Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Peter the Doofus, Part II (Reflections on the Resurrection of Our Lord)

Image result for Images of Peter at the Tomb
“…then he went home, amazed at what had happened.”

So when we last left our hero, Simon Peter, he was having a pretty rough night. He’d just made a big hoopla out of his love for Jesus, and then he fell asleep when his friend needed his company most, he ran away when his friend was in danger, and—last but not least—he denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

And when he’d taken stock of his behavior, he went out and wept bitterly.

Wouldn’t you? I mean, just how would you feel if you were Peter? When I try to put myself in this guy’s sandals, I get pretty darn depressed. He’s lower than whale crap in the Marianas Trench. This is the time when you either kill yourself or let the drugs and the alcohol do it for you because you just don’t give a rip anymore. This is where you realize you’ve made a pile of smoking garbage out of what was supposed to be your life.

Look at it: Peter quit his good job to follow an itinerant rabbi. He also turned his back on his dad when he did this. He left his home. Now he knows he doesn’t have the guts to stand up for the cause he claimed he’d left everything for. He’s a false friend, a braggart, and a coward—and everyone knows it. He’s a giant, slimy bag of shame and disgrace. He’s disappointed himself, and he’s let his best friend down. What’s worse, he let his buddy get killed. And when Jesus died, all the dreams died with him.

I can’t imagine what went through peter’s head all day Friday and Saturday when Jesus was hanged on the cross and his corpse was put in its tomb.

But then came Sunday. Some crazy chicks came and said that tomb was empty. Nobody believed them. Nobody could believe them. It was impossible. I’m not sure Peter believed them either.

But he got up, and went to check it out. He summoned up one last speck of self-worth, one last desperate hope, and went to the tomb.

The New Revised Standard Version of the New Testament says he was “amazed.” The word in Greek could also mean “shock” or “wonder.” Personally, I think the word “amazing” is a little wimpy because it’s overused. “Shocked” is possible if you go with the idea that Peter was witnessing a pretty disgusting grave robbery. But I want to go with “wonder.” When you wonder about something, you have an anticipation. Wonder leads you forward. Wonder, if you’re in Peter’s place, is the moment when you put the gun back in the drawer or the sleeping pills back in the medicine cabinet. You pour your bottle of Jack Daniels down the sink and chuck your syringe in the garbage can. You suck it up and decide you’ll see if maybe something happens tomorrow.

And now Peter can wonder if the God who gave him life doesn’t just have the power over life and death. Now he can wonder if this end isn’t really the end after all.

When Peter encounters the risen Jesus he’s changed. Once he was just a doofus. But in Christ, he’s still a doofus—but he’s a doofus with hope. Yeah, he’ll go on to make a few more screw-ups. God will send him a radical vision of inclusivity, and he’ll try to argue his way out of it.[i] When some Jewish Christians demand that converts be circumcised, he’ll cave in to their demands[ii], but Paul; will set him straight by calling him out in public.

He’ll go on in faith to spread the word, according to legend, all the way to Rome itself. And the legend will tell us that when things got too hot for Christians during the reign of Nero, Peter would scoot out of town again. But then he would stop. And come to himself. And he’d go back to comfort and strengthen those who were being persecuted—even though it meant he would be crucified himself. And, of course, flamboyantly humble to the end, he would insist on being crucified upside down as he said he was not worthy to die as Jesus had died.

We remember his impetuous mistakes. But we cherish his compassion and his love and his true faithfulness to this day. And like Peter, we are called to wonder if our own tears and shame and weaknesses and bitterness and folly can be erased by what the Almighty God is in the process of doing for, in, and through each of us. We saw Jesus enter into all of our human pain—he even knew the despair of Peter when he cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me.” But if he was united with us in our suffering, we must be united with him in his immortality.

And that is something to wonder about. Because wonder leads us to hope. And hope leads us to faith, and faith leads us to peace.

Christ is risen! Allelujah!

