Thursday, January 31, 2019

Shaking Up the Home Crowd (Reflections on Epiphany 4, Year C)

Image result for images of Jesus with angry mob

“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” (Luke 4:24)

What the freak are you doing, Jesus?! You had the crowd’s approval, and then you went and screwed it up. They really liked your quote from Isaiah about preaching good news to the poor and proclaiming the year of the Lord. They were all speaking well of you and were amazed at your gracious words (Lk 4:22). Why did you have to piss them off when they hadn’t even challenged you?

Oh. Yeah. I forgot. That’s what you do. You shake the hornet’s nest, stir the poop pot, poke the bear, and rattle the cage. And if we’re not just a teensy bit aggravated by your message, maybe we’re not hearing you correctly.

Our gospel lesson for Epiphany 4, Year B (Luke 4: 21-30) takes up where last week’s lesson left off. Jesus is back in his hometown. He’s announced his mission to the poor and the oppressed and his desire to see God’s justice done on earth. This seems to go over pretty well with the home crowd until Jesus decides in verse 23 to remind them that they’re no great big deal just because they saw him grow up or because they knew his folks or even because they’re descendants of Abraham. No. Jesus isn’t their personal property and they don’t get any special favors from him by virtue of their history or ethnicity.

I guess I can see how that would tend to upset some of the Chosen People. After all, they always believed that they were just a notch or two better than other human beings on the planet. When they’ve kept all of the Law of Moses and observed all the traditions, it must really get their goat[i] to be told that foreigners are just as valuable in the sight of God as they are.

Yet this is what Jesus does—especially in Luke’s gospel. Luke is really careful to present Jesus in two lights. First, we see Jesus as breaking down the border wall between Jew and Gentile. He is inclusive to all people and his love knows no distinction.[ii] Secondly, he supports his position with the very history of God’s people and God’s Word. Jesus may be a radical, but he’s not so radical that he forgets the deep charitable history recorded and treasured in the scriptures. God’s people were blessed to be a blessing to others. This is fundamental and always has been. Jesus didn’t just make it up.

There are two obvious lessons here for the American Church today. First, we can’t ever forget that we are in mission to the entire world. I get really irked when I’m told by well-meaning church council members that “Charity begins at home.” It doesn’t. Obligation begins at home. Real charity begins when obligation to home ends and obligation to God’s will for humanity becomes our passion.

The other important thing, I think, is that we follow Jesus’ example of rootedness in our tradition. Again, this isn’t to claim—like the old folks from Nazareth in our gospel story—that we’re any better than any of God’s other children. Rather, it’s to remind us of who we are and what we stand for.

Churches shrivel up and die when congregants focus inwardly and exclusively. They also start heading for hospice care when traditions become merely habits, bereft of the timeless truth and meaning which gave birth to them.

If this is true for our churches, it’s also true for our nation. I swear I don’t know what “America First” means. This is a small planet with a globalized economy and one biosphere for everyone to share. Yet there’s still plenty of room on this earth for everyone to be cared for—except the greedy.

In this gospel lesson Jesus reminds us to check our arrogant, stuck up ways, think inclusively, and remember that we’re all brothers and sisters in God’s sight. Some will find this violates their sense of entitlement, and they’ll be pretty outraged by it. Like Jesus, however, we’re called to pass through the midst of them and be on our way.

God’s peace to you, my friend!

[i] Does anyone still say “get your goat?” I never knew where that expression came from, but my German grandmother used to say it all the time. It means piss you off. And isn’t this just the sort of insulting thing that makes you want to elect an unqualified leader, ban infidels from travelling to your country, and erect a giant wall on your southern border?
[ii] In Acts 10:34, Luke has Peter just blurt this out for those who didn’t pick up the subtlety of inclusivity from Luke’s gospel.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

"Let It Go." (Reflections on Epiphany 3, Year C)

“…He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free…” (Luke 4:18)

Anyone with a granddaughter has probably seen the 2013 Disney animated film Frozen. It’s a very loosely adapted version of Hans Christian Andresen’s story, “The Snow Queen,” and deals with two princess sisters, Elsa and Anna. Elsa, the 21-year-old heiress to the throne, has been hiding a terrible secret—everything she touches turns to ice and snow. On the day of her coronation, she accidentally reveals her secret power and is labeled as a monster. She flees the kingdom and rushes out into the wilderness. With her secret now exposed, she sings the power ballad, “Let It Go” (with the exquisite voice of Broadway star Idina Menzel), and turns the whole world into winter.

A recent NPR feature on Frozen noted that “Let It Go” has become something of an anthem for young people, especially young girls, who have felt embarrassed by being who they are. The song’s defiant lyrics have told a generation that it’s okay to be imperfect, to be differently abled, to not conform to demanding standards.

There’s a certain defiant “Let It Go” attitude in Jesus’ hometown “sermon” in the Gospel lesson assigned for Epiphany 3 (Luke 4:14-21). Jesus is outing himself in front of the hometown crowd. Using the words of the prophet Isaiah, Jesus boldly proclaims his ministry to the poor, the sick, the captives, and the oppressed. Of course, to appreciate this ministry, you’d have to admit that you are poor, sick, captive, and oppressed. You’d have to let that secret get out. You’d have to let it go.

So…you ready to do that?

Jesus is telling us that he’s come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. He’s making reference to the Year of Jubilee in which land was returned to its original owners, debts were forgiven, slaves were set free, and the earth was allowed to rest. It was the time when God made the people hit the reset button on social, economic, and ecological issues.[i] This was pretty good news for some folks, not so good for others.

No. Some folks have a hard time just letting it go. They don’t want to give anything up. They don’t want to forgive their debtors or let go of their grudges. They don’t want to admit defeat, and they’d rather be prisoners to their own secrets, their own shame, their own prejudices, and their own sense of control. They say, in essence, “Go away, Jesus. I don’t want your good news.”

But Jesus came to proclaim his Kingdom and to declare the Father’s will. Once he’s proclaimed it, it can’t be un-proclaimed. Once we’ve heard it, we can’t un-hear it.

We begin each Sunday mass at the baptismal font reminding ourselves that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Nevertheless, Jesus has promised to love us for who we are and to grant us forgiveness and mercy. Unfortunately for our sinful selves, we really can’t appreciate that forgiveness and mercy until we let go of our pride and admit that we’re in need of it.

As I write this post, America is in day 33 of a partial government shutdown. Some of my parishioners have not seen a paycheck in two weeks. It’s easy to say that the problem lies with the politicians, but we have to remember that we elected these people to office. Our problems don’t have their source in the personalities we hear about in the news. Rather, they exist because we really want to hold onto our own sin. We want to be selfish. We want to see ourselves as elite and superior to others. We’d rather poison our environment than pay for alternative energy solutions.  We want to revel in our self-righteousness and sense of wounded entitlement. We don’t want to be inconvenienced in any way. Sacrifice is not in our nature.

But Jesus came to proclaim Jubilee. How wonderful it would be if we all could say, “Okay, Jesus. Reset me. Take away my selfish, stubborn pride and heal me. And thank you for loving me even in my sin. Thanks for loving me for being who I am.”

Perhaps, then, we would not only be healed by Jesus’ mission statement, but we could make it our own as well.

Thanks again for stopping by.

PS – If you want to hear Idina Menzel sing “Let It Go,” click here.

[i] For details about the Jubilee year, see Leviticus 25:8-17, 23-55; 27:16-25, and Numbers 36:4.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Jesus Keeps the Party Going (Reflections on Epiphany 2, Year C)

"The Marriage Feast at Cana" Bartolome Esteban Murilo, 1672

Water turned to wine, huh?

The Gospel lesson for Epiphany 2, Year C (John 2:1-11) is one I preach on a lot. It’s really a great text for a wedding homily if you think about it. I always use the example from verse 10:

“…everyone serves the good wine first, then the inferior wine when the guests have become drunk…”

I think this is a good admonition to newly married couples. When you’re dating, you dress up, bust out the cologne, pay for nice dinners, have adventurous dates, hold doors, send flowers, etc. But when you’ve been married for a few years you start acting like a slob and walk around the house in sweat pants or eat Pringles out of the can while sitting on the sofa watching football. You gain 15 pounds, leave the cap off the toothpaste, and forget your anniversary. Hey! You’re married. You don’t need to impress her anymore.

In the world of this Gospel text, good impressions counted for a lot. Especially with wine. They served the good stuff first and only brought out the cheap vino when the guests were too bombed to know the difference. Wine was only consumed for special occasions anyway, and it had a way of getting nasty if it sat in the skins too long. A wedding, however, was certainly a special occasion in the ancient Near East. It carried with it social obligations which were a matter of family pride—not greatly unlike an Italian wedding in South Philly. The whole village would be invited to participate in the procession and feasting. If the wine gave out too soon, the family of the couple could be disgraced by their poverty and inability to provide.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus’ mom gets really worried when the wine runs out too soon (v. 3). She mentions this to her Son, confident that he’ll know what to do. He’s at first reluctant saying, “Woman, what concern is that to you or to me? My hour has not yet come.”[i] This has no effect on Mary, however, as she just assumes her boy will honor whatever she wishes. And she’s right (like all moms). Jesus does.

So what’s so special here? Believe me, there are lots of places we can go with this story. The one place I hope we avoid, however, is the simplistic reading that Jesus did a cool magic trick and created faith in his followers. I don’t think that leaves us with much.

Here’s just one of the things I really like about this story: It’s about transformation. I’m sure the folks whose kids were getting married were really nice people. After all, they invited the Virgin Mary to their wedding, and I’m certain she didn’t hang with dirtballs and lowlifes. Note that John first mentions Jesus’ mother as the primary guest, and says Jesus was also invited. I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Jesus was invited out of courtesy because of his relationship to Mary, and that the other disciples were invited out of courtesy because of their relationship to him. In essence, the groom’s folks are Mary’s friends, and she is concerned about their reputation.

By performing this miracle, Jesus transforms a potentially embarrassing or even shameful inadequacy into an occasion in which the sommelier praises the groom (and, by extension, his family) for his exquisite taste in saving the very best until last.

But that’s what our faith teaches that Jesus does. He transforms. He takes the shameful, the impoverished, the mediocre, the inadequate, the unimportant and commonplace by the world’s standards and transforms it into an occasion for joy and praise.

How? And what does this mean for us?

The answer goes back to the question: what does faith in Jesus mean to you? It can’t be just about church membership or a doctrine you signed onto at your baptism or confirmation. No. What faith in Jesus demands is a living, daily belief in the power of love and forgiveness. It’s about believing in the miracle of sacrifice by knowing that God always has more gifts to bestow on us than we stand to lose by generosity or chance. It’s about believing in resurrection and eternal life and the very existence of the soul. It’s about the strength which comes from knowing that we may never be cured, but we can always be made whole. When we take Jesus—as he is revealed in the scriptures—as our paradigm for life, our shame is transformed into confidence, our guilt into wisdom and gratitude, our poverty into abundance, and our ordinary moments and events into miniature festivals of joy.

I think it’s significant that this passage ends with:

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (v. 11)

Just his disciples? Probably. The rest of the folks at that wedding got nothing else out of it but a good time and a bad hangover. But for some, it mattered that Jesus was present in their lives and in that moment. Their minds were opened to know God’s goodness and purpose, and to believe that the really good stuff was still to come.

Thanks again for visiting this week. I appreciate it!

[i] Now, I don’t know about you, but if I ever addressed my mom as “Woman”—no matter how old I was—she’d have slapped the taste out of my mouth. But I guess if you’re Jesus you can get away with stuff like that.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

So Who Are You? (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord, Year C)

Image result for images of jesus baptism
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22)

I have a lot of affiliations. I’m a Griffiths—my parents’ son, my siblings’ brother, my wife’s husband, my daughter’s dad, my nieces’ and nephews’ uncle.

I’m also an American. I’m a Welsh-American, too, and very proud of it. I’m a citizen of the great Garden State of New Jersey and of my township. I’m a Philadelphia Eagles fan. I’m also a registered Democrat.[i]

I’ve been a Boy Scout, a member of the Actors Equity Association, the Screen Actors Guild, the American Association of Television and Radio Artists, the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, and the United Teachers of Los Angeles. I’m a “card member” of American Express, and I belong to medical and dental “groups.” I’m an alumnus of the California State University at Long Beach, the University of Wisconsin, and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia[ii].

I’m an ordained pastor, a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, the Northeast/West Philadelphia Conference, the Far Northeast Philadelphia Ministerium[iii], and Faith Lutheran Church.

And I’m a baptized Christian.

Of all the groups and affiliations to which I may lay claim or which may lay claim to me, that last one is the most important. Why? Because all the others are temporary. Baptism is eternal.

The First Sunday after the Epiphany is traditionally celebrated in liturgical churches as the Baptism of Our Lord. In Luke’s Gospel this wonderful event is handled in only two verses:

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

These two verses are packed with a lot of meaning. First, it’s so powerful to see Jesus being baptized. He’s going through the same ritual we all go through. He’ll also go through the same pain, loss, temptation, hunger, disappointment, bereavement, and everything else we face. It’s also inspiring to see him in prayer. But the real power comes when God tears open the barrier between himself and us. God’s spirit comes down on the baptized and declares him to be a son, a beloved child, and one who is the source of pleasure to the Father.

That’s a pretty important announcement, don’t you think? We often think of our baptism as God’s promise of forgiveness, the washing away of our sinful stains. Indeed, that’s what the sacrament is. But it’s also something more. It’s the adoption of us. It’s our inheritance. In this water we become God’s children and, as such, members of God’s family. Jesus became one with us in baptism, but in our baptism, we become one with him, and we receive the same promise—we belong, we are loved, and we delight God.

On my office walls are lots of artwork and certificates. I proudly display my seminary diploma and my certificate of Urban Ministry, my letter of congratulations from the bishop when I became the longest serving pastor of my parish, an award from the Seventh Day Adventist congregation, and my Certificate of Ordination. But I also display my Certificate of Baptism. Of all these other scraps of paper—however nice they look in their frames—this one document resonates with me the most. It says I am God’s child. It says I am part of a family which includes you, my dear reader. It says I can share with Jesus in his eternal life just as he has shared my sin and sorrow. It tells me who I am.

[i] Does this shock you?
[ii] Now part of the United Lutheran Seminary.
[iii] I’m the chairman of that group. Just thought you’d like to know that.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

It Takes a Foreigner (Reflections on the Feast of the Epiphany)

Image result for images of the magi
Pat is a great guy. He used to be just a Christmas and Easter Christian, but in the last few years he’s become a regular church-goer, he’s put his kids in Sunday School, he sings with the church Praise Team, and currently serves as “Property Czar” on our church council. He was also my designated representative last December 22nd when I was unable to attend a special worship service held by our mission partners, the Beersheba Seventh Day Adventist Church.

The good folks of Beersheba—who use the worship space at Faith Lutheran on Saturdays—had planned a special end-of-the-year worship and concert to honor eleven community leaders. Somehow they got it into their heads that I am a community leader, and they honored me with a beautiful glass statuette for generosity.  I don’t know that I’m any more generous than the next guy, so I think they were really trying to say “thank you” to my congregation for providing a welcome space for their congregation to use. Pat was kind enough to attend the celebration and accept the statuette award on my behalf.

“It was an awesome ceremony,” Pat told me. “Everyone was so friendly. I was overwhelmed by their kindness. They even gave me an interpreter!” A language interpreter was necessary, of course, because the congregants of Beersheba are Haitian and Haitian American. They celebrate and worship in French. Even though he couldn’t understand a word of the service, Pat was blown away by the sheer joy of the experience, the excellence of the music, and the friendliness of the congregation. He couldn’t say enough in their praise.

As I write this post, the United States federal government is in partial shut-down because of Congress’s refusal to fund the Great Wall of Trump—a barrier intended to keep foreigners out. My little congregation, however, has been tremendously blessed by the presence of foreigners. Not only do our brothers and sisters of Beersheba show great respect for our property, but they are consistently understanding when we have to make schedule changes. They are also overwhelmingly generous to us and provide a considerable financial contribution for the upkeep of our church building—a contribution we’d be hard pressed to get along without.

The Epiphany story (Matthew 2:1-12 in the Revised Common Lectionary) isn’t just an exotic or cute Christmas card. The Wise Men—these foreigners—came searching for the baby Jesus because their tradition (very likely the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism) told them that this child would be worthy of their search. They had a true understanding of who Jesus was, and their gifts reflected his uniqueness. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were traditional gifts for a king, but they also reflected the characteristics they valued. Frankincense was symbolic of wisdom. Myrrh was symbolic of healing.  They weren’t looking for a king of power and might. They were looking for a king who would give light to a hurting world.

Sometimes it takes a foreigner show us Christ in a new way.