Wednesday, March 27, 2019

It's a Family Thing (Reflections on Lent 4, Year C)

"The Return of the Prodigal Son" Rembrandt (c. 1661-69)

So, okay. We all know the parable Jesus preaches in the Gospel lesson appointed for Lent 4, Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 15: 1-3; 11b-32). It’s been lovingly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” and I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s the most famous of Jesus’ parables because it’s the most relatable.

Yeah, for good or ill, we all have families. And for good or ill, just about every family with more than one kid has a kid who gets more attention from Mom and Dad than the others. And there’s always that one kid who ends up looking after an aging parent, doing the shopping, driving Mom to the doctor’s, or cutting Dad’s lawn when Dad gets too old to do it and buying his Depends for him.

When Mom and Dad go home to their Heavenly Rewards, leaving the estate equally divided between faithful you, your dead-beat brother, and your junkie slut sister—I won’t be surprised if you feel a little bit slighted and resentful. Just like that older brother in the parable. You did all the work, darn it! Why should they share in the profits..?! It’s just not fair!!!

Because we include verses 1-3 in this reading text, we assume that Jesus is casting the perpetual “bad guys,” the scribes and Pharisees, in the role of older brother. They resent that Jesus should honor a bunch of sinners, traitors, whores, etc. with his presence and his charitable gospel. But Jesus sums it all up in verse 10 by saying:

“Just so I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Pretty much speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

But what’s so cool about this particular parable, I think, is that it works on many levels. Any one of us could play any of the three major characters in this story. You may, indeed be the faithful one who has played by the rules all your life and goes a little whack-o when you see someone you think is “undeserving” being shown mercy or compassion. We’ve all felt jealousy or the injury of being overlooked and under-appreciated. It’s not that easy to tell yourself that the good fortune of another is no threat to your sense of self-worth or dignity. Elections have been won by playing on people’s sense of wounded entitlement. But God asks more from us. God asks older brothers to look with the Father’s eyes.

Looking with the Father’s eyes may not be an easy trick if you happen to be playing the role of Prodigal Son. Maybe you’ve been in this part yourself. Maybe you’re in recovery, you’ve gone to jail, or you’ve been bankrupt, divorced, fired, expelled, or screwed up in the infinite number of ways human beings screw up. Or maybe you just haven’t been to church for a really long time, and you’re afraid people will judge you and ask where you’ve been when you slink your backsliding butt back in through the church doors. Maybe you know you haven’t pulled your share of the load, and you’re ashamed to face the folks you think have done. Maybe you wonder if arms will still be opened to you.

And maybe you’re playing the role of the Dad in this story. Ya think? Yes, you may be saying, “Wait, Old Religious Guy, isn’t the Father supposed to represent God? I would never presume to cast myself in this role.” Oh no? If we’re honest, we all either are, will be, or in some way cast ourselves in the role of a parent. Personally, I never mind when folks in Northeast Philly address me as “Father,” because a pastor, like a parent, is a person who has complete responsibility for something over which they ultimately have no control. Although I have no biological kids of my own, I still feel a little sting when one of my Confirmation kids affirms his or her baptism in a solemn liturgy and then disappears out the church door, never to be seen again.

Like the dad in this parable, we all have the potential to feel the pain of someone we care for who goes and runs their life into the crapper. We know what it’s like to be looking toward that foreign land, scanning the horizon, in the hopes that an angry, addicted, confused, or obsessed child might one day make his or her way back into our lives and our hearts.

We all play the dad role. We all feel the pain, and we face the challenge to pray and hope and welcome and rejoice for a restored relationship. May God grant us the courage to come to ourselves, ask forgiveness, and accept the forgiveness that’s granted. May we be willing to put compassion for others above our selfishness. May we learn to love through the hurt of our humanness.

God’s peace be with you. Thanks for visiting me this week.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

There's Still Time to Fix This (Reflections on Lent 3, Year C)

“…unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:5)

So why does God let terrible things happen? Is it righteous judgment, or is it just because, as the old saying goes, “shit happens?”

