Thursday, July 25, 2019

A Lot to Pray For (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year C)

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“Shall not the judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25)

Every family has that one (metaphorically speaking) anal sphincter in it. You know the guy I’m talking about. He’s the one who can’t get it together, who always screws up somehow, or who is always in need of getting bailed out for something. In the Hebrew Scripture lesson for Pentecost 7, Year C (Genesis 18:20-32) it’s Abraham’s nephew, Lot.

Lot’s not a really bad guy. It might just be that he’s a little selfish and has really bad luck. He decides to accompany his grandpa Tereh and his uncle Abraham on their first venture out of Ur of the Chaldeans. When old Tereh dies, it’s Uncle Abraham who lets Lot journey with him to the land that God has promised. When Lot’s herdsmen can’t seem to share ground with Abraham’s guys, Uncle Abe gives this kid and his posse their pick of grazing country. Lot—selfishly, if you ask me—chooses the best pasture land for himself (See Gen 13:7). But, hey! Abraham’s a good dude, and he trusts God. He figures he and his flocks and herds will get along just fine on the crappy land because he believes in God’s promise to bless him.

So Abe and Lot part company—for a while. For whatever reason, Lot gets out of the ranching business and settles in the town of Sodom. Sodom gets attacked by rebellious marauders, and Lot and his family are taken captive. Looks like Uncle Abe has to come to the rescue, so he gathers his 318 guys and attacks the marauders and rescues Lot (see Gen 14). After all, the guy is his nephew, and you have to help out your family, don’t you?

When we catch up with Abraham in the lesson appointed for Pentecost 7, he’s just been blessed by three strangers whom he correctly perceives to be the manifestation of Almighty God. These guys promise him (once again, because Abraham gets a little worried and doubtful from time to time—and don’t we all..?) that he will soon have his heart’s desire, a son and heir by his wife Sarah. Sarah, believing she is post-menopausal, gets a good chuckle out of this, but it turns out that the laugh’s on her.[i]

All’s well that ends well, right? But the kicker here is that the three divine strangers tell Abraham that they’re off to check out the wickedness of Sodom, Lot’s stomping ground. Abraham knows this can’t be good. If God is going to investigate a place for its wickedness, there’s a really good chance that place isn’t going to be around much longer. The Almighty might just nuke it, and Lot with it. So Abraham, once more pulling Lot’s chestnuts out of the fire, enters into some very obsequious negotiations with God. He dickers God down to an agreement to save the city for the sake of ten righteous people. I guess the upshot of the deal is that both Abraham and God agree it’s better to forgive the guilty than to punish the innocent.

(By the way: The great sin of Sodom and Gomorrah isn’t what some people think. God isn’t smiting theses cities because the inhabitants are gay. In fact, the rape suggested in chapter 19:5 and following might be better understood as a prison rape. That is, it’s committed to shame and dehumanize the victim, not out of sexual lust. The reception of the strangers in Sodom is contrasted with Abraham’s gracious welcome of them in chapter 18. The Sodomites are suspicious and treat strangers with contempt. Another explanation for Sodom’s sin is found in Ezekiel 16:49—“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” Imagine a wealthy society with contempt for the poor and the stranger. We Americans better get our act together!)

I really like that the Revised Common Lectionary has married this lesson with the passage in Luke’s Gospel about prayer and persistence (Luke 11:1-13). Abraham keeps badgering God to be merciful, and Jesus teaches that perseverance has power. The way we pray says a lot about how we understand God. Sedulous persistence in prayer means we know God is merciful, and we believe that we will be in relationship with God. We pray unceasingly in the confidence that our path will be made clear for us, our confusion and sorrow abated, and this messed-up world will get a little less messy.

Martin Luther called despair a “great and shameful” sin.[ii] I think this sin has its origins in neglecting our prayer life. Prayer is essential for righteousness, and righteousness is more than just not being at fault. Righteousness demands activity for the Kingdom of God. The strength to be active participants starts with asking God for that strength. We ask knowing that God is merciful, just, and generous.

We’re all just like Abraham, because we all have a “lot” to pray for. The solutions to our problems and the world’s problems may not be obvious, but if we keep seeking, we will find.

Thank you for seeking my blog this week. I appreciate it more than you know.

