frequently in his last years when orthopedic ailments confined him to his home. Often he’d tell me stories of his childhood in Philly in the 1930’s and ‘40’s—tales of orange crates turned into scooters and games of “half ball” in the streets—things I’d only heard of or seen in old Our Gang comedies.

John was a devout Lutheran. Mary is a devout Roman Catholic. For over sixty years they’d go their separate ways every Sunday morning and come together again for Sunday dinner, living out the words of St. Peter: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34)

Another candle to be lit will be for Edna Guenther, a sweet, roly-poly, motherly little lady who, from her wheelchair, made sure she always had cheese and crackers or a meatball sandwich ready when her pastor came to visit. We called her “Miss Edna” as had the dozens and dozens of Sunday School children she’d taught over the decades—some of whom teach in our Sunday School today. Loving and sentimental, Miss Edna might start to cry if you sang one of the old Sunday School songs to her like “This Little Light of Mine” or “Jesus Loves Me.” All she ever wanted to do was tell little children about Jesus, and doing so gave her so much joy.

We will light a candle for Richie Steinmuller, who passed away suddenly last year of a brain aneurysm. He was in his mid 30’s. Richie may have made some mistakes in his youth, but he more than made up for them as a good son, an encouraging friend, a hard and ambitious worker, and an awesome dad to his two children. His life, however brief, was a testimony to the redemptive healing power of God.

I’ll also call out the name of Barb Edwards, who, though not a member of the parish, always worshiped with us when she came down from Allentown to see her daughter, Caroline. Cheerful in spite of physical ailments, Barb was a perpetual volunteer with her daughter at our church’s annual Fall Festival. She demonstrated Luther’s concept of the Priesthood of All Believers through her career with the Pennsylvania State Board of Probation and Parole, and her constant volunteering with such organizations as Meals on Wheels and Sacred Heart Hospital of Allentown.

After Barb passed, Caroline shared a revealing anecdote about her mother. Barb’s husband of over forty years, Clyde, died on a Saturday. Barb was in church the following Sunday morning. I find this significant as I’ve so often seen people drift away from the church when a loved one dies. They so closely associate the worship of God with their departed family member that they can’t sit in God’s house without wanting to cry. Barb understood that God’s house was the best place in which to cry. She had a sense of religious discipline. "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." When young people tell me they are “spiritual but not religious,” I honestly find that to be absurd. Spirituality grows out of discipline. One could be religious without ever being spiritual, but I doubt anyone can be spiritual without first being religious. Barb was both.

I thank God for the witness of the saints I have mentioned above, but I would be remiss this All Saints Day if I did not also grieve for the martyrs. Let’s not forget the youngsters killed on Valentine’s Day at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida. Let’s say a prayer for the families of Maurice Stallard and Vicki Lee Jones, two African Americans who were gunned down in Louisville on October 22nd simply because of the color of their skin. Let us mourn with the congregation of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh as they mourn for the eleven dead—murdered in their own house of worship simply because of their religion.

Personally, I will mourn for Alyssa McCloskey and Colleen Brownell, two step-sisters who loved each other every bit as much as blood siblings do. They were both murdered in Alyssa’s home last December, knifed to death by a sick, narcissistic former boyfriend of Colleen’s. Between them they left behind three sons and two caring parents, Richard and Sandra, to whom I could offer no comfort except to say that the manner of their girls’ death must not define their lives.

This is a time to mourn. We mourn for those whose passing was merely sad and those whose passing was deeply tragic. We mourn for a nation and a world where acts of violence are still so common. But we remember, too, that we serve a God who saw his own son die a violent death, a God who mourns with us, and a God who promises one to day wipe the tears from our eyes and remove the disgrace of our sin forever.