In the gospel lesson appointed in the RCL for Lent 3, Year C (Luke 13:1-9) Jesus is confronted with news of a pretty terrible act perpetrated by Pontius Pilate. If you read about ol’ Pontius in any of the histories of the ancient world (like those of Flavius Josephus for example), you’ll soon see that he wasn’t a very nice guy, and terrible acts were kind of his thing. He was something like a Nazi camp commandant. His job was to keep the peace at all costs, and he wasn’t too delicate about how he did it. Even though Josephus doesn’t record the massacre of Galileans from our Gospel lesson, he does record that killing a bunch of folks while they offer sacrifice was just the sort of thing Pilate was famous for doing.

But what does that say about the victims? Jesus’ remarks in the Gospel seem to suggest that those who asked him about the massacre held the old-fashioned belief that rotten things happen to people who deserve them. That is, if a ruthless minion of a totalitarian state has a brutal soldier gut you like a fish while you’re in church, it’s obviously because you had it coming. You must’ve offended God in some way or God wouldn’t let this happen to you.

This is kind of like the logic used by the late (albeit not-so-lamented-by-me) Jerry Falwell and the not-late-enough Pat Robertson following the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. Falwell opined that America’s tolerance of LGBT people, refusal to have prayer in public schools, and pro-choice abortion policies angered God to the point that the Almighty allowed terrorists to fly planes into buildings and take the lives of over 3,000 people. Such an opinion is, of course, just plain, bigoted goat crap—the sort of bigoted goat crap we’ve come to expect from Robertson and Falwell.[i]

Jesus’ answer to this “blame the victim” supposition is that the folks who died weren’t worse sinners than anyone else. Bad stuff just happens in this world, and it sometime happens unexpectedly. Don’t try to read God’s mind. It won’t help. Just get your own act together.

Luke’s Gospel marries this story of the Galilean massacre and the fall of the tower of Siloam with a parable about a fig tree which doesn’t bear any fruit. The landowner is about to cut it down, but a wise gardener gives it a reprieve. He asks the boss if he can tend and fertilize the tree first. If that doesn’t work it will be okay to uproot it. He grants the figless tree a little more time.

We’ve been granted more time, too. If you’re awake and can read these words, you have time to get your act together. You’re being called, as, indeed, we all are, to repentance. We’re called to a changing of our minds to be the people God wants us to be—and not because that will save us from unexpected catastrophe, but because we will feel more fully alive and at peace in the time that is granted to us.

Last Friday, a cyclone hit the nation of Mozambique taking the lives of possibly 1,000 people, flooding the city of Beira, and putting almost 100,000 human beings in danger of flood waters. Are the folks in Mozambique less pleasing to God than any others of God’s children? Yet unless we pull our heads out and recognize the dangers of a changing climate, we may all perish as they did.[ii]

On the same day, some idiot white supremacist entered a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand and opened fire with an AR-17. He killed 50 people and wounded 50 more in their place of worship. Are the Muslims of New Zealand worse sinners than you or I? But unless we start teaching children tolerance, unless we recognize that we live on a small and crowded planet with people who are also made in the image of God, we might just face an endless cycle of terrorism and revenge.

This week I have invited a teacher form the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia to address my Confirmation class. My hope is that the students will meet a person from a different culture and a different religion without fear or condescension, and learn to look upon such a one with honor and respect. I pray they will grow up with a spirit of hospitality and love for all whom God has made.

The good news is this: we still have time to change. What are we waiting for?

[i] Yup. They really did say this. You can see for yourself by clicking Falwell. 
[ii] Do you want to help the cyclone/flood victims? Give to Lutheran World Relief. Click LWR.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Someone's Got to Do It (Reflections on Lent 2, Year C)

 Image result for eric liddell

When somebody tells me about their vacation to some restful or exotic place, I often sarcastically reply, “Well, it’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.” That’s to say I guess someone needs to be enjoying themselves while the rest of us keep pounding away at our jobs, trying to keep all the plates spinning on their appointed sticks.

