Monday, December 23, 2019

Wayne's Christmas Tree

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The story I’m relating below is a true story told to me in written form by the late Frank Wayne Martin[i], one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known and one of my parishioners when I served as vicar at Grace Lutheran in Yorktown Heights, NY in 1996-7. Wayne wrote this story of his youth and sent it to me shortly after I became pastor of Faith Lutheran, Philadelphia in 1998. I read it as my Christmas Eve homily in 1999. I have, alas, since lost Wayne’s manuscript, and he is no longer around to replace it for me. I fear I may be unclear on some of the facets of the story, and may be prone to remember some incorrectly or neglect others. Nevertheless, I think I have the main points of the tale correct.

It was during the Great Depression, and Wayne was a boy of twelve or so. He was an only child, growing up in beautiful Vermont when the first tragedy of his life came calling. His father, a veteran of the Great War, had developed a heart condition believed to be the result of over-exertion during deployment. This cut his life short and left Wayne an orphan and his mother a widow. It also left the surviving Martins somewhat destitute in those days before the New Deal provided the social safety nets upon which we’ve come to rely in our time.

The death of a parent is devastating enough to a child; however, the loss of the family provider also meant a curtailing of non-essential expenses. I imagine it must’ve been very hard on Mrs. Martin to tell her son there would be a very limited Christmas that year. There could be no bonanza of gifts under the tree. In fact, as Christmas trees cost money, there could be no tree.

To young Wayne, this simply wasn’t right. It wouldn’t be Christmas without a Christmas tree. The youngster determined to put this situation to rights. With a knack for problem-solving which would serve him well in later adult life, Wayne approached the local man who sold Christmas trees and made this proposition: he would work for the man after school and on weekends during the Christmas season without pay. The only recompense he asked was to be given any unsold tree leftover at close-of-business on Christmas Eve. The man, who, in those belt-tightened days of the Depression could not afford to pay an assistant, eagerly accepted the boy’s offer.

So Wayne went into the Christmas tree business. As trees were sold off the front of the lot, the boy would haul fresh trees up from the back. He assisted customers by tying trees to their cars or carts or dragging them home through the icy streets. Perhaps he received a few pennies in tips for his efforts. The tree man liked Wayne, and would put him in charge of the cash box when he took a break to have dinner at a local lunch counter.

A few days before Christmas, Wayne’s boss told him that, as business had slowed considerably, he would no longer require an assistant. Wayne’s “pay” was waiting for him in the back of the lot. The boy discovered that his “employer” had reserved for him one of the biggest and fullest of the trees.

Wayne dragged the gigantic tree home over the snowy sidewalks, anxious to delight his mother with his prize. Mrs. Martin was amazed by the beautiful tree and ran to the attic to get her box of tree ornaments and decorations. Mother and son sang carols as they trimmed the massive pine. When they had finished, they stopped and admired their work and placed the few presents they could afford under the boughs. Wayne had saved his tip money to buy a box of face powder for his mother. He had also purchased a small catnip mouse for the family cat. Mrs. Martin, knowing her son’s interest in art, bought him a set of colored drawing pencils. This set would become a prized possession, used carefully and sparingly for years afterwards, and even made it into the backpack Wayne carried as a forward observer in Patton’s 3rd Army.

Unfortunately, the three small gifts seemed rather puny and humble beneath the limbs of the magnificent tree. Mrs. Martin had an idea. She had plenty of wrapping paper left over from more affluent Christmas’ past. She and Wayne gathered up everything they could find—soap flakes, breakfast cereal, old cigar boxes filled with buttons and thread, the telephone directory, books off the shelf. Anything. These they wrapped in the festive paper and placed under the tree until it looked as if Santa’s pack had split open at the Martin’s house.

On Christmas morning, the Martins celebrated just as they had done when Mr. Martin was with them. The mother and son used their fantastic imaginations to explain the origins of the unusual “gifts.”

“This is for you,” Mrs. Martin said as she handed Wayne a parcel to unwrap. “It’s from President Roosevelt.”

Wayne tore off the paper. “Oh boy! Kellogg’s Corn Flakes! Just what I wanted. How did he know..?!”

By the following Christmas, Wayne and his mother had gone to live with relatives. The subsequent years would be less stressful, the Christmas gifts more abundant. Nevertheless, Wayne maintained for the rest of his life that no other Christmas—with the possible exception of one spent in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge—was ever as meaningful or as memorable as the one he spent alone with his mother the year his father died.

I think sometimes that the beauty of Christmas is in its poverty, not its excess. God chose to come to an unwed teen mother who would find herself homeless at the time she gave birth. God announced this birth to the poorest and most despised of peasants, the shepherds. The boy born to be the Prince of Peace would soon find himself a refugee in Egypt. The prophet hailed as Messiah on Sunday would be rejected in favor of another by Friday. The teacher who healed the sick would die a criminal’s death on the cross.