[i] Acts 10:9ff (Note vv. 14-16)
[ii] See Galatians 2: 11-14

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Peter the Doofus, Part I (Reflections on Maundy Thursday)

Lucas Cranach the Elder (Woodcut, Ger, early 16th Cent.)

…once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32c)

Peter is such a doofus.

Every year on Maundy (or “Holy” if you prefer) Thursday we get this wonderful reading from John’s Gospel (John 13:1-17, 31b-35) in which Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. Peter plays a big role in this story, and his doofusness is really highlighted. He has to make a big show of his humility. He can’t let his rabbi and master wash his feet. No. He’s got to be the show-off and protest against the indignity of having the boss do the work consigned to slaves, children, or other underlings.

In a way, that’s very respectful of old Simon P. One of my most faithful and conscientious parishioners once caught me in the act of unstopping the church men’s room toilet. “Pastor,” he said, “what are you doing? Let me do that for you. You have too many important things to do than fix and clean the john.” I thought that was very nice of him, but, truth be told, if I’m really going to be a disciple of Jesus and a leader of the congregation, I shouldn’t ask anyone to do something I’m not willing to do myself. Don’t you think?

So Jesus does the slave’s work, and Peter gets all bent out of shape. He doesn’t quite get that in letting Jesus love him through humble service, he will be united with Jesus when he loves others in humble service. No. Peter has to show off how humble he is. He did this before when he told Jesus to depart from him just before he became a disciple (Luke 5:8). When Jesus points out that accepting this act of love is crucial, Peter still has to make a big deal out of it by insisting Jesus wash his hands and head too. But making a big deal out of stuff is what Peter does. Did you notice how he wanted to walk with Jesus on the water (Matthew 14:22-33), or how he wanted to build tents for Jesus and his “guests” on the mount of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:33)? I mean, this guy can never just let Jesus be Jesus. He’s always got to make it about himself somehow.

Don’t you find people like that irritating? It makes you wonder if Peter isn’t kind of insecure or something. What’s he trying to cover up? Why does he always have to go the extra mile? Is he suffering from some sort of feeling of inadequacy?

Of course, Jesus see through him. He sees past all the braggadocio bluster and BS that Peter puts out. And he has faith in Peter, all the same.

You see, this night isn’t going to end well for Simon Peter. He’s going to make some really outrageous claims of devotion and faithfulness to Jesus, and he’s going to bail out on all of them. Before the night is over, he’ll fall asleep when Jesus most needs his company and friendship. He’ll run away to save his own butt when the guards come to arrest his friend. He’ll even claim he doesn’t know who Jesus is. But Jesus already knows this about him.

In Luke’s version of the Passion story, there is a marvelous verse in which Jesus tells Peter that he’s praying for him:

“Simon, Simon, listen! Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:31-32)

Jesus knows how weak Peter is, but he also sees how strong he has the potential to be. He knows Peter is going to screw up. He also knows Peter will “turn back” or come to his true self at some point, and when that happens, he’ll be a leader and inspiration to the others.

In the Maundy Thursday Gospel we see Peter hiding his weakness—just like we all do. I saw a message on a church signboard this week which read: “You aren’t who you think you are. You are who you hide.” I guess we all try at times to hide our fears and the knowledge that we’re really nothing special. We’re all as sinful, as scared, and as mediocre in our own ways as the next person. The good news is Jesus sees past this. Jesus loves us and is willing to wash our feet. He’s willing to do the dirty work for us because we are so beloved by him. And not because of anything we do or say ourselves.

On Maundy Thursday, we are commanded to love the way Jesus loved us, and to come to the table to receive that love. Martin Luther pointed out that the only qualification for getting an invite to this Thanksgiving dinner is to believe that it’s really for us—for YOU, my friend—because Jesus has forgiven all of your shortcomings and loves you for who you are and who you can be.

You are invited because Jesus believes in you.