But do you know those people who seem destined always to do the difficult, dirty jobs? You know: the ones who make us want to say, “Better you than me, Dude.” They’re the ones who just push ahead in spite of danger or the promise of ridicule or the expectation of very little reward. They’re like Abram in the First Lesson appointed in the RCL for Lent 2, Year C (Ge. 15:1-12, 17-18). This poor guy keeps going ahead, following God’s direction; nevertheless, when we meet him in this story, he doesn’t seem to be getting what he wants. He’s doing his part, but God isn’t coming through with the promised reward of a son and heir. God keeps promising and Abram keeps obeying and journeying on. And waiting.

Then, of course, there’s Jesus in the gospel lesson (Luke13:31-35). He knows he has to go to Jerusalem. Not because Herod is threatening him in Galilee. Not because the Pharisees want him out of their back yard. Because the tough job that he is committed to doing is in the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it. And even though he knows he’s going to face rejection, he still longs to be there, and he looks upon the ones who will turn on him with the protective love of a mother hen. Better you than me, Jesus.

For a saintly example, I think of the Scottish Olympic athlete Eric Liddell, considered the most popular sports hero in Scotland to this day.[i] Liddell won the gold medal in the men’s 400 meter at the 1924 Paris Olympics. He’d originally been slated to run in the 100 meters, which was his best sprinting event. He refused the event, however, because the heats were to be held on Sunday. Being a devout Calvinist, he felt that competing on Sunday was a sin against the Sabbath.

Following a record-setting win at the Olympics, Liddell could’ve gone on to a career in pro athletics. He was famous and popular and was an accomplished rugby player as well as a runner. He chose, however, to follow in his parents’ path and became a Christian missionary to China. He served in the Orient for the better part of two decades, first as a teacher of English for the children of wealthy Chinese, but later as a medical missionary in one of the poorer provinces. In 1943, after disregarding a warning from the British foreign office to evacuate, Liddell was captured by the invading Japanese and sent to an internment camp. There he became a kind of camp pastor, ministering to the spiritual needs of his fellow detainees, teaching the Bible, and coordinating the social life of the camp. He died there in February of 1945, just five months before the camp was liberated. The cause of his death was believed to be a brain tumor, exacerbated by hard work and malnutrition.

I don’t imagine anyone reading this post is feeling a calling to go to a dangerous or strange place for the sake of the Gospel. Certainly none of us are about to go and get ourselves crucified, either! BUT:  you may already be in your “Jerusalem” or your “China” (if you wish to use the example of Eric Liddell). You may be in a strange love-hate relationship in which you have great compassion for some person or persons, yet all you face is rejection, frustration, longing, or disappointment. The mother hen, after all, may protect her chicks under her wings, but she’s the one the fox eats first. Perhaps you struggle with parenting, volunteering, or being a witnessing presence in your workplace or school of neighborhood. Perhaps you, like Abram, are asking, “How long, O Lord?”

It’s a tough job, my friend. But someone has to do it. And that someone, today, is you. Now is the time to ask how your serving makes a difference. Now is the time to decide whether your efforts are a sacrifice or a waste. If they’re the former, then it’s time for you to start thanking God for the opportunity to be who you are where you are.

Wait for the Lord;
    be strong, and let your heart take courage;
    wait for the Lord!
(Psalm 27:14)

Thanks again for reading this week!

[i] Liddell’s story is part of my favorite sports movie, Chariots of Fire. If you’ve never seen it, I’m sure you can get it on Amazon or Netflix.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Wilderness (Reflections on Lent 1, Year C)

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"When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13)

I guess the smart dudes who cooked up the Revised Common Lectionary decided to liken our journey through the forty days of Lent to the journey of the Israelites through the wilderness in the Exodus story. That’s why they hooked up the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13) with the story of how the Israelites were saved from Egypt and survived forty years in the wild as told in Deuteronomy 26:1-11.