And so—in this faith—we go on.Godnd an awesome dad to his two children. His life, however brief, was a testamony of the old Sunday

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Just What Are We Celebrating..? (Reflections on Reformation Sunday)

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“…and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

Last weekend I was called upon (as I often am) to officiate a funeral service for an older gent who had been out of Christian fellowship for some time. One of the attendees who greeted me after the memorial was a petite lady of a rather mature vintage who politely complimented me on my sermon and then proudly declared, “I’m a Lutheran too!” I asked her where she worshiped, and she told me the name of a prominent parish in South Jersey where my wife and I had sometime attended Saturday evening masses. “That’s a beautiful church,” I said.

“Do you think so?” she replied. “I liked the old building better. And I don’t care for the contemporary music service at all. I prefer the old hymns.”

I thought to myself, “That’s so Lutheran.” Five hundred years ago we set the whole Western Church on its ear and changed everything. Now we don’t want to change anything.

Just what is it we’re really celebrating on Reformation Sunday? I mean, I really love this peculiarly Lutheran holiday, but I hope we look at it as a time to reflect on our core beliefs, not merely as an opportunity to glory in our heritage. Luther’s understanding of the scriptures still speaks loudly over the centuries, and it’s always worth repeating.

First off, we can’t ever preach too much about God’s grace. There’s something really liberating when we figure out that we’re not the ones driving this bus. We don’t do a freakin’ thing which influences God. God’s the one who does it all, and that’s pretty good news. We can admit to being the screw-ups we really are and not find shame in that. God, like an indulgent parent, is willing to grant us everything we need for this life despite the fact that we’ve done nothing to deserve it but be our own, selfish, stupid selves. We can stop acting like competitive high school kids. We don’t have to show off our achievements on facebook anymore. We have nothing to boast about except the love of Christ on the cross—love that says we’re pretty special in God’s eyes in spite of ourselves.

Also, ol’ Martin Luther left us a really key way to look at the relationship between the church and the state. It’s not quite the same as the way our American Founding Fathers refined it, and certainly not the polite way we practice—or, rather fail to practice—it today. In Luther’s day, priests, bishops, popes, and the like often had their noses in politics as power brokers. Pope Julius II was notorious for dressing up in armor and riding out in battle to conquer land for his papal estates. When the Church was so busy deciding who was in charge of stuff they had no time to preach the Gospel. Preaching the Gospel is, after, all the chief duty of churchmen. Luther wanted to make sure that priests and bishops served as shepherds to the people, and that qualified lay people handled the running of the state.

Luther believed that the state should protect and serve the citizens while it insured that the church was also protected. Kings and princes and emperors had no right to tell people what to believe and how to worship God. Similarly, priests and bishops and popes had no right to control who was put in charge of a country or how wars were to be fought. However, Luther did maintain that the Church was responsible for the teaching of morality and compassion to the populace. It was, he felt, the duty of the church to proclaim Christ’s love and correct the state when it had gone wrong. Those who in America today argue that religion and politics don’t mix display a woeful hypocrisy. Even in our democracy we are called to vote with our conscience. It can’t be “Love thy neighbor” on Sunday and “Every man for himself” the rest of the week. It is still the duty of the strong to protect the weak, and the duty of the rich to protect the poor. The teachings of Jesus still apply in our secular dealings.

As a former public school teacher, I personally love the fact that Luther was one of the first advocates for public education. In 1524 he wrote a powerful letter to the councilmen of Germany listing his reasons why the state should be responsible for the education of the young. Simply put, if a child can’t read, that child can’t read the Bible. Good education is deep in our Lutheran identity. I’m sure if Luther were around today he would have something to say about a country which vilifies teachers, demands high standards on tests, yet denies schools the means to meet those standards.

Our Lutheran heritage also embraces the idea of servanthood. In 1520 Luther wrote, “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” By this he meant, of course, that no one has the right to tell us what to believe. However, if we believe in Christ, we are bound to love and serve our neighbors as ourselves. There is a responsibility which comes with the faith. This is the natural outpouring of living in God’s grace.

