Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Time to Lift Our Heads (Reflections on Advent 1, Year C)

Image result for advent wreath with one candle lit

For my eleventh birthday my dad took me to the movies. Like all good American dad and son combinations, we went to see a Western double feature: Rio Lobo with John Wayne, and Monte Walsh with Lee Marvin and Jack Palance. I loved the John Wayne flick, but I was a little too young to really appreciate Monte Walsh, a film about two cowboys facing the end of an era when trail hands were employable. I saw the picture on TV years later, and I found it touchingly tragic. I recall one scene in which Palance’s character tells Marvin, “It’s over, Monte. Nobody gets to be a cowboy forever.” As I look back on that eleventh birthday outing, I wonder what my dad must’ve felt like watching a movie about the death of an industry. At the time, he himself was facing an industry-wide layoff.

This past week General Motors announced that it would be closing several plants and laying off about 14,000 workers. Just as railroad spurs and barbed–wire fences eliminated the need for cowboys in 1900, so automation and consumer demand for different types of vehicles are eliminating the need for many auto workers. The world is changing, and you have to wonder just what the future will look like. Is there a whole way of life which is vanishing and won’t come back? I’ve seen a prediction that China might well become the world’s leading economy by 2030[i]. Is the “American Century” over? Are we witnessing the end of something we hoped was eternal?

Even more startling than the economic news is the way the physical world seems to be changing. There is “on earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” as global climate change causes more destructive weather events from hurricanes to droughts to rising sea levels. Will the roaring waves cover half of Florida in my lifetime, do you think?

And what about the Church? We keep hearing that more and more Americans do not identify with any religion at all. When I came to Philly in 1994, there were 60 ELCA congregations within the city limits. There are fewer than 30 today. The 5 million member ELCA has shrunk to about 3.5 million in the same time period. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going the way of the cowboy. Am I becoming an anachronism?

In the gospel lesson for Advent 1 Year C (Luke 21:25-36) Jesus warns the disciples about the changes to come. Previously in the chapter (verses 5 – 24) he’s prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, the dissolution of the Jewish state by the Gentiles, and the persecution which his followers will face. In these verses he warns of a cosmic change which will be seen in the very moon and stars. “The powers of the heavens will be shaken,” he says. And he says it like it’s supposed to be a good thing!

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the way things are these days, I can’t help but think that, if Jesus means to return in a cloud with great power and glory, NOW would be a pretty good time for him to do it!

I’m scared of the time to come just as much as the next guy, I guess. But Jesus promises us that when we see the signs of change, it means that the Kingdom of God is near (v. 31). He assures us that his words will not pass away, and that the moment of change is the moment when we need to raise our heads—whether we want to or not. In verses 34-5 he warns us against avoidance. We can’t just pretend that things aren’t changing. We can’t just get stoned and laugh it off or busy ourselves with the minutia of daily life and fool ourselves into believing that hard choices won’t have to be made. I mean, haven’t we all seen people who just give up? They can’t deal with the loss, so they just shut themselves away and wait to die. We’ve also seen churches in which the congregations still think it’s 1960, still do things the same old way, and slip peacefully beneath the waves with their last breath gasping, “Where are the young people?”

No. Jesus is asking us to face the tribulations head on. He is asking us to be in prayer for strength (v. 36). I don’t really believe (and I hope I’m not wrong about this) that the future years will see mass destruction and a return to the Stone Age. I hope our prayer for strength won’t be for the strength to survive cataclysm and the breakdown of civilization. Granted, for victims of flooding in Georgia and Florida or victims of wildfires in California, the prayer for strength really is a prayer for survival. For the rest of us, however, it will be a prayer for faith in the face of things which are vastly different than we thought or hoped they’d be.