So good. Now we know there’s a “wilderness” motif in the lessons for Lent 1. Not being a great outdoors man myself, all I can say about the wilderness is there’s lots of scary stuff in it. Depending on where your wilderness is, there’s sweat-boiling heat or butt-hugging cold. There’s hunger and thirst. There’s snakes and bugs or bears and mountain lions. Give me the city any day. The wilderness is just too dangerous a place!

But we all end up in our own metaphorical wilderness—our lonely and dangerous place—at some time or other, don’t we? That’s what this story in the Gospels has always meant to me: Jesus had to face the same crap I have to face. The devil and temptation were after him, too. If Jesus’ story didn’t include episodes which resonate with my own life, I don’t think I’d find him to be such an attractive Lord and Savior. I think it’s pretty important to note in our story that it’s God’s Spirit (v.1) which forces Jesus into the wilderness. If we’re to love him, we have to know that he went through the same initiation test.

Our wilderness can take a whole bunch of different topographies. If, like Jesus, you’ve just had an experience which makes you feel like the heavens have opened and showered glory on you—like you’ve got the whole world by the Fruit of the Looms—you’re headed for temptation. If you find yourself shut out, lonely, angry, or hungry, get ready to encounter the devil.

A word about the devil. The Greek word Luke uses for this character is diabolos (That’s diabolos for you who like to see it written in Greek.[i]). It actually refers to an accuser or one who spreads wicked gossip. Maybe you don’t believe in an anthropomorphized devil with horns and a pointed tail. I don’t either. But you should believe that nothing exists without its opposite. If there is a Spirit which calls us to love and sacrifice and be joyful in creation, there can also be the dark, frightening absence of such a spirit. And in that dark wilderness is the voice of lies and accusation and doubt. That empty spirit causes us to question God’s goodness and our own worth. It leads us to choices we’d be better off not making. It leads us to shame and inadequacy and resentment.

In this Gospel lesson, the devil tries to goad Jesus. “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become a loaf of bread (v. 3)” Greek scholars[ii] tell us that the way the word “if” is used here really means “since you ARE the Son of God.” It suggests that Jesus is somehow not doing something he should do. It’s a trap to turn him away from the promise and mission he’d been given and make himself the hero of what should be God’s story. He will face this temptation throughout the Gospel narrative.

But this empty, inadequate, shameful spirit is with us, too. When we come to Christ, as a child does in baptism, we are asked to renounce the forces of evil as well as the powers of this world—our culture—which rebel against God. We are constantly hearing the whisper that we’re not young enough, pretty enough, rich enough, interesting enough, experienced enough, educated enough, or important enough. A consumer-based and fame-based culture is constantly filling us with shame covetousness, and alienation. Such feelings ultimately lead to resentment and anger or misery and despair. It’s as if the devil says to us, “If you are God’s child, why aren’t you better than you are?”

If we are not driven by the Spirit of God, our focus ultimately falls on ourselves. That’s why the baptismal rite also asks us to renounce the ways of sin which draw each of us personally away from God. If we try to be the center of our own universe, if we try to measure up, we’ll never find peace. This is what Martin Luther learned. We’re never enough. We can only rest in God’s grace.

So there it is. We have some good news and some bad news. The bad news that our Gospel lesson and our Lenten focus on contrition force us to face is that the temptation never really goes away. The devil only left Jesus, the story says, until an opportune time (v.13). But the good news is this: The accusations, the doubt, the shame, the loneliness—don’t win. Ultimately, they don’t have the power. Jesus did his time in the wilderness and so will we; nevertheless, just as he overcame, we, too, will overcome.

This our canteen in the wilderness.

Thanks again for looking in on me this week. God bless!

[i] I always feel like a real smart ass when I can translate from Greek.
[ii] I had to look this one up on the internet. I’m not THAT smart!

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

What's My Motivation? (Reflections on Ash Wednesday)

Image result for images for Ash Wednesday
“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Joel 2:13)

I used to have this old guy in my congregation—a fellow who has now, alas, gone home to the Lord—who would send me angry letters and emails whenever I referenced American politics, current events, or popular culture in my Sunday homily. “I’m not interested in your opinion, Pastor,” he’d write. “I came to church to hear about Jesus!”