[i] More accurately, we could say the laugh’s in her, because the son she conceives is named Isaac, Hebrew for laughter.
[ii] See the explanation to the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

A Sense of Occasion (Reflections on Pentecost 6, Year C)

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“Maratha, Maratha. You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.” (Luke 10:41)

I love a good meal, don’t you? Last Saturday the Bride and I went walking in nearby Collingswood, New Jersey. It’s a pretty hip little burb across the river from Philly with lots of cool shops and restaurants on its main drag. On a whim, we stopped at a Victorian tea room called the Nutty Duchess[i] and enjoyed, I must say, a scrumptious repast. It was elegantly served in charming surroundings. I actually felt a little embarrassed eating there, however, as, being clad in tee-shirt and jeans, I felt myself to be under-dressed for so proper a ritual as tea time. I was always taught that one should dress for a formal meal to honor the hostess. I think that’s important. I always like to dress for dinner, church, or a night at the theatre. It gives one a sense of occasion.

I like a sense of occasion. Frankly, I’m tired of living in a nation of slobs. I’m sick of dudes not removing their ball caps at table (or even in church!). I just think that there are times when we want to show a little of our best selves. You know, with good manners and respectful speech and all of that jazz that your mother tried to teach you. Good, old-fashioned hospitality.

Hospitality, the practice of being friendly and solicitous to others—particularly strangers and new arrivals—or just plain respect for others is at the core of the lessons appointed for Pentecost 6, Year C. In the first lesson (Genesis18:1-10a), we see Abraham at the oaks of Mamre welcoming and entertaining three travelers whom he perceives to be the incarnation of God. I’d say that’s pretty good perception on his part. After all, I always maintain my duty as a Christian is to see God or Christ in others, and to be Christ for others. This is, after all, what Jesus taught us.[ii] But: if we won’t perceive him, how can we be him?[iii]

Abe really seems to care about how he treats these new arrivals. This is an occasion, and he wants to do it up right. I don’t think he’s trying to win Brownie points with God. It’s not a case of sucking up so God will do him a solid and give him his longed-for male heir. After all, God has already made a ritual contract promising Abraham he’ll give him a bouncing baby boy in due season. The deal has already been made.[iv] I think Abraham is just honoring these desert travelers because he’s a good dude and this is the right thing to do. (Note that this will be contrasted with the bad reception strangers receive in Sodom in Genesis 19).

What I find interesting in the way Abraham treats his guests is the almost comically frenetic pace with which he responds to his visitors. The Bible says he ran to meet them (v.2), he hastened to give Sarah cooking instructions (v.6), he ran to his heard to select the main course and his servants hastened to prepare it (v.7). I don’t think three guys walking across the desert were in much of a hurry to move on, but Abraham, being a good host and showing respect for his guests, didn’t want to keep them waiting.

This gets me to thinking. Have you ever been to one of those big family dinners, like at Thanksgiving or Christmas, when everything is just perfect, but the hostess never sits down to eat? The table is gorgeous, the food is delicious, the decorations are perfect, but there’s a really tense feeling in the air. It’s as if your mom (or whoever is hosting) is so anxious to make the meal perfect that it’s no longer about the guests. It might be a grand occasion, but there is an empty feeling in the human being department.

Fast forward to the Gospel lesson (Luke 10:38-42). Poor Martha is slaving away in the kitchen and Mary is just goofing off, listening to Jesus. I think each sister is wondering why her sibling doesn’t have a sense of occasion. For Martha, the occasion requires that the meal be prepared and all be done properly. Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t care about how the occasion proceeds. She’s more interested in the why of the occasion—and the why is to have an encounter with Jesus. I think that’s what Jesus is trying to get through to Martha. It doesn’t matter how good the food is or how quickly or elegantly it’s served. It matters that God is present and perceived.

I confess to being a liturgical junkie. I love high ritual and the dignity of the mass, but if my worship is not in response to an encounter with Jesus, it’s only empty play-acting. I will always feel that hospitality and a sense of occasion are really awesome things; nevertheless, the care given in worship or any kind of hospitality must be the response to having seen Jesus Christ and having known him in ourselves and in others. And when we have experienced the love and joy of Jesus, how else can we respond but with our very best selves?

God bless you, my friend. I’m so glad you dropped by this week!

[i] The Nutty Duchess is at 807 Haddon Ave. in Collingswood. Check it out if you live in the area. It’s really nice!
[ii] See Matthew 25:31-46
[iii] Unlike our hero Abraham, there seem to be a lot of folks in America today who are having trouble seeing God in the eyes of asylum seekers from Central America. I think we need to work on our hospitality, don’t you?
[iv] See Genesis 15:1-21.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

A Word about Changing Times for the Church

This isn't a Sunday sermon. I just wrote this for my church newsletter and I thought I'd share it.