If we don’t see Heaven open and Jesus descending with the angelic host, we’ll have to start looking for him and his kingdom in other ways. We’ll still need to pray the great Advent prayer, “Come Lord Jesus!” We’ll still need to believe that our desperation is God’s opportunity. We’ll pray with faith and confidence for a new way to be the church, a new way to be society, a new way to treat our planet, new people to love, new ways to serve, and new ways to experience the loving, forgiving, healing form of Jesus in our lives, our work, and our relationships.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

[i] That’s according to Fortune. If you click on the name, you can read the article.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Truth King (Reflections on the Feast of Christ the King, Year B)

"My kingdom is not from this world..." (John 18:36)

It’s an embarrassing thing for an American to admit (especially an American of Welsh ancestry), but I really love royalty. At least British royalty. I love the way they have weddings with parades. I love seeing the Queen’s Household Cavalry, and the scarlet uniforms and the music and the flags waving. Being a junkie for ritual, I just eat that stuff up. I love it when all the crowd starts singing “God Save the Queen.” It’s just so classy the way they do stuff over there in the UK.

As sad as it is to think about, I imagine I might just get to see a royal coronation ceremony someday. Not that I wish any harm to Her Majesty! She’s a swell old gal, but she is getting up there in years, you know. Eventually we’ll see a king sitting on the throne, and I’ll bet the show the Brits put on for that event will be pretty darn spectacular—fireworks and trumpets and God-knows-what.

But I’m given to understand that our friends across the pond are a little conflicted about the succession of their monarchy. The next in line, Charles, always seemed to me to be a pretty stand-up guy. He does a lot for charity and really cares about the environment and the poor. But he is a bit stuffy people say. He also committed adultery on his very popular Princess, and I’m not sure folks have quite forgiven him for that. The tabloids rumor that a lot of folks would much rather see the hip, young William, Duke of Cambridge leapfrog over his old man and be the new king. After all, he’s a good-looking, modern, family man with a gorgeous wife, adorable kids, and a charming smile. What more could you ask for in a king?

But rules are rules, aren’t they? Common folks don’t get to pick their king, they just have to take the one who is next in line or, as was done in the past, the one who is crafty and mean enough to beat out the competition. But if you got to choose a king, what qualities would you look for in him? In the Hebrew Scriptures book of 1 Samuel[i], the people of Israel demand that God give them a king so they can be like all the other nations. They want a guy who reflects everything that they hope to be. God gives them Saul, a tall, good-looking fellow and a fierce warrior who—for a while, anyway—is able to whoop their enemies and make the Israelites feel like they were really hot stuff.

I guess that’s important for the kingdoms of this world. We want a king we can admire, who is the embodiment of our ideal. We want him to be strong and ruthless and a terror to our enemies. We want him look like us. We want him to be adorned in glory and be a picture of wealth and aristocratic breeding. We want our kings to be GREAT.

When the people of Israel told the prophet Samuel they wanted a king, Samuel warned them that they were making a big mistake. They wanted a man of power, but Sam told them that his power could easily be abused, and in Saul’s case (to say nothing of the many who would follow him on the thrones of Israel and Judah), it was. Nevertheless, throughout history we have called for rulers who represent some false idea of ourselves. Years ago, I read Charles Bracelen Flood’s Hitler: The Path to Power. I was surprised (as, I guess any American might be) that there were some in Germany in the 1920’s who actually wanted a dictator. They wanted a strongman who would take over, knock some heads together, and make everything alright after the chaos of a lost war and an economic depression. They wanted a leader to reign with ruthless efficiency. Unfortunately, we too often get what we want and we suffer as a consequence.

The problem, of course, is that no earthly ruler is ever perfect. We look for a leader who is the image of what we think we want, but that leader will invariably turn out to be a false messiah.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI—after witnessing how kings, czars, emperors and Kaisers had managed to screw up Western civilization and cost the world 16 million human lives in the senseless slaughter of World War I—added the feast of Christ the King to the liturgical calendar. I guess old Pius figured it was time that we turned our eyes to a true king—a king who came to bear witness to the truth.

