Wednesday, June 26, 2019

No Time to Look Around (Reflections on Pentecost 3, Year C)

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Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

So, okay. I admit it. I broke the law. I was checking messages on my cellphone while driving home on New Jersey Highway 541 when the festive party lights of a Burlington City Police cruiser lit up behind me. After the pleasant formalities of license and registration, I confessed to the officer that my call was not an emergency. Fortunately, I was wearing my clerics, and the pious officer let me off with a warning. “It’s against the law to talk on the phone and drive, Father. You need to pay attention to the road in front of you.” He’s right, of course. I should’ve known better. Distracted driving causes accidents, and that means you don’t get to where you need to go.

Jesus is telling us something of the same message in the gospel appointed in the RCL for Pentecost 3, Year C (Luke 9:51-62). If you’re plowing and you’re looking behind you, you’re going to screw up your row or break your plow on the rock you didn’t see. This is the analogy Jesus uses for a would-be disciple who dinks around before making a commitment to be a true follower. And Jesus doesn’t have time for such a person.

No. In this lesson Jesus has “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. He’s on a mission, and the time of his passion is imminent. He has no time for James and John’s petty pique over the Samaritans who don’t share their religious views (vv. 54-56). He has no time for wanna-be disciples who say they want to follow him, but aren’t really committed to the hardships such obedient discipleship may ask of them (vv. 57-58). He has no time for those who make excuses before they make commitments. The time for discipleship is NOW.

I’ll admit that verse 62 sounds really harsh. In fact, depending on how you interpret “Kingdom of God,” it might almost sound like someone’s being excluded from Paradise: “Hesitate in your commitment to the faith..? Sorry. You’re not good enough for Heaven.” Taken like that, the verse is pretty damning.

There is, of course, another way to look at it. But that way is no less serious. What if we didn’t just assume that “Kingdom of God” is that place we go when we die? What if God’s kingdom is any place where God rules—where His divine law is heard and obeyed? What would that look like?

One thing seems clear to me: the Kingdom doesn’t look too much like the society in which we currently abide. This world doesn’t have much time left in which to make a commitment on the environment and the changing climate. If we dither around on equitable pay, social services to the poor, healthcare, or any other compassionate response to our neighbors in need, we are prolonging their suffering and delaying the Kingdom of God. The call for our involvement and our discipleship is not some time when it’s convenient for us. It’s now.

As I write this, America is preparing to celebrate her 243rd birthday. At the founding of our republic, a great patriot named Thomas Paine summed-up the need for urgency:

THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Indeed, this is no time for us to have our noses in our cellphones or be “liking” on facebook. Each passing day seems to bring about another church closure. Each day another child goes hungry. Each day the earth gets a little closer to being uninhabitable by the likes of us. Each day another kids goes to an underfunded school and comes home knowing nothing more than he did the previous day. Each day the interest is compounded on some young person’s student loan. The needs are enormous, and there is no time for angry rhetoric, no time for a lack of commitment.

Jesus, in our gospel, is calling us to be followers today. We are called to be involved in our church, our world, and in our own spiritual lives. Let’s keep focused on the journey ahead, and proclaim the Kingdom of God.

Thanks for visiting this week. I’ll catch you next time.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A Society in Need of Exorcism (Reflections on Pentecost 2, Year C)

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I was bolting down a panini at my desk last Sunday afternoon, trying to get some nourishment in between Sunday mass and an afternoon funeral for a 34-year-old neighborhood guy who’d died of a drug overdose. The phone on my desk rang, and a lady on the other end asked, “Do you do memorial services?” I thought she wanted to know about the service I was about to do, but she explained she was calling for her daughter who had been found dead of an overdose that morning.

Overdoses. I don’t even count them anymore. I’ve buried so many young people from this neighborhood that I can’t keep track of them. Opioid addiction—the modern form of demonic possession—has touched my congregation, and I feel like the whole neighborhood needs an exorcism.

The Gospel lesson assigned for Pentecost 2, Year C in the RCL (Luke 8: 26-39) is the familiar story of Jesus travelling across the Sea of Galilee to a foreign land where he encounters a man possessed by evil spirits. These spirits cause the man to do some pretty crazy things. He can’t live among civilized folks anymore. He’s an outcast, openly courting death. Nobody can control this guy because the devils in him give him power to break the fetters that well-meaning people have chained him with in order to keep him safe from himself. Whether this demon is a supernatural force or a shot of smack, the behavior is the same.

There are some powerful things in this story. The first that strikes me is the fact that Jesus and the disciples have gone out of their way into unfamiliar territory. The country of the Gerasenes is Gentile country. The people keep pigs—an unclean animal to a pious Jew. It’s a pretty daring thing to go and offer ministry and healing in a weird and dangerous place where your society says the folks don’t deserve your help. But that’s what Jesus does.