And yet that same despised peasant would rise again, and his followers, frightened working-class, uneducated peasants, would find the strength to change the world. Sometimes it’s in the moments when we have the least that we discover God has given us so much.

Merry Christmas, my dears!

[i] I recommend any serious student of history check out Wayne’s WWII memoirs, Patton’s Luck Scout, published by Crickhollow Books. Wayne Martin died in 2010 shortly after the book was published. You can read more about him at

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Remembering the Innocent (Reflections on Christmas 1, Year A)

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“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” (Matthew 2:13)

After all the joy and festivity of Christmas, the Revised Common Lectionary leads us out of the calendar year with this disturbing story of jealousy, oppression, and mass murder (Matthew 2:13-23). I’m not sure I really blame the folks who decide to sleep in on Christmas 1. This story, known as The Massacre of the Innocents, is really a buzz kill, isn’t it? After “Peace on earth, good will to men,” we end the year getting reminded that this world we live in is still a pretty sick place.

Now, should it make you feel any better, I could tell you that the story of King Herod murdering all these little boys under age 2 in order to wipe out Jesus as his competition is  believed by many historians to be apocryphal. Of course, it’s not that hard to believe that a ruler might use his governmental power to destroy a rival, is it? And we know historically that Herod the Great had no trouble murdering members of his own family in order to secure his throne. It’s not very hard to believe that he’d want Jesus dead, too.

The Gospel isn’t going to let us off easy with just a message of Joy to the World. Christmas 1 reminds us that suffering still abounds, and innocent children are still victims. This past year alone 100 children have been victims of gun violence in the city of Philadelphia. Between 2009 and 2018 there have been over 180 shootings in K-12 schools in the United States, resulting in 356 youngsters killed or wounded, and countless others scarred by the experience. Over 400,000 children are in foster care in this country. At this moment there are still over 700 children separated from their parents and detained at the US border. 35 million children are living in the world as refugees from violence, war, persecution, and starvation.

Our Gospel lesson should remind us of these suffering innocents because the Most Innocent, was, according to this story, a refugee from violence and oppression himself.

It’s kind of hard to know how to preach on a passage like this, so I’ll defer to the great Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who penned this poem (which later became a Christmas carol) during the bleak days of the Civil War:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn

The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He 
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."

Our Gospel lesson tells us two things: the world is sick, but God is still active in healing it. God desires wellness in our land, in our world, and in ourselves. It’s appropriate that we at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia observe a healing liturgy on this last Sunday of the year. As the sands ebb out on 2019, we can come before God with all that troubles us and all that troubles God. We can pray for deliverance, but we can also recount how we, like the Holy Family, have been delivered and rescued. We can take that deliverance as a source of strength as we go forward to do our part—however small that may seem—for the healing of the world.

The poet said, “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” Take heart. Have hope. Go on.

May God give you courage and peace in the New Year.

Righteous Mess (Reflections on Advent 4, Year A)

Danielle[i] was the single mother of three. She was also an opioid addict. She fought bravely with her disease, but the authorities removed all three children from her custody shortly after she gave birth to her third. Because the children’s father is in prison, Marc and Sue, a compassionate couple, took in the children and conscientiously included their birth mother in their lives. Danielle was able to visit with the kids and maintain a relationship while she fought to get her life back on track.

But her life never got back on track. She died of an overdose a few weeks ago. She was 33 years old.

As I read the funeral liturgy for Danielle, I watched this newly-created family. There were two boys, 13 and 9, and a little girl of 7. They looked healthy and neat and respectful. Marc sat with his arm around the younger boy, comforting him as a father should.

I thought to myself, “These kids have been through a lot. Their dad is in jail. Their mom is dead. Who knows what kind of memories may haunt them? What kind of people are moved to take in a stranger’s children and raise them as their own? Has this couple thought about what they’re getting themselves into? They must be some pretty righteous folks if they’re willing to take on this burden.”

Righteous. In our gospel lesson appointed for Advent 4, Year A (Matthew 1:18-25), Joseph is described as being a “righteous man” (v. 19). Bible scholars are on the fence about what Matthew meant when he so described the guardian of our Lord. Was Joseph righteous because he had compassion for his betrothed even though she seems to have committed adultery, or was he righteous because, according to the purity standards of his society, he would not be yoked to a woman who had so obviously committed a sin? Perhaps both interpretations are accurate.

The Bible says Joseph “planned to dismiss her quietly.” This speaks to his compassion, but it also get him off the hook. Don’t you ever wish you could just quietly dismiss the causes of anxiety in your life? The people who—maybe even in spite of their best intentions—are the source of your sleepless nights? Don’t you wish you could do away with all the mess in your life neatly and without further aggravation?

But that isn’t how it works out, is it? God’s way is so often very messy. God’s way calls for you to go down streets the society teaches you to avoid, and to deal with situations which aren’t of your making, but a righteous love of God’s justice and mercy compels you to address. Dirty jobs that someone has to do, and that someone is you. God is calling you to take on others’ burdens, engage with strangers, and trust that God’s hand is in this.