Whatever happened to the good ol’ days? As I write this message, I am still dizzy from the latest email from our conference dean informing me that Good Shepherd Lutheran on Cottman Avenue has voted to close and will hold their final worship on August 25th. This is the eighth ELCA worship site in the old Northeast Philly Conference to sink under the waves during my tenure at Faith. What’s happening?

Remember when everyone went to church? Remember families worshiping together, everyone in their “Sunday best,” and the “after church” crowd at the local restaurant? Remember Luther League? Remember when teens hung out with their church friends and even fell in love and got married and raised Lutheran children? It sure ain’t happening these days. Why?

I have a few ideas. First, we’re too many generations away from the “Builders.” You know. Those lovely Great Depression/World War II folks who were the going-to-churchest people ever on the North American continent. In the post-war prosperity time, folks like my parents moved from farms to cities and cities to suburbs and formed communities by building churches. These people were invested in the religious organizations of their time, and they also had a real sense of obligation to community. Not only did they join and build churches, but they joined the Elks Club and the PTA and the VFW and the Masons. Now, three generations removed, there is less of a sense of community, identification, or trust in such institutions. Our kids build community online instead.

Secondly, we are a much more mobile and heterogeneous society than we were a few generations back. Most white folks don’t form little ethnic enclaves of Italians or Irish or Germans, and we don’t feel the need to find churches specific to an identity we no longer espouse. We’re open-minded and inter-marry with folks of different traditions. We don’t have a denominational “brand loyalty,” because we don’t see ourselves as part of the group our grandparents belonged to. We’ve moved away from our parents’ church, and we don’t feel the need to seek out the community of folks we only half-heartedly identified with in the first place.

And then there’s the change in the meaning of Sunday. Church attendance is not obligatory. We can be “spiritual” but not “religious.” Our work schedules, which may change from week to week, don’t allow us to attend Sunday morning worship with any kind of regularity. We may also be working more than one job, and we’re just exhausted when we’re lucky enough to get something that looks like a weekend. And, of course, the kids—who used to play sports at public school before all the budget cuts—now are part of private soccer and football leagues which practice and compete on Sundays. We want the kids to learn teamwork, and we’ve already invested a few hundred bucks in their fees and equipment. God will forgive us if we don’t take them to Sunday School.

Of course, there is also the media and a general secularization of society, but I don’t really think this factor plays as big a part in the emptying of churches as do the others I’ve mentioned. The big question will have to be: What are we who love our church to do about it? Do we just sit back and watch our churches go down like Custer at the Big Horn?

First, I think we have to get back to basics. We have to ask ourselves what the Christian faith means and what it means to us. We have to know our belief system. This means we have to be disciplined to read the Bible, pray regularly, and worship as often as we can to build a sense of community. We have to be willing to talk about our faith, and we have to see the church as a place where we are in service to the world and not as a place we come to feel good on Sunday mornings. We have to believe in Christ’s mission to the poor and the marginalized, and take up our identity as the helping hands of the needy and the voice of the voiceless.

Second, once we’ve become excited about being Christians, we need to share our faith. A recent Christianity Today poll showed that over 40% of Lutherans have never invited anyone to worship with them, yet 71-82% of unchurched folks are likely to accept an invitation to worship when it comes from a friend or neighbor. A similar poll showed that a pastor’s invitation to church has only about a 6% success rate. I pass out business cards and invitations whenever I perform a funeral service for an un-churched individual. My personal success rate is less than 1%. As my old pal Dr. Phil Krey used to say, “Shepherds don’t beget sheep. Sheep beget sheep.”

Finally, we may need to accommodate a society which no longer has a traditional Sunday morning. I wonder if it’s time to start a Saturday or Sunday evening service, or some kind of worship experience during the work week. Whatever the solution is, we need to be in prayer for our future, be flexible, and believe that God has given us a purpose and a reason to be his children.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Saint of the Month: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, official portrait, 116th Congress.jpg
I have something to say about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which I know feminists won’t like. The Me Toos and the Time’s Ups will accuse me of vile sexism, but this is the elephant in the room and I feel it needs to be said. So here goes:

I think AOC is really pretty.

There. I said it. So why is it important? It’s important because Taylor Swift didn’t graduate cum laude with a degree in International Relations. It’s important because Beyonce has never worked on the staff of an influential member of the US Senate. It’s important because neither Selena Gomez nor Ariana Grande have served as Educational Director for the National Hispanic Institute. It’s important because not even the talented and audacious Lady Gaga is audacious enough to challenge a long-entrenched member of the Democratic Party establishment in a primary election and actually win it. It’s important because America is tongue-lolling thirsty for a stylish, charismatic, and seismically exciting celebrity who can fire up the yearnings of our better selves—the longings of our virtue—and move us to action. In the Representative from New York’s 14th Congressional District we have found just such a personality to capture our aspirations. We have collectively been charmed by this courageous heroine who is the real deal—experienced, intelligent, empathetic, and wise beyond her less-than-thirty years.