The second powerful thing is that—even though this demoniac angrily rejects Jesus’ help (v. 28)—the power of God is still stronger than the power of the demon. This poor guy seems to be so used to being screwed-up that he’s uncomfortable with being whole. Nevertheless, healing is possible through Jesus. The desire for life is greater than the self-destructive demon. There is always forgiveness, love, and purpose that can bring us to sanity.

Unfortunately, doing the right thing has its cost. The Gerasenes aren’t easy with change. They’d gotten used to pitying and reviling their deranged neighbor, and they don’t like the fact that Jesus has altered him. That’s just a little too bizarre for their taste. They’re also, I’m sure, not crazy about the demons causing the swine to drown themselves (vv. 31-33). It cost too much to get this man well, and they don’t want to pay for it.

Maybe we don’t want to pay for wholeness, either. No Philadelphia neighborhood is going out of its way to welcome a safe injection site, even though such a site may save lives and help addicts recover. We’re much more comfortable with shackles and chains—lock up the junkies, don’t try to heal them.

As Christ’s church, I think it’s time we do something to try to cast this demon of addiction out of our midst. Over a year ago Dr. Umar Farooq of the Muslim Youth Center of Philadelphia suggested a neighborhood-wide effort to educate people on the opioid crisis. I’m hoping that Faith Lutheran and the MYCP can pool resources to promote such an educational event. Like Jesus, we are willing to reach out to those who are not of our faith in order to bring peace and healing. Yes, I anticipate it will cost money and there will be push-back from some. If we are successful, however, we might save a life and show the neighborhood that people of good will can work together for the common good.

We are just now beginning discussions with our Muslim neighbors to see what kind of a program we can provide. I’ll let you know more as things progress. In the meantime, thanks for reading and may God keep you and all your loved ones safe from the demons.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

The Absent Father (Reflections on Father's Day & Holy Trinity, Year C)

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“(The Spirit) will glorify me, because (she) will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:14)

I paged through the sheaves of old documents, some yellowed with age. They were on flimsy paper, the type of which I was unfamiliar. Rice paper, maybe? There was an embossed letter of commendation and thanks for military service with the signature of Harry Truman at the bottom. I’m surprised my dad kept it, good Republican that he was. He hated Harry Truman. I guess he just loved being a veteran. There were glossy “negative” Photostats of his DD-214 army discharge papers. And then there was this frail sheet, all folded up, declaring he was to be awarded the Bronze Star.

Say what..? The Bronze Star? Isn’t that a pretty prestigious decoration? What did the Old Man do to win the Bronze Star? And why had he never claimed the medal?[i]

I was looking through this old stuff he’d kept in preparation for preaching his eulogy. I found I had a lot of questions I’d never thought to ask him. Now I would never have the chance.

I guess that’s always the way with fathers. We may see them every day, but do we really know them? My dad was this guy who went to work every day, came home, took a nap until dinner time, read his Louis L’Amour western novels, hung out with a bunch of other old guys at the Bob’s Big Boy Coffee Shop, drank coffee, watched sports, and sang in the church choir. He read his Bible, made up goofy songs, argued with my mother, and made Welshcakes at Christmastime.

I can say I know things about my dad, but I wonder if I ever really knew him. Does anyone ever really know anyone else? Yet now, after he’s been gone over a quarter of a century, I feel at times that I’m turning into him. I catch myself saying things he would’ve said. I get irritated by the things that irritated him. I enjoy the things he enjoyed. And, on Sundays, I sometimes sing a hymn I remember him singing, and I hear his wonderful tenor voice once again.

My dad is absent. Yet he is also present—in a way, more present—than when he was with me. People complain about absent fathers, but I think every dad has to be just a little bit absent. Yes, there are those male progenitors who abandon their young and all responsibility they have toward them. In fact, I’m currently preparing the funeral for a thirty-two-year-old man who was abandoned by his deadbeat dad. The son just died of a heroin overdose. But I also consider my own father, who never knew his dad at all. My grandfather died in the Great Influenza epidemic in 1918 when my dad was only two months old. Nevertheless, my grandfather’s culture was a deep part of my father’s personality. The absent father was, in a way, present.

I consider, also, how much of my dad’s life was spent going out into the world. After I graduated from college, he invited me to accompany him on a day at his job. I’m not sure what he really wanted me to see or learn from the experience, but now I realize how much of his life was lived outside the home, absent, away. Dads have to be gone at least part of the time in order to be who they are.