I wonder if Joseph suffered any for obeying God. Did the society look askance at him because he was willing to be the husband of a woman they considered a whore? Perhaps he knew that the prophet Hosea had done just the same thing and yet was accounted an instrument of God. Did Joseph worry about the son he was taking on? Would the “righteous” folks look down on this boy because his parentage was in doubt and he couldn’t be proven to be 100% Jewish? How was Joseph to parent a lad like this?

Sometimes God calls us to frightening tasks. Our Christmas story of Mary and Joseph is the miracle story of simple people like Marc and Sue who can see the Word made flesh, and are willing to say “yes, Lord.”

Thanks for reading, my friend. May God grant you a blessed week and give you strength in the tasks he has set before you.

[i] This is not her real name. I’ve changed all names out of respect for the people involved.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

What Did You Come Out to See? (Reflections on Advent 3, Year A)

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“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’” (Matthew 11:2-3)

So, in our Gospel lesson for Advent 3, Year A (Matthew 11”2-11), we find John the Baptist in the lock-up. Boy. That must really suck.

I guess no good deed ever goes unpunished. Poor John has been preparing the way for the Messiah, speaking truth to power, and encouraging people to lead godly lives in anticipation of God’s deliverance—and all he gets for his trouble is a jail cell. You can see why he suddenly starts doubting Jesus. Can you blame him? Things aren’t turning out the way he pictured, so he sends his disciples to talk to Jesus and get a little reassurance.

And what does Jesus say? Folks are getting healed of their infirmities, the poor are being encouraged, and those who welcome Jesus’ message are being blessed. Yes, life may suck for John right now, but God didn’t stop being good because John’s circumstances prevented him from seeing the goodness. And, if you think about it, that’s true for us, too. On the crappiest day we’re ever going to have, some woman will deliver a healthy baby. Some kid might get his first job. Two youngsters might fall in love. Somebody may be told they are cancer free. The goodness of God’s Kingdom is in the here and the now.

Heck yeah this world—and our nation—are in a lousy state; nevertheless, there are warriors of the Kingdom still working to put it right. God has not abandoned us. It’s just that God’s Kingdom may not come as we expect it to come.

I’ll bet Jesus got some kind of a chuckle out of John’s disciples. He had to rattle their cage a little (Jesus is good at that) and ask them just what it was they expected in the Messiah. He asks them what they expected to see when they encountered John.

After all, John was pretty counter-cultural. He was on the outskirts of society in the wilderness. He dressed in skins and ate bugs and wasn’t anything like the religious leaders they’d come to know or expect. He wasn’t a reed in the wind who blew in the direction of the current fashion, and he wasn’t a prissy courtier to the power structure. He wasn’t anything conventional they were used to. Why would they think God’s Messiah would be conventional?

Our Messiah doesn’t fit the mold. He does not come with the trappings of wealth, political power, or celebrity. He comes to give comfort and hope to the people who have none of these. And he’s active right here under our very noses.

A few months ago I was at a conference at my synod headquarters on vital congregations. I found it really empowering to hear how God is moving in churches large and small, how God keeps showing up in unexpected ways through unexpected people. If we have an unconventional Messiah, why should we define our churches in conventional ways? It’s no longer about “Butts & Bucks”—that is, butts in the pews and bucks in the collection plate. It’s about love and relationships. It’s about compassion to the poor and the marginalized. It’s about welcome. It’s about healing. It’s about deepening a relationship with God and with humanity. It’s about seeing God active in the world and in your life. And if you feel you’re experiencing these things in your congregation, you should go and tell somebody about it.

On this Guadete Sunday, rejoice for the Kingdom of God has come near. A blessed Advent to you, my friend!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

John's Voice of Hope (Reflections on Advent 2, Year A)

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"Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Matthew 3:10)

I don’t know about you, but the above quote is pretty scary stuff to me. Old John the Baptist is giving us a pretty stern warning that we better get our act together or else..! In 2019 no fewer than three congregations in my deanery have gone belly up at the top of the ecclesiastical fish tank. The ranks are thinning, and I have to wonder if my little parish will be the next one to get chopped down.

I keep asking, “Are we bearing fruit?” I mean, in the voice of John the Baptist from the gospel appointed for Advent 2 this year (Matthew 3:1-12) I can just hear that ax grinding on the wheel. John’s voice is full of judgment. It’s telling me something better get done in a pretty quick hurry or that blade is coming down. I can’t lean on my good Lutheran theology for help because God could make Lutherans out of rocks if God wanted to (and I sometimes think God did!).

But once I get over my initial panic at the prophet’s message, I have to notice two important things about this text. First, John is calling for repentance. Second, John is promising that God will send a savior. This is actually pretty good news if you stop and think about it. Why would God want us to turn around if there were no place to turn? And why would God send a savior to a world which is beyond hope? The answer, of course, is that God wouldn’t. John’s warning voice is really a voice of hope. God has just packaged this hope in the guise of a scary, bug-eating, wilderness dude to get our attention.