An overlooked part of our Lutheran heritage (at least overlooked by the little lady I told you about above) is Luther’s belief that the Church is always reforming. I can’t tell you what American Lutheranism will look like in ten years’ time, but I’m pretty sure it will look differently from the way it looks now. I suspect the neighborhood church like the one I grew up in and the one I currently pastor may very likely disappear. Churches may become more community centers (as mine already has), and pastors may be part-time or bi-vocational (as many already are). Who knows? We may go back to the house church model of our early Christian ancestors. But, as Luther’s hymn reminds us, “God’s Word forever shall abide.”

What is this Lutheran Church we celebrate? A church proclaiming God’s grace—a church free to be full of love, forgiveness, welcome, and compassion. It’s a church not afraid to speak to society. It’s a church grounded in solid scholarship. It’s a church willing to be flexible with the changing times for the sake of the Gospel. It’s a church made free from fear.

May it always be so. Thanks for dropping by!

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Don't We Deserve a Prize? (Reflections on Pentecost 22, Year B)

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“…whoever wishes to become great among you must be a slave of all.” (Mark 10:43)

Oh, those whacky Zebedee boys! They’re at it again. In the Gospel appointed for Pentecost 22, Year B (Mark 10:35-45), James and John get a little giddy at the prospect of approaching Jerusalem. They just can’t wait to enter the city and see Jesus hailed as the Messiah. But, boy..! Do they have a surprise coming!

If you’ve been reading along in Mark’s Gospel, you might’ve noticed that Jesus has told the disciples no less than three times[i] that he’s going to be rejected and crucified. Nevertheless, it seems to have gone in one ear and out the other for these two lads. They can’t wait to see the crowds mobilize, hail Jesus as king, and take important seats in his new government. They want to sit at the right and left hand—Vice President and Secretary of State. Yup! They’re going to throw out that slimy bunch of pagan Romans and their Sadducee myrmidons and take over the whole operation themselves. They’ll show those foreign scumbags that they’ve messed with the wrong bunch of Chosen People.

So Jesus has to bring them up short and ask them if they’re willing to suffer the same way he’s willing to suffer. Naturally, they tell him they’ll endure anything for the sake of the prize which is at stake. Then Jesus has to tell them that their suffering is pretty much guaranteed—but the prize isn’t. If they want to know what greatness is, they have to become slaves.

They must’ve thought that sucked. After all, what good is greatness if you’re not GREATER than somebody else?

That’s one of the problems with this text. It’s so easy to make our suffering and our serving a competition. It’s easy to criticize James and John for their ambition, but it’s harder to criticize ourselves for our glorious humility. It’s also hard to tell the difference at times between actually serving and just being a doormat for someone. There’s a thin line between a sacrifice and an out-and-out waste. What if what we think is humble service to the Lord is actually enabling someone else’s bad behavior?

Oh! And what about those poor, afflicted souls who have every right to be miserable, depressed and cranky—and actually choose to exercise that right? You know who I’m talking about. It’s the ones who can’t believe that anyone’s suffering could be greater than theirs. They use their weakness to lord it over others just as the “gentiles” Jesus refers to in our lesson use their power and position.

How do we come to terms with our sense of wounded entitlement? I recently read W. Somerset Maugham’s 1906 comic novel The Bishop’s Apron, and I had one of those dark epiphanies which I find so uncomfortable. The main character in the book is an Anglican pastor named Theodore Spratte who desperately wants to become a bishop. Spratte feels he’s entitled to wear the gators and apron of the episcopal post. He’s witty, charming, eloquent, and the son of a prominent peer. He’s put in twenty years of service with his London congregation, and he feels he’s earned a promotion. When a bishopric opens up he feels certain he will be named. Unfortunately for him, he is only offered a minor deanery in Wales.

For a brief moment, Spratte grasps his own unimportance and begins to see himself the way others might see him—overly ambitious, vain, pretentious, and foolish. His ego cracks, and he has the opportunity to embrace a real humility. He considers the honor it might be to serve the Church away from the limelight and do good works for their own sake without the glory he has so coveted.