On the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we hear Jesus’ “farewell discourse” from John’s Gospel. He’s explaining why he must leave his beloved family of disciples. In verse 6 he declares that sorrow has filled their hearts at the thought of his departure. And yet, he tells them he must go for their own good. He must go so that he can come again through the Holy Spirit so that he will be with them just as the Father is with him.

And they don’t understand. He says as much: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. (v. 12)” And it’s alright if they’re confused and bewildered at the moment. It’s okay that they don’t understand the mystery of God. None of us do.

But, as with my own dad, I recognize now that understanding is not always necessary. Love is there regardless.

God’s peace be with you this week. Please come again.

[i] Many years later I would discover that this decoration was devised during World War II to honor infantrymen for bravery or success in dangerous missions. Because of the severe weather and combat conditions in the European campaign in the late winter of 1944, President Truman declared that all who served in combat and qualified for the Combat Infantry Badge in that theater of operations would receive this special decoration. My father had already been discharged by the time the presidential order was given. Like my father-in-law (who parachuted into the Bulge) and many, many others who served in WW II, Dad never asked to receive the medal. He just wanted to put the war behind him, believing that the true heroes were still in Europe, lying beneath wooden crosses. They didn’t call these guys The Greatest Generation for nothing.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Why I Have to Trust the Spirit (Reflections on the Day of Pentecost, Year C)

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Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” (John 14:8-9)

Believe me, I sooo get where Jesus is coming from here. I mean, can’t you just picture him slapping a palm on his forehead in frustration and thinking, “What’s with these guys?! I’ve been teaching them for three years and they still don’t get it!”

Maybe you can relate to this, too. Have you ever explained something to someone over and over again, only to find the nincompoop just isn’t grasping the concept? If so, welcome to my world—the world of the Confirmation Class Teacher.

Just try to take middle school-aged kids and indoctrinate them with Reformation theology; cram into their heads the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments; and attempt with all of your pedagogical might to get them to conceptualize the Holy Trinity! Just try and make them understand the notion of salvation by grace alone—when their parents are busy sabotaging your efforts with a superstitious, works-righteousness doctrine that says, “If I just get this kid confirmed, I will have appeased the Angry God (and my kid’s grandparents), and we’ll never have to go to church again!”

The worst of it is, I can’t give these kids faith. I can only give them information. Fortunately, that’s all I have to do. It’s up to the Holy Spirit to do the rest.

In the Gospel lesson appointed in the RCL for the Day of Pentecost in Year C (John 14: 8-17, 25-27), Jesus gives his somewhat dim-witted followers these comforting words:

“…the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” (v.26)

And—Gosh dang!—do I ever take refuge in that promise! You see, I take the Christian education of the young very seriously. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get a fourteen year-old, who probably thinks he’s ten feet tall and bulletproof, to think deeply about eternal things. It’s even harder when sports activities have replaced religious observance as America’s chief form of worship. I feel thwarted in my duty as a teacher by parents who see the Rite of Confirmation as “Graduation from Church.” I make concessions for the all-too-cavalier attitude towards learning the faith, and I feel that if I set my educational bar any lower I will have to dig a trench for it.

But in the end, I guess it’s all good. I just have to trust that the Spirit will be reminding, whispering her voice into my former students’ ears, and every-so-often nudging from the dusty crevices in the backs of their brains the lessons of today’s Gospel:

·         God spoke through Christ, and Christ speaks through us.
·         The spiritual path begins with the religious observance of the Law: Love God, and love your neighbor.
·         We are called to do the works of God.
·         The works of God begin with prayer.
·         God’s peace is not the world’s peace. It doesn’t come from might or wealth or position. It only comes from trust in Christ—a trust that overcomes trouble and fear.

When I lay my hands on my Confirmands’ heads this Pentecost, I’m not expecting to see tongues of flame erupt or to hear them suddenly proclaim the Gospel in Croatian or Swahili. I fully expect that I may not see them again until their weddings. But I trust in the patient, gentle, and somewhat sneaky prompting of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the blessing I pray over them will, in God’s own good time, come alive in their hearts and lives.

If it’s okay with you, I’d like to pray that blessing for all of us now:

Father in heaven, for Jesus’ sake, stir up in all of us the gift of your Holy Spirit; confirm our faith, guide our lives, empower us in our serving, give us patience in suffering, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.

May the Spirit bless you this week! Catch me next time, okay?

Monday, June 3, 2019

Saint of the Month: Khader El-Yateem

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The time was a little after 11 pm. The place was the neuro-ICU at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on a summer night in 1995. I was just finishing praying for a patient at end-of-life when Grace, my neighbor and an ICU nurse, grabbed my arm. “Owen, I’m off shift now. Will you come downstairs and stand with me while I wait for Khader? I don’t want to stand outside by myself.”