Come. Eat. Be at peace with yourself. You matter.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Let It Out (Reflections on Palm Sunday, Year C)

Assisi-frescoes-entry-into-jerusalem-pietro lorenzetti.jpg
“He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’” (Luke 19:40)

Well it looks like somebody got baptized here in Philly. Yup. On Opening Day of the Phillies baseball season at Citizens Bank Park, right fielder Bryce Harper—the slugger we’re counting on to lead us to the World Series, the dude we’re paying 330 million dollars to have on our roster—wiffled twice at bat and was greeted by a chorus of boos from disappointed fans.

But, hey! He surely must’ve expected that if knew anything at all about Philadelphia sports fans. We’re willing to greet his arrival as triumphant with loud “Hosannas” when he signs with our club, BUT: if he racks up two big, ugly K’s in his first two times at bat, we’re going to boo his ass.

Harper’s Opening Day odyssey is kind of symbolic of the meaning of Palm Sunday, don’t you think? Here’s Jesus arriving in town with much fanfare by his followers. They’re praising God for all of his past deeds of power. There is, however, a big, black, nasty raincloud hanging over this little parade. We know the rest of the story. We know that all the cheers and praises are going to fall silent when this guy doesn’t turn out to be the person the crowd wants him to be.

Palm Sunday, for all of its festiveness, is a reminder of how fickle we are as people, how short-sighted, and hung-up we are on instant gratification. It doesn’t take even a week for the most devoted of disciples to scatter and deny they even know Jesus.

This year we look at the story as it appears in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 19:28-40). Do you notice something missing here? Of the four Gospels, Luke’s Palm Sunday story is without palms. It’s been suggested by smart, Bible scholar folks[i] that the palms were used to welcome political or military heroes. Waving the palms for Jesus would suggest that he was coming to take political power, so Luke—who is always trying to make Jesus as palatable to the Romans as possible—omits this detail from his account. Since the other Gospels do mention the palm, I tend to think palms got waved. Luke just didn’t want to rock any boats by mentioning them.

What Luke does mention is the reaction of the Pharisees to the praises being sung by Jesus’ followers. This type of joy and praise is just unseemly to these guys. Maybe they don’t like to upset anything. Maybe they’re comfortable with how things are. If so, that’s a real shame, because the way things are isn’t too great. In five more verses Jesus will enter the Temple of Jerusalem and call out the chief priests for their sacrificial animal-selling scam. Jesus clearly refers to the temple as “a den of robbers,” (v.46), so you know somebody was getting ripped-off.

If you think about it, that was a pretty daring thing to do, and doubtless led to Jesus’ death on the cross. But it had to be said. Somebody had to speak the truth. In the Kingdom of God, there is no pretending. The dirty little secrets will come out, be repented, and be forgiven, or they will eat through us like acid. God’s truth will out.

If our churches aren’t speaking for justice, mercy, and peace, someone else will do it. If you aren’t saying what needs to be said, someone else will. If we all stay silent, the truth will still be the truth and it will come out some way, somehow. The Pharisees didn’t want to hear about a messiah of acceptance, inclusion, forgiveness, and love. But if Jesus’ disciples were silent, the very stones would cry out his name.

Have you had a chance to witness to your faith? Don’t be silent. Let it out.

[i] See the Interpretation commentary by Fred Craddocck from John Knox Press, 1990.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Costly Devotion (Reflections on Lent 5, Year C)

Image result for images of Mary anointing Jesus' feet
“You always have the poor with you…” (John 12: 8a)

So I’m reading again the Gospel lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary appointed for Lent 5, Year C (John 12:1-8). It’s that story of Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with some really expensive perfume and wiping his feet with her hair. You know the one I mean? I’m reading it and I’m thinking, “Really, Homegirl, isn’t that a bit excessive?” The Bible commentaries tell us that a denarius was the average daily wage for a working man in Jesus’ day. If you consider that in today’s terms, a 300 denarii pound of nard would run you about $17,400.00[i]. Add to this the fact that Mary wipes the ointment on Jesus’ feet with her hair!

I mean, come ON..! That action alone is kind of sexy and not at all seemly in the context of her time and culture. It does, however, demonstrate how totally devoted she was to Jesus. I guess the gratitude she had for getting her brother Lazarus back from the grave was overwhelming.