Of course, Maugham’s novel is a comedy, so Spratte doesn’t waste too much time on acquiring self-knowledge before talking himself back into his old self-satisfied grandiosity. When I read this, I confess I squirmed a bit in my easy chair. Coming to terms with my own brokenness is just a little too uncomfortable for me—just as it might be for you, too.

But Jesus doesn’t pull any punches here. He tells us quite plainly that we will drink the cup of sorrow and be washed in the bath of suffering. It’s a fact, but it’s never a competition. Lowliness, loneliness, suffering, hurt, disappointment, and pain aren’t meant to make us better than others. They can best serve to unite us with others. Jesus chose this path in order to be united with us.

There’s really no point in looking for a reward on this side of eternity, is there? If you think by living a good and virtuous life God will reward you with good and virtuous things, that’s not really religion. It’s superstition. We can’t influence God. Religion—real faith—is letting God influence us.[ii]

Thanks for stopping by. Please come again!
nd foolish. His ego cracks,a nd he has the opportunity way others might see him--overly ely wants

[i] Mk 8:31-33, 9:31-32, and 10: 33-34 if you’re keeping score.
[ii] You may quote me if you like.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

It's Hard to Give Stuff Up (Reflections on Pentecost 21, Year B)

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"Jesus and the Rich Young Man" Heinrich Hofmann, 19th Cent.

“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23)

That’s a pretty intimidating scriptural passage I just quoted above, don’t you think? Fortunately, it’s not one I personally need to be intimidated by since I don’t think I possess anything that could really be described as wealth by the standards of our society. Of course, as I stop and think about it, I’m really living in unimaginable wealth and luxury compared to just about anyone living in the developing world. My modest little two-bedroom twin home (made affordable on my pastor’s salary thanks to my state’s Fair and Affordable Housing Act) is a freakin’ palace next to a mud hut in Uganda[i] or some place like that.

But still, the Gospel appointed for Pentecost 21 Year B in the Revised Common Lectionary (Mark 10:17-31) doesn’t sound like anything I can preach to my congregation. I mean, the danger of excessive wealth isn’t really a problem we face here in Northeast Philly. Most of my folks are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and the church is too. We’re just barely hanging on here, cutting corners, downsizing, and watching while other Lutheran parishes are going down like Custer at the Big Horn. Do we really need to be warned about being wealthy..?

I should be so lucky to be pastor of some suburban congregation with a million dollar endowment fund and a bunch of hedge fund managers and dermatologists in the pews! I bet I could really guilt that bunch into following Jesus by making hefty donations to Lutheran Disaster Response and stuff like that.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I resent the rich. At least not much.

No. I’m just sickened by what excessive wealth seems to be doing to my country. I turn on the news and I hear this philosophy of selfishness. The President goes before the UN and whines that America is the world’s biggest giver, but we get nothing in return (Shouldn’t somebody tell him that if we get something back it’s not really giving but trade?). Congress cuts taxes for billionaires, but will probably cut services for the indigent and the elderly as a result. TV preachers in gilded sets preach that God wants to bless us with riches. When I hear this crap I can feel myself spitting up slightly in my mouth.

And that’s the thing I don’t want to give up—my sense of superior indignation. I think I’m like everybody else—like you, probably—I have tried to keep all the commandments from my youth. I’m a nice guy. Really, I am. But just like the wealthy man in the Gospel lesson, I hang onto stuff I should really get rid of if I want to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God.

No. I really, really don’t want to part with my self-righteousness. The trouble is, it’s so hard for me to advocate for the marginalized and ask my congregation to do the same without blaming someone. I drive to work every day listening to the news on NPR and end up swearing at the radio about remarks made by people who, according to orthodox Christian theology, are no greater sinners and no less redeemed than I am.