As a clergyman, I see the young Congresswoman as the modern-day Esther, the biblical beauty who became a queen in order to save her people from destruction. Esther’s wise cousin Mordecai tells her:

“Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)

Indeed, it is for just such a time as ours that we need Representative Ocasio-Cortez on our side. Yes, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are both champions in the battle against income inequality. But it is the young woman from the Bronx who knows first-hand how a college graduate can see her promising career shipwrecked on the reef of exploding housing costs and asphyxiating student debt. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez is fresh out of the trenches of middle-class warfare, and her generation knows she’s shared their struggle.

Perhaps I won’t agree with every policy the young Congresswoman espouses; nevertheless, I am grateful to see a member of the millennial generation emerge on the American political scene with a new vision and a real passion. It gives me hope. I’ve seen snippets of Rep. Ocasio-Cortez on C-Span as she questioned witnesses as part of her duties on the House Oversight Committee. I find her to be intelligent and restrained and much more dignified and substantive in her arguments than some of her older progressive colleagues. For all of her flash and all  the attention the media has given her, she still strikes me as a serious leader who does honor to the House of Representatives, her constituency, and our country as a whole by exemplifying the gravitas and decorum which is befitting of our elected officials—and sorely lacking in some.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Wikipedia bio says she is a Roman Catholic. I’m delighted she has made her faith an important part of her policy. In an article she wrote for America: The Jesuit Review during her campaign, she expressed how her belief in mercy was fundamental to her thoughts on reworking the criminal justice system. To me, this speaks more to an understanding of Jesus Christ than the religious right’s thundering about abortion, gay marriage, and Israel.

I will follow this young politician’s career with interest, and I predict she will provoke some deep thought and—let us hope—some needed action to move us to become an America worthy of our founding principles. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the next few years, we’ll see a generation of “tweeny-boppers” look past the parade of pop divas to Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and say, “I want to be like her.”

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Love Thy Neighbor (Reflections on Pentecost 5, Year C)

I am on vacation this week, so I won't be posting a reflection piece for Pentecost 4. Please see the Featured Post at right for commentary on that week's lesson. OG

"Paraable of The Good Samaritan" Balthesar van Cortbemde (Flemish, 1647)

“No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” (Deuteronomy 30:14)

I was raised by politically conservative parents. Yup. Mom and Dad were folks who believed it was better to have too little government than too much. I’m not really sure how my dad came to be a conservative—and he mad e Archie Bunker look like a moderate—but I think it might’ve started as a reaction against his dictatorial and ultra-liberal Cornish grandfather. My great grandad loved the fact that his adopted country gave women the vote. He could line his daughters up and tell them exactly how they, as obedient and subservient children, should cast their ballots. I think my dad became a conservative just to spite the old geezer. That, or his post-combat experience in Germany after World War II gave him a deep distrust of the Soviet Union and anything even remotely connected to it—like socialism.

My mom was a different story. She was logical to the core. I remember her asking, “Why should I pay taxes to protect someone else from the consequences of their own stupidity?” Mother believed that you earned what you got, and if you didn’t get it, you didn’t earn it. I’ll admit, she had a point.

It’s that point, however, that gets put to the test by the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 5, Year C (Luke 10:25-37), the famous parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus and the Law of Moses referenced in this passage tell us unambiguously that we are to love our neighbor. So what does the lawyer in the story do? He asks Jesus to define neighbor. I mean, you wouldn’t want to accidentally love someone who wasn’t entitled to that love, now would you?

The priest and the Levite (a temple assistant) who each encountered the wounded, bloody victim of the assault didn’t stop to help him. Possibly they feared that the violent assailants might still be hiding around the next rock or something. Or, perhaps, being religiously observant men, they chose not to touch the injured man out of fear of contaminating themselves with his icky blood. We might even suspect that they felt no obligation to help this poor soul because traveling was dangerous and the guy should’ve known better than to be going from Jerusalem to Jericho by himself. They might’ve blamed the victim. It was his own fault for getting mugged and rolled, the dumb jerk!

What is crystal-freaking-clear in the passage, however, is Jesus’ belief that neighborliness—the obligation to be merciful