In the Gospel lesson for Christ the King Sunday (John 18:33-38), Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate, the poor slob, hasn’t got a clue. He sees kings and emperors as an embodiment of what he thinks is greatness. But it’s a false greatness, because all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. No matter how powerful a ruler may be, no one has complete control over the doings of this planet save God.

The king who stands before Pilate is the reflection of who we, as human beings, truly are. He was born a peasant. He was born homeless. He was a refugee[ii]. He was a worker—even the crown of thorns he was to wear was a symbol of dirt-scratching hard labor[iii]. He was unappreciated. He had family issues. He was lied to and betrayed. He lost loved ones. He was bullied. He knew physical pain and helplessness. He knew loneliness, temptation, and disappointment. He knew the truth.

We are so afraid of our own vulnerability, but Jesus wasn’t afraid of it. He came to share it with us. And if he can share our truth, can’t we share his love and compassion? If he can love us in our truth, can’t we love others in theirs? Christ our King is not a false image. He came to us with nothing to hide. He’s not a king who towers over us who will eventually disappoint us. He’s a king who stands with us. How full and meaningful our hearts and lives will be if we can learn to be his loyal and true subjects.

Thanks for visiting my site this week. I really am glad you came! Oh! And by the way, Christ the King 2018 marks my 20th anniversary as Pastor of Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia. My thanks to everyone who has made this part of my earthly journey so meaningful.


[i] See 1 Samuel chapters 9 – 30 for Saul’s unfortunate story.
[ii] See Matthew chapter 2.
[iii] See Genesis 3:17-19.

Monday, November 12, 2018

We All Lose Our Jerusalem (Reflections on Pentecost 26, Year B)

Image result for images of ruins of Jerusalem
“…all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:2b)

I have a really cool bunch of kids in the Confirmation class I teach. One of them is a talkative little firecracker named Emma. Emma is twelve-years-old and she loves to dance. Last week she told me that she’s motivated to get good marks in the seventh grade so she can get into a good high school.

When I heard this I thought, “Whaaatt??!! You’re worried about getting into a good high school?” In my day, you just went to the high school in your neighborhood. There was no such thing as competing to get into secondary education. It was all pretty much the same. You might worry about a good college, but nobody stressed over high school.

Suddenly I realized how much the world has changed. I started to recognize that kids today are under a lot more stress than I was at their age. They all carry phones with them now. That’s pretty convenient, but it also means that they’re all at risk for being stalked or cyber-bullied. They also worry about getting shot. It seems that some schools even have drills for what to do in the event of an active shooter.

Okay. I taught for several years in the Los Angeles school district and I had some gang kids in my classes. At least two of them were injured in gang-related drive-by shootings. But I never expected or imagined anything like the events of April 20, 1999.

You see, everyone has a day when their Temple crashes, when things they believed in and trusted and felt safe about crumble. We remember the deaths of people like President Kennedy or Dr. King or John Lennon. We remember 9/11. For me, it was the violence of that April day when two disturbed young men opened fire on their classmates at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. And it’s the knowledge that Emma and all the other Emmas have never lived in a world where the threat of an active school shooter was not a possibility.

In our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 26 (Mark 13:1-8), Jesus’ disciples are impressed with the grandeur of the Jerusalem Temple. And why wouldn’t they be? It’s, to them, the holiest place on earth. It’s where God receives the sacrifices for sin and grants forgiveness. It’s the center of politics and the pride of their nation. There really can’t be an Israel without this wonderful and freakin’ awesome structure.

But Jesus knows that it’s all just a pile of rocks. For some, the destruction of this monumental edifice is unthinkable. To lose it would be to lose the whole nation and the whole sense of what it means to be a Jew. And yet, all earthly structures—whether buildings, governments, religious institutions, or our sense of safety—are only just marking time on this earth. Loss and change are inevitable.