Before we get too hopeful, however, we’d be wise to consider there’s plenty to be alarmed about. Besides our vanishing congregations, the life expectancy of Americans is getting shorter due to stress, gun violence, depression, suicide, drugs, and a bunch of other factors[i]. The world is getting wetter and warmer and climate disasters are becoming commonplace. We face a growing inequality between the haves and have-nots.

I know you’ve heard all of this noise before, and you probably don’t want to be reading about it from me when you’re getting ready for Santa. But the bad news might actually be good news in disguise if it can wake us up, turn us to Christ, and move us to action which is pleasing to God. We have already witnessed God’s desire to set us free and to give us life and healing when we have chosen to honor and obey.

For instance: In the 1970’s the US passed the Clean Air Act which banned lead in gasoline. Since that time the mean lead level in the bloodstreams of Americans plunged by several points while our average IQ scores increased[ii]. Similarly, when we began to get religion over the hole in Earth’s ozone layer, we made the decision to ban halocarbons. Guess what? The ozone hole has started to close back up![iii]

Some things just aren’t “fruitful” enough, and they need to get the ax. But the good news is that God’s will for us is always life—and abundant life at that. The Hebrew scripture passage appointed for Advent 2 (Isaiah 11:1-10) provides us with that really cool image of the shoot rising out of the stump. Yeah, something was cut down, but something new is growing from its remains.

Martin Luther believed that the Church has a duty to speak to the society. In a sense, we are always cast in the role of John the Baptist, calling out the world to stop screwing around and get with God’s program. This always means an uncomfortable and—usually—resisted demand for change. But when that change is made, stuff gets better.

But we’re called to take a look at our own personal stuff, too. For example, I recently had a wonderful encounter with one of my older parishioners (and I hope I don’t get in trouble for using her story in this context) who has made the rather dramatic decision to go into a nursing home. For a lot of us, the Old Folks’ Home is the end of the line, and we want to put it off as long as we can. But my parishioner realized that going to live in a retirement home—even though it meant restrictions and cutting off constant interaction with her family—also meant security, regular physical therapy, group activities, weekly chapel, and the possibility of becoming part of a new social community. She does not dwell on what she’s lost, but on what she’s now gaining. She’s happier than I’ve seen her in years.

I guess the challenge for us in hearing these Advent texts is a willingness to heed the warning without freaking out. The Bible is asking us to take a hard, serious look at our sinful state as a society and as individuals and to be willing to let the ax fall on the things which are inhibiting our growth. At the same time, we are to look toward Isaiah’s beautiful image of God’s intended kingdom and commit ourselves to making it a reality.

A blessed Advent Season, Dear Reader. Thanks for visiting!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Power of the King (Reflections on Christ the King, Year C)

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There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38)

In my theatre days I had the privilege of working with a talented (if extremely eccentric!) Brit named David Perry. David was a senior tutor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He drank Shakespeare with his mother’s milk, and I loved being directed by him in his whimsical but very British way. I think we worked on about four classical British plays together over the years. Once an actor asked him why the British would still have the archaic institution of monarchy in modern times.

“Because, my dear,”—David called everyone “my dear” regardless of gender—“of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. Even if you’re convicted by every court in the realm, you can still appeal to the Queen for pardon.”

Mercy and pardon are really the only powers the monarch has left. Britain’s queen and any king who comes after her won’t be able to raise or lower taxes, decree laws, send out ambassadors, or declare either war or peace with an enemy. The monarch is really a symbol of the government. The only power remaining to the crown is that of royal forgiveness.

And that’s still a pretty important power to possess.

On the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, Christ the King, we behold in our gospel reading (Luke 23:33-43) another powerless king—Jesus. Declared to be “the King of the Jews” in an insulting taunt by Pontius Pilate, the condemned Jesus is nailed to a cross and hoisted aloft to suffer until his lungs fill up and he drowns in his own bodily fluid. The story in Luke’s gospel is one of complete and total loss. Jesus’ friends have abandoned him, his body is failing, his dignity has been stripped away as the crowds and leaders of the people rail and mock him, and his body is immobilized—he is powerless even to wipe the sweat from his own eyes.

Yet he retains the one power of the monarch—the power to forgive.

As the nails are going into his hands, so some versions say[i], Jesus proclaims, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (v.34) Not even extreme agony and disgrace can take away the power of compassion and understanding.

The Prerogative of Mercy is shown again in verse 43 when Jesus comforts the confessed and condemned criminal at his side, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The laws of this world may condemn, but they have no power over the mercy of Almighty God. And this is something we would all do well to remember. However we may revile those who have trespassed against us, God has seen to their hearts. God has understood the pain we’ve refused to see because we are blinded by our love affair with indignation and determined always to be right.

I hasten to point out that in the UK the monarch’s power to pardon does not include the power to acquit. If one is found guilty, the guilty verdict still stands. It is only the penalty that is lessened. If we are to exercise the power of pardon which our King has graciously bestowed on us as Christians, we certainly can’t pretend that a wrong isn’t a wrong or that a hurt isn’t a hurt. None of us can go back and change the past. But we can examine our own guilty verdict and the pardon we’ve received and try to apply it to others, always remembering that what we find impossible to do is still possible for our merciful King. Perhaps our best response may be to appeal to God to forgive those things which we cannot forgive ourselves.

May the spirit of mercy guide us all as we enter into Advent. Thanks for reading my blog this week.

[i] Some of the earliest known copies of Luke’s gospel do not include this saying. Bible scholars think it might’ve been inserted later, but I don’t think that matters. The fact that it became part of the accepted canon indicates that the early followers of Jesus must’ve preached about the power of forgiveness.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

After the End (Reflections on Pentecost 23, Year C)

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“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19)

Are you scared about the future? In our gospel lesson appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 23 (Luke 21: 5-19) Jesus paints a pretty icky picture of the way things are going to turn out. He predicts that the magnificent temple of Jerusalem—which all his buddies have been admiring for its cool architecture—will someday become nothing more than a pile of construction debris. That must’ve shocked the heck out of the disciples.

Hollywood (and some heretical evangelists) have made boo-coo bucks off of scaring us about nasty stuff that is to come. Dystopian epics, a zombie apocalypse, and a post-rapture world ruled by the anti-Christ have proven to be crowd-pleasing money-makers. But what really scares you?

Personally, I’m really nervous about climate change. The Bride and I won’t be retiring to Florida if Florida is under water. As frightened as Jesus’ disciples are of the idea of Jerusalem’s Temple being leveled, I’m scared spitless about the prospect of St. Louis’ Cathedral and the rest of downtown New Orleans becoming a water park. I’m going to miss Long Beach Island when it’s gone, and I’m going to mourn all of those once-habitable places on the earth where we won’t be able to live any longer and those cute species of critters whose habitats will be destroyed because we were too stupid, lazy, and selfish to put a lid on our carbon emissions.

Know what else I’m going to miss? Lutheranism in America. For real. I really freakin’ love being a Lutheran. But I’m watching the congregations here in Northeast Philadelphia fold up like the offensive line of the Cincinnati Bengals. There’s no hiding the signs that the traditional Protestant Church—and maybe all of American Christianity—seems to be on the decline. Will I be around to see the church I’ve pastored for over twenty years be sold, bulldozed, and the lot turned into an apartment building or a 7-11?

It’s certainly something to think about, and Jesus, in the gospel, never lets us off the hook with warm, fuzzy “it’s-all-going-to-be-okay” platitudes. Instead, he reminds us for two important things:

1.      Bad stuff will happen.

2.      It’s not necessarily the end of the world.

Jesus doesn’t tell us to ignore the gut-ripping changes that are taking place. He only warns us about obsessing over them, buying into the hype, and thinking we can get out of it by our own cleverness.

There have been plenty of neighborhood churches, in my area and those I’ve heard of around the nation, that have been existing on a ventilator. Some long-dead Christians donated tons of cash to their beloved congregations. Bucks piled up in bank accounts in those “rainy day” funds. Were they used to feed hungry people? Educate children? Create advocacy programs? Shelter the homeless?

Nah. The cash just sat there and was slowly spent down so a handful of folks could go on having church exactly the way they wanted to have it until the needle on the tank hit “E” and the lights went out.

How much better it would be if, instead of concentrating on our institutions, we were to focus on our relationship with God and our purpose for being in God’s world. And maybe the best place to start will always be with refreshing ourselves in the Word of God. Faith, St. Paul tells us, comes from what is heard. Knowledge, I believe, can build both faith and enthusiasm.

One of my Confirmands recently presented me with her completed take-home quiz. I asked her how she thought she’d done on it, and she proudly told me she thought she got all the answers right. With a smug little grin she informed me, “I showed it to my dad, but he didn’t know any of the answers.” However proud I might be of my student, I have to lament the ubiquitous lack of Bible knowledge I’ve seen in some of the parents. I have to wonder how we expect to see a new generation of Christians when the current generation is so willing to take faith and the treasure of our tradition for granted.

Jesus warns us in this gospel lesson that we’ll never adequately prepare for the things which are to come; nevertheless, we can focus on how we will testify to our own love of God, we can let Christ’s words speak to us in the here and now, and we can trust that he will show us the direction the Church needs to take when the time comes.

If we are truly people of the WORD, what happens to the institution won’t matter.

May God be with you this week, and thanks again for visiting my blog!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Reflections on Veterans Day (And Pentecost 22, Year C)

I caught sight of my neighbor Frank in the rearview mirror as I was driving out of the Wawa parking lot with my morning coffee. Frank is an incredibly charming guy. I’ve seen pictures of him when he was young, and he was dashingly handsome in his day. Today he’s rounder and bald, but he still has a gallant panache. I watched as he held the door for an elderly lady. In his elegant fashion, he made a deep bow as she passed by him. I’m certain this must’ve brought a smile to her face—a display of courtesy from the Sir Walter Raleigh of the Wawa.

I’ll bet that lady never suspected that, almost half a century before, that same polite man at the convenience store was bleeding to death on a hilltop in Vietnam.

Frank fought with 101st Airborne Division on a hill called Firebase Ripcord. Most of us never heard about Ripcord. After the carnage of “Hamburger Hill,” the Department of Defense decided to blackout all news of this battle. I’m sure they felt that the number of American casualties reported would depress the folks back home watching the war on the nightly news. The survivors of the Ripcord don’t like to talk about, either. For decades their fear, pain, suffering, and loss went unknown, and they went among us, carrying it all inside themselves, strangers in their own country.

The First Lesson for Pentecost 22, Year C (Job19:23-27a) seems rather insignificant for the Sunday before Veterans’ Day unless we wind the reading back to the beginning of chapter 19 and read Job’s eviscerating lament in its entirety. Job’s anguish, like the anguish of those who bear the psychic avulsions of any trauma—war, domestic abuse, bereavement—requires near-Shakespearean poetry to express the loneliness and outrage of one whose suffering goes unseen and misunderstood by others.

As America honors her veterans this weekend, it’s appropriate that we consider their heroism. As an Army Dad, I feel that any kid who puts on the uniform is a hero since, peace time or war, every member of our military faces some kind of risk to life or limb. But it’s also appropriate that we try to see beyond the uniform to the hidden pain. Not every vet suffers from PTSD, but so many have seen things they can’t un-see or have done things they can’t undo. So many of them know loss. So may have had relationships break up, have developed dependencies on drugs or alcohol, have been sexually assaulted, or have faced financial hardships simply because they have chosen to give back to a country that has given to them. Perhaps too few of us civilians are willing to see the tear hidden beneath the salute.

Veterans’ Day in the United States is observed on the Monday closest to November 11th. It was November 11, 1918 when the First World War—supposedly the “war to end wars”—ended with an armistice. The promised peace didn’t last long, so Armistice Day became Veterans’ Day. I think the date is appropriate as we in the Church celebrate it as the feast of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers.[i] Legend has it that Martin, a Christian cavalryman of the Roman army in the fourth century, came across a nearly naked beggar. Having no money to give the man, the soldier took his sword and cut his own cape in half, giving half to help keep the beggar from the cold. That night Martin saw the person of Jesus Christ in a dream. Christ was wearing the half-cape and praising Martin for his kindness.[ii] Martin was moved to resign from the army and take up religious life, ultimately founding monastic communities and becoming one of the early bishops of France.

Besides Martin’s military background, what I like about his story is his ability to see Christ’s sufferings in the sufferings of the beggar. This, I think illustrates Job’s lament. The pain we suffer which makes us feel so alienated from others and makes them shun us in spite of their better inclinations is not invisible to God’s eyes. We know that the one who justifies us lives, and that we shall see him one day.

I would hope that, as we consider our military veterans, we will try to look, as Martin did, a little deeper into the eyes of those around us. Maybe we can consider their inner pain and the memories they carry with them. Perhaps we will learn to see them with great empathy, patience, and respect.

A happy Veterans’ Day to you all. Glad you stopped by.

[i] Fun Fact: Medieval Catholic tradition had children named for the saint on whose feast day they were born.  On November 11, 1483 when the wife of a Saxon copper miner named Hans Luther gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, they naturally named him Martin.
[ii] See Matthew 25:36 and following. Fun Fact: Martin’s “little cape,” is, in Medieval Latin a capella. From this comes our English words “chapel” and “chaplain.”

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Doing It Jesus' Way (Reflections on All Saints Sunday)

Image result for Images of cemeteries in autumn
Okay. So here I am, sitting in a family conference room at the George Washington Memorial Park in Plymouth Meeting, PA, waiting to officiate a funeral in the chapel. My car is in the shop, so I hitched a ride with Joe the funeral director who had to be here a couple of hours early. I’m killing time in this sales office while the viewing is being held. I guess this is as good a place as any to start thinking about the recently—and not-so-recently—deceased who will be remembered on All Saints Sunday. I look around me at the pictures of different types of burial vaults and mausoleums you can buy if you want to make George Washington Memorial your final real estate purchase. The room is tastefully decorated, there’s a bowl of Jolly Ranchers on the table, and a brilliant autumn sun is shining through the windows; nevertheless, I am surrounded by the things of death.

I’ve been given permission by the cemetery staff to help myself to coffee in their break room. As I pour myself a cup I spy a cartoon caption on their bulletin board, “Life is priceless. Death will run you about six or seven grand.”

It was a long drive from the funeral home out here to George Washington. Joe and I talked shop on the way. I told him that, what with all the funerals I’ve officiated in my career, I’ve begun to recognize different types of grief. The most common I just call “Good Grief.” That’s when grandma goes home to Jesus after living ninety years of peaceful life and everyone says, “She was a good woman. It was her time.” It makes me think that Shakespeare’s Marc Antony might’ve been wrong. It seems the good that we do lives after us. The evil is oft interred with our bones. And I’m okay with that.

As we always do on All Saints, we at Faith Lutheran Church will light candles for each of our beloved dead who have passed since last November 1st. I’m thankful no one from the congregation has died this year. As I look at the list of those saints whom my parishioners wish to have remembered, I only recognize two names.

Rick Fluehr was a funeral director I’ve worked with for twenty years or more. He was 59. He often joked that he had me on speed dial and would call whenever an un-churched family needed a clergy to bury their dead. Rick was an undertaker’s undertaker. He cared deeply about the families he served and was a 100% professional in all he did. I once noticed he would wrap the skirt of the caisson around the handle of a casket before he touched it so as not to leave fingerprints. He was faithful in little things and big things as well, generous, a loving dad and husband, and infinitely patient.

Once Rick and I were returning from a burial at the Washington Crossing National Cemetery when he got a call from an irate customer. He put the call on speaker as he was driving and needed his hands for the wheel. I listened as the caller made unreasonable demands, failed to listen to Rick’s explanations of why he couldn’t oblige her, and—essentially—accused him of incompetence. I was shocked by the rudeness I heard in that call. Rick, however, kept his cool and was nothing but polite, apologetic, and sympathetic.

When the caller hung up, Rick quietly said, “You know, Pastor, people get upset when their loved one dies, and some feel they have to lash out at someone. I just take it. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.”

“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…” (Luke 6:29)

At Rick’s funeral mass, Father Chris of St. Charles Borromeo said, “You can tell a lot about someone by the way they receive communion.” I didn't need to see him receive communion to know that Rick received Christ in his heart. I could see the way of Christ in his actions.

The other name I recognize on the necrology is that of Richard Fargason. Richard was the brother-in-law of Joy, my most colorful elderly shut-in member. Joy is, to say the least, unique. She has her own interpretation of events which doesn’t always reflect a firm purchase on practicality. It is something of an understatement to say that she can be demanding. Richard would indulge her, however, and do so with divine patience and kindness. He was her care-giver. He did her shopping, fixed what needed fixing in her house, looked in on her constantly, and showed as much love as any brother could—this joyfully and without complaint and in spite of his having a host of his own health problems. He passed away form a long-undiagnosed cancer at age 79.

Richard was a sweet, polite, southern gent from Georgia. Joy’s brother, Stan, said of him, “He’d do anything for anyone. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

“…and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you…” (Luke 6:29-30)

When I gave Richard the last rites in the hospital, he proudly told me that, even though he wasn’t a regular church-goer, he’d been baptized by full immersion in the Baptist church in Atlanta when he was young. It must’ve taken. 

Both Rick Fluehr and Richard Fargason illustrate the Gospel appointed for All Saints (Luke 6:20-31) as both men seemed to choose the way of Christ over the ways of this world. The things this world values—riches, fame, and power—are transitory. We’re feeling blessed today but feeling woe tomorrow. That’s because our values are not God’s values. In the end, if we wish to be remembered, if we wish to leave a positive impact, it’s best to do things Jesus’ way. It’s better to ask humbly for a spirit of wisdom as the inheritance of our baptism. It’s better to receive Christ with a joyful heart and a spirit of submission so that we may also receive the gifts of compassion, patience, mercy, contentment, and the humility which allows us to love selflessly and be loved in return.

I look out the window of the cemetery office and see the beautiful leaves drifting down onto the lawn. I see the monument of General Washington on horseback, erected to honor those who served our country, and I think of the worlds of an old hymn:

“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know:
We may not count her armies, we may not see her king;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”

God bless, dear saint! Thanks for reading.

PS – The hymn I’ve referenced was composed by Gustav Holst in 1921 with lyrics by Cecil Spring-Rice. You can listen to Katherine Jenkins sing it by clicking HYMN.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Generic Reformation Sunday Sermon

"Luther Before the Diet of Worms" Anton von Werner (1843-1915)

I tried really hard to come up with a new twist for a Reformation Sunday sermon this year, but darned if I could think of anything. If I were the campus chaplain of a university, I guess I’d be using Luther’s example to incite the students to acts of civil disobedience in protest of the corruption and abuse of power of this current administration. Unfortunately, I’m the pastor of a bedroom community parish on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and I have to find something meaningful to say to a congregation of folks who are mostly older in age and just trying to get by day-to-day. All I could come up with is this generic Reformation Sermon[i]. I hope it’s enough.

So what are we celebrating on Reformation Sunday? What and who is this festival about? Reformation Sunday is the Sunday on our liturgical calendar which falls on or immediately before October 31. It was on Halloween in 1517 that Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses[ii] to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany—thereby defying the power of the Roman Catholic Church and sending the metaphoric fecal matter on a collision course with the fan. Western civilization took a sudden and shocking lurch when an insignificant religious accused the most powerful machine of the Middle Ages of both ignoring its duty to preach the Gospel and systematically abusing the poor.

So who was Martin Luther? The pugnacious founder of Protestantism was the son of a copper miner who hoped he’d gain some upward mobility (not an easy trick in the feudal Middle Ages!) by sending his son to law school. It is said that, while journeying home from school on a break, Luther was caught in the mother of all electrical storms. This scared the crap out of him and, being a medieval man, he feared for his immortal soul and promised to appease God’s wrath by becoming a monk should he survive the storm.

To Luther’s credit, he was a pretty first-class monk. He was even ordained as a priest. Nevertheless, he was deeply troubled by the state of his immortal soul. Baptism, it seemed, didn’t do it for him. The dogma of his day told him that the little dip he had in the font when he was an infant only removed original sin—the sin inherited by being human. Personally, I have no problem with the idea of original sin. After all, if you’re born on the beach, you’re going to get sandy. If you’re born on planet Earth, you’re going to be a screw-up. We all inherit it. It’s just who we are. Luther’s problem—and the problem with the doctrine as it was taught to him—was that original sin could be forgiven, but what happens when you sin again? Luther went crazy trying to work off his debt to God. He knew he was captive to sinful thoughts and desires. If the truth is supposed to make us free, an honest self-appraisal only made Martin Luther more enslaved to despair and guilt. He could only conclude that God must be one rotten bastard for demanding righteousness and knowing full well we couldn’t achieve it.

Luther’s superior thought he could help the anxious monk by sending him on a diplomatic mission to Rome. This only made Luther more despondent when he saw the complete corruption of the Holy See. It is said he called Rome a “sewer” and noted that the Church put up with every kind of vice and greed while Pope Julius II concerned himself with building projects and acquiring real estate. Still fearing God’s wrath, the disillusioned monk nevertheless persisted in his Biblical studies and became a professor of Old Testament at the University of Wittenberg.

It was in the study of scripture that Luther found his freedom. In reading St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans he came across these words:

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 8:28)

This was the truth and freedom he’d been looking for. No one gets it right. Everyone is a screw-up. God loves us anyway, forgives us, and came to share all of our pain on the cross. Then he rose on Easter so we would know this broken life isn’t all there is. Holding on to this faith is what gets us through this crappy and uncaring world and directs our path while we’re in it. We can’t earn God’s favor. God just gives it to us out of love. Our kind and compassionate deeds don’t buy us God’s love—they’re our response to having it.

Yet just as Luther was getting all cozy with the concept of God’s loving grace, the Roman Church was drumming up capital for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by selling “Get-Out-of-Hell-Free” cards called indulgences.[iii] The sale of indulgences got Luther hopping mad for several reasons. First, because the “good work” of buying God’s forgiveness flew in the face of scriptural teaching. Second, those who purchased the things could easily grow complacent in their faith. Third, the sale of indulgences were a sin against charity in that they denied the grace of God and the suffering of Christ and preyed mostly on the poor and uneducated.

I consider it must’ve been a pretty big decision for Luther to protest against the abuse of the indulgence racket. Standing up to the Church in the sixteenth century could get one tied to the stake and roasted like a marshmallow. Luther risked his life to proclaim the truth of scripture. Many of his followers were martyred for supporting him.

So what does a Reformation Sunday celebration mean? Let’s not just put red paraments on the altar and sing “A Mighty Fortress” out of nostalgia for an event that happened over 500 years ago. Let’s draw some inspiration from Luther and respond to God’s loving grace. Let’s free ourselves from our own preoccupation with ourselves and start loving God and our neighbor out of gratitude for the love we were shown on the cross. Let’s spend, as Luther did, some time with the scriptures so that law might be written on our hearts. And let’s believe that the world can be changed, that power can be confronted, and justice and mercy can abound in this world as well as in the next.

Thanks for visiting!

[i] The texts used for this peculiarly Lutheran celebration are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, and John 8:312-36
[ii] Luther called this document The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. It is now considered somewhat doubtful that Luther did the nailing himself.
[iii] You probably don’t need to know all the background on this, but in case you’re interested, it went down like this: The Church had been selling forgiveness for some time in various ways. In 1517, however, Pope Leo X was trying to finish the building of St. Peter’s so he sold an archbishopric to a slimy German named Albert for 10,000 gold ducats. Albert borrowed the money from the Imperial bankers, and paid them back by having a master salesman, John Tetzel the Inquisitor of Poland, go about selling the indulgences to German peasants. Luther’s sovereign, Duke Frederic the Wise of Saxony, forbade Tetzel from hocking his forgiveness coupons in his domain because he, Frederic, was doing a Taylor Swift concert business by selling peeks at his own collection of holy relics. Luther eventually convinced Frederic that both buying the indulgence coupons and genuflecting in front of relics wouldn’t get anyone any closer to God. To his credit, Fredric got out of the relic business and protected Luther after Luther was declared an outlaw.