I certainly couldn’t blame her. The streets of West Philly are no place for a pretty Palestinian-American woman to be loitering at a quarter to midnight. I told her I’d be delighted to wait with her. “Great!” she said. “You can see Rowan!”

We only waited a few minutes when Grace’s husband, my seminary neighbor Khader El-Yateem, rolled up in the family car, the couple’s year-old daughter, Rowan, asleep in the car seat behind him. Khader grinned at me with a look which, if I didn’t know he was a Lutheran seminarian, I’d swear bordered on the satanic. “So, Owen,” he said, “how do you like CPE? Are you having fun yet?”

“Fun? Fun..?!” I replied, not—as you can tell—without sarcasm. “I’ve been in this hospital since eight this morning and I won’t get to go home ‘til five tomorrow afternoon. Yeah. I’m having a blast!”

 “Good!” replied Khader “I knew you’d like it.” And off the El-Yateem family drove into the sweltering night, and I returned to my duties as an on-call chaplain at a busy city medical center.

All Lutheran seminarians are required to do three months of institutional chaplaincy between their first and second years of course work. This is called CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education, or, as some call it, Cruel Perverted Experience. The theory is that 500 or more hours spent with the sick, the dying, the frightened, and the bereaved is good preparation for parish ministry. I believe it is. Some, however, found it to be nothing short of Purgatory. Khader loathed the insistence on self-evaluation which was such an integral part of the CPE program. Arab men are passionate, but they hate to talk about their passion. Khader took a devilish delight in any discomfort I, as an underclassman, might be experiencing in this grueling ordeal which he had completed the previous summer.

When I remember Khader, I always think of his smile and ebullient sense of humor. The El-Yateem family lived one floor below me in a 19th century home converted into student housing. The three families living at 32 East Gowen Avenue often gathered in each other’s homes for game or movie nights. Khader was always the life of the party. I remember him leading a trivia game, prefacing each question with, “People of God! Are you listening? Are you ready?” He was particularly pleased to host a movie night when the chosen film was Lawrence of Arabia. In one scene, Peter O’Toole stands in full Bedouin robes and slings the end of his burnoose over his shoulder with heroic panache. “You see..?” Khader said, smiling, “This is the PRIDE!”

Khader also explained after we had seen the film that the war over water was just as important to the life of the Middle East as the war over oil—perhaps more so. I had never met a Palestinian before, and I really had no idea about life in Israel/Palestine. The Jewish people are the heroes of two-thirds of the Christian Bible, so I had never given any thought to how the Israeli government treated Palestinians. I recall Khader telling me, “You know, Americans think of Palestinians only as Muslim terrorists. You don’t remember that many of us are Christians…LUTHERANS..! We just want to live in peace.”

It was Khader who made me question the unquestioning loyalty American foreign policy has always seemed to display toward the government of Israel. What Khader did not tell me—and what I never knew until reading an article about him in the April 2019 issue of Living Lutheran—was that he had been arrested by Israeli soldiers when he was young and imprisoned, questioned, and tortured for 54 days before being released with no explanation for his arrest ever being given him. His ordeal, however, made him more committed to non-violence.

For 22 years, Khader served as pastor of Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in the Bay Ridge section of Brooklyn. He became the bridge which united Bay Ridge’s Arab-American population with the NYPD. He was a co-founder of the Bay Ridge Unity Task Force, an inter-religious organization combating discrimination. (He also launched an unsuccessful campaign for the New York City Council in 2018.) He was deeply rooted in the community, and was a natural to cross the culture canyon, being both a Christian and an Arab.

I remember calling Khader after I took my call in Philadelphia. At the time, he lamented that congregants were stealing Salam Arabic’s Bibles. We joked that theft of the Bible might not actually be a sin, but I told him I’d pass the hat at Faith Lutheran to purchase more copies of the Bible in Arabic. In exchange, Khader wrote my congregation a lovely thank-you letter praising their new pastor.

I spoke with him only once after that, in the aftermath of 9/11. I called to ask if he and the people of Salam were okay. I remember the matter-of-fact tone of his voice when he replied, “We are under police protection.”

The conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is, for many Americans, I suspect, little more than an arcane blip on the evening news. I believe the right-wing’s slavish devotion to Israel has less to do with Judaism and democracy than it has to do with the doctrine of many Evangelical Christians who see an apocalyptic and prophetic significance in Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem. In my opinion, this doctrine is, at the least, poor Biblical scholarship. At the most it is a dangerous heresy which disregards the rights of thousands of human beings. I am grateful to Khader for putting a human face on this situation, and I pray that he will continue in his mission to bring people together and enhance our understanding of one another.

If you want to learn more about this remarkable Christian, you can read this article by clicking on Khader.