Fortunately, I get to come to my little urban, cinder-block, sometimes-roach-infested church. I get to park in the lot where someone has left an abandoned shopping cart and discarded garbage from the fast food joint. I get to clean up the spilled coffee the AA group has left in the Fellowship Room. And, later, I get to teach a beautiful group of eight middle school students about the Ten Commandments and the concept of God’s grace. 

“They were greatly astonished and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’” (Mark 10:26-27)

That just about says it all, doesn’t it? And thank God it does!

Thanks for stopping by this week.

[i] Do they have mud huts in Uganda? I should check that out.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Nightmare of October

(This is another piece I wrote for my congregation's newsletter. I hope you enjoy it. I am on vacation this week and will not be posting thoughts on the RCL readings.)

An emergency influenza ward in Oakland during the 1918 pandemic.

Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.” (Isaiah 13:6)

The falling leaves of October are upon us. The trappings of Halloween, the spider webs and bats and ghostly pumpkins, can be seen all around the neighborhoods. Americans are in love with fright, or so it seems. But this October my thoughts go to a horror more ghastly, fearful, and deadly than any ghost story, fright flick, or Stephen King novel. It is a true story, and it happened a hundred years ago.

In October of 1918 over three hundred thousand Americans died a slow and horrible death. It was a world-wide pandemic, the deadliest in all of human history. The first cases of this plague had been reported in Kansas in January, but by October the scourge had not only spread across America, but around the entire globe—even to remote South Sea Islands and to the Arctic. Historians believe that this viral monster, which became known as the “Spanish Flu” or, today, the “Great Influenza,” infected one out of every three human beings on the face of the earth. 10 to 20 percent of all those infected died—mostly young adults in their twenties or thirties. The Great Influenza killed more people in its twenty-four month reign of terror than the AIDS epidemic killed in twenty-four years. It killed more than died of the Black Death in a century during the Middle Ages. It killed more than succumbed to the violence of the trenches of the First World War. Estimates range from fifty to one hundred million people lost their lives to the flu.

One of the cities hit the hardest by the pandemic was Philadelphia. Health officials warned the city leaders, begging them to cancel a victory parade in honor of the success of American troops fighting in France. The city fathers paid no heed. The parade was held, the crowds came out in the thousands, and the epidemic swept through Philadelphia like a match touched to gasoline. It is said that in one week over forty-six hundred Philadelphians died of the flu. Corpses were actually stacked on the streets to be buried without caskets in mass graves.

Upstate, the flu spread through the coal country, easily spread by young men working in close quarters. A twenty-two-year-old mining electrician in Taylor fell ill with the disease and died in October of 1918, leaving behind a widow, a four-year-old daughter, and a two-month-old baby boy who would grow up to be my father.

For people of my dad’s generation—and there are so few of them left now—it was impossible to grow up without knowing some family which had lost a father or a mother. There was no SNAP program in those days for a family without a bread-winner. There was no Social Security, no welfare. There was only the charitable support of family, the goodness of neighbors, or the ministry of the church. It doesn’t surprise me that his generation was considered the most church-going in American history.

I wonder at times what my dad’s youth was like since he was raised without a father, but he often told me of how uncles and others banded together to look after him and his mother and sister. Selflessness seems to be at the core of those who grew up during that time. And to think: while they were still children, the entire U.S. economy collapsed in the stock market crash, leading to twenty-four percent unemployment by 1933. When they came of age, the world again dove headlong into unspeakable violence. Over four hundred thousand American servicemen never came home from North Africa, Europe, or the Pacific. Those left behind during World War II bought bonds, planted victory gardens, and endured rationing. And prayed.

I think now of the children who grew up in the shadow of the Great Influenza of 1918 and of how their elders taught them compassion and duty and faith—lessons which would be useful when they faced the Depression and the war that were to come. I wonder how we in this time would fare if we were to face a pandemic of the magnitude of 1918. Would it teach us anything about being community? Would it take us out of our shells of individuality and force us to open our hearts to our neighbors? Does God need to send us another horror to wake us up and remind us we are all rowing the same boat?