I can’t say that I disagree with him. If we are thirsty for the Word, we want to hear it from Jesus. But nevertheless, I think it’s not such a bad idea at times to consider our own situation in history and how the words of Jesus relate to who we are. If all we care about is our own relationship with God and our personal salvation, and we have no interest in the world around us, I think we just might be missing the point.

The Ash Wednesday Gospel is the same every year. We hear the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount (specifically, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21). It’s pretty unambiguous stuff. Jesus is warning us about practicing our piety in public. I could probably just read this and sit down as I don’t think there’s anything too complicated in what the Lord is telling us here. He means what he says. No parables, no allegories. Simple.

BUT (and there’s always a “but”), implicit in Jesus’ exhortation about practicing piety publically is the expectation that we should always be practicing piety. We just want to be really, really clear about what our motives are in doing so. If we’re looking for praise or a sense of self-congratulation, or if we want to show that we’re “right” so we can sneer smugly at those who are “wrong,” our actions might not be that pleasing to our Heavenly Father. Under those circumstances it’s not really piety. It’s hypocrisy.

Yeah, it’s all about motive. Want an object lesson? You don’t have to look much further than the testimony given last week by Michael Cohen before the House Oversight and Reform Committee. Mr. Cohen, for over a decade the personal attorney of Donald Trump, rolled over on his old boss calling Trump a racist, a con-man, and a cheat. My question to him would be, “Why did you work for him? What motivated you to be his toady?”

Why do any of us do the things we do?

Here’s one possible answer: Sin.

Yeah. Sin. Sure, every stupid decision we made looked like a good idea at the time. It’s only when we, like poor Mr. Cohen who is going to jail for three years, face the “day of clouds and thick darkness”[i] that we start to recognize that our motives weren’t very pure. We realize that we’ve been lazy, and we’ve avoided facing the truth. We suddenly find out that we were okay accepting simplistic answers to complex problems. We’ve looked the other way, blamed other people, washed our hands of responsibilities, and chased after short-term pleasures at the risk of long-term problems. We’ve stood aloof to the suffering of others as long as we ourselves feel comfortable and not threatened. But the threat is still there. The day of the Lord is coming.

Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, is the time we force ourselves to confront our apathy and hypocrisy. It’s the day we remember that our life won’t last forever. Dust we are, and to dust we will return—and we don’t know when.

We can, however, read the writing on the wall. Our planet’s climate is changing. Our healthcare costs are still going up. Our government gives tax breaks to billionaires, and it’s anyone’s guess how those breaks will be paid for—very likely with cuts to social programs. The pundits are already predicting another recession by the end of next year.[ii] We are also being told that church attendance in America is dropping like a rock. Lutheran congregations in Northeast Philly have been folding up like last year’s Arizona Cardinals.[iii]

All the above begs the question of what we are motivated to do. Do we choose comfort or sacrifice? Ourselves or a cause greater than ourselves? Do we hope for the best or take the time really to understand what the best is? Jesus is asking us to seek him in prayer, be generous and merciful givers, and to weigh our priorities. The Lenten traditions of fasting, sacrifice, and abstinence are, after all, means by which we distinguish our desires from our needs.

If ever there was a time to get our act together as Christians, this is that time. Since the US Congress has chosen, in its wisdom, to give us all a tax cut, I’m planning on taking the extra five bucks a week which that cut has put in my paycheck and returning it to my congregation so we can go on providing a healing space for the addicted, a shelter for the homeless, and a garden and food collection site for the hungry. I am encouraging everyone to be faithful in their prayers, in their giving, and in their worship so the mission of Christ’s church may continue.

This is the time to repent of any apathy and be prepared to sacrifice. If our motives are for the glory and goodness of Christ’s witness, I don’t think he’d mind a little public piety.

[i] See Joel 2:2, part of the Hebrew scripture lesson for Ash Wednesday.
[iii] My apologies to Cardinals fans, but your team DID suck last year.