But is it possible that we can overdo devotion? A salesman in one of the church good stores once asked me if anything were too good for the house of the Lord. I replied that I didn’t think so, but many things were too expensive for Faith Lutheran of Far Northeast Philadelphia. Some years ago I bought a set of chasubles online. I chose the least expensive set of plain, polyester vestments I could buy—not because I’m cheap (although I kind of am), but because anything more elaborate would look pretentiously out of place in my cinder block, working-class church.

I recently showed my Confirmation class the 2003 MGM movie Luther. If you’ve seen it, you’ll recall the scenes in which the radical reformers riot and begin to smash stained glass church windows and pull down devotional statues. This was a reaction against the wealth of a church which was an oppressive force in their lives. I believe that the absence of the Christ figure on crosses in Protestant churches is not, as I was always told, an emphasis on the resurrected Jesus. Rather, the simplicity of the empty cross was the peasants’ reaction to the extravagant wealth of the Roman church which paid a fortune to adorn their houses of worship with images of Christ crucified at the expense of charity to the poor.

One can almost see Judas’ point when he criticizes Mary for her effusive display of devotion to Jesus. Surely, better use could’ve been made of her money than to pour it on her rabbi’s feet.

So what does Jesus have to say about this? He defends Mary. It seems she’s only pouring out a little nard. She’s keeping the rest of it (see verse 7) for Jesus’ burial. If you think about it, it’s one thing to give someone a really nice funeral. It’s far better to show your love for them while they’re still with you.[ii]

But maybe Jesus is aware of Judas’ ulterior motives. Otherwise, why would our evangelist mention them (v. 6)? Judas, like hypocrites before and since, has a truly slick talent for disguising his own greed with virtue. A large donation to the common purse meant a hefty commission for the treasurer.

Ain’t that always the way?

Someone says, “Don’t burden the poor with a healthcare tax or a mandate to purchase costly insurance.” Translation: “Let poor people get sick and die or be overwhelmed with debt because healthcare is unaffordable and insurance companies don’t want to cut their profits.”

Or, someone says, “Don’t strangle business with cumbersome regulations.” Translation: “Let companies pay starvation wages, deny benefits, and pollute the earth all they want so they can make more money.”

And of course, “Protect our American constitutional freedoms from godless socialism.” Translation: “Let banks charge all the interest they want. Give tax breaks to billionaires. Screw gun control!”

But what about that cryptic phrase, “You always have the poor with you?” Lindsey Trozzo of Princeton Theological Seminary helps us by pointing out that the indicative form of the verb in Greek (the form that states a fact) is the same as the imperative form (the form that gives a command)[iii]. So when Jesus says “You always have the poor with you,” it could also be translated as, “You (I’m talking to you, plural. All you Christian folks) are always to have the poor with you. Even when the physical Jesus is gone, he is still present in the form of the ones he loves—the poor.

If we are to pour ourselves out in costly devotion, perhaps our best investment will be to love the unlovable and the forgotten. In such a way, we will never overdo devotion. As the old hymn says:

What shall we give him in costly devotion?
Shall we bring incense and off’rings divine,
Gems of the mountain or pearls from the ocean,
Myrrh from the forest or gold from the mine?

Vainly we offer each ample oblation,
Vainly with gifts would his favor secure;
Richer by far is the heart’s adoration,
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.
(Reginald Heber: “Brightest and Best of the Stars” vv. 3-4. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, hymn 303)

God bless you, my friend. Please come again.

[i] I’m basing this on an 8 hour day at Pennsylvania minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Multiply that by 300 and you get one pretty darn expensive bottle of perfume!
[ii] I’m reminded of the words of a great Philadelphian, W. C. Fields, when asked to be a pallbearer at the funeral of fellow Philly guy, John Barrymore. “The time to carry a pal is when he’s alive,” Fields said.
[iii] You can read Lindsey’s insightful commentary on this passage by clicking Lindsey.