So Jesus tells us not to be afraid of our losses (v. 7), and he warns us not to believe the hucksters who tell us they can save us from such loss—because they can’t. Jesus calls us to a deeper trust, a trust in his love that allows him to die for us because he knows that the eternal things are not of this world. We all have our Jerusalems. We all have a job or a person or a church or a home or an idea. Something in which we put our faith. We deeply fear losing whatever it is, and we know that we’ll get no advance warning when it is taken from us. But we also must know that through loss something will be found. That is the promise of faith.

I think I get that the kids of today have lost the innocence I might’ve had in the world of my youth. There’s something we all had back then which isn’t there now. But, perhaps I’m finding, even as I worry about my students, a greater sense of compassion is being born in me along with a bit more patience and understanding.

I put it all in God’s hands anyway.

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness;
no merit of my own I claim, but wholly lean on Jesus' name.
On Christ the solid rock I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. 
(Edward Mote, 1797-1874)

Thanks for reading this week, my friend.ossor a church or a home or an idea. Somethingdeas in which we put our faith. We deeply fear their

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Saint of the Month: Willie

Image result for images of willie nelson

Willie Nelson, of course.

The old dude is eighty-five years of age and just as defiant, original, creative, and talented as ever. Kind of gives you hope, doesn’t it?

Now, I’ll grant that this income-tax-delinquent, unrepentant dope-smoking, four-times-married iconoclast may not appear to be a good example of moral piety and rectitude. I really don’t care. I’ve just always dug Willie. There’s just something about the very serene way he seems to be telling us all that, if we don’t like it, we can apply our lips to his posterior (metaphorically speaking) which makes it impossible not to like him.

Willie may not be the most orthodox of believers. He’s sort of a Christian with Hindu overtones and a bit of the Rastafarian thrown in to add seasoning. In his 1988 autobiography, he describes how he had an epiphany that all things are in God, and theology has always been an interest of his. Unfortunately, as a young man the budding theologian was forced to quit his gig as a Baptist Sunday School teacher when pious church-goers complained he was a bad influence because he sang and played in bars on Saturday nights.

But, as Luther teaches, we are all both saint and sinner. And as James, the Lord’s brother teaches, faith without works is dead (James 2:17). And Willie has certainly demonstrated saintliness through his works. He has been the tireless advocate for the American family farmer through his Farm Aid concerts. He raised his voice to denounce the Iraq war and to support LGBTQ rights. He’s championed renewable energy by his production and use of biofuels. He’s joined Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke in denouncing the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. Whether or not you agree with his use of weed, I think, on balance, Willie has done more good than harm.

Personally, I just like the guy’s style. There is a gentle way in both his music and his character which says that it’s alright to be exactly who you are. In his non-abrasive way, he just doesn’t seem to give a crap about what others think. I also dig the fact that he loves to revive old tunes. His 1978 Stardust album was a departure from his outlaw country music. He recorded, and continues to perform, some of the loveliest melodies from America’s golden age of pop standards—Gershwin, Cole Porter, Mercer Ellington, etc. You just have to love an eighty-four-year-old hippie in pigtails and a graphic T-shirt crooning Hoagy Carmichael. He did the album because, he said, “There’s a whole generation of young people who’ve never heard these songs.” God bless you, Willie, for keeping theses tunes alive and making them sound so cool.

But, for my money, Willie’s best and most under-appreciated album is one I found at a Borders Book Store in White Plains, NY back in 1996. It’s a collection of classic American gospel tunes he recorded with his sister, Bobbie, who plays the piano. The 1990 album is called Old Time Religion. It includes “I’d Rather Have Jesus,” “Lily of the Valley,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Are You Washed in the Blood,” and a bunch of other great old-time gospel songs my dad probably sang in Sunday School. It’s my tradition to play this album to wake myself up every Easter morning. I put it on my car stereo as I drive through the pre-dawn darkness on my way to Sunrise Service. And I sing along, too. The Resurrection of Our Lord is always sweet when I share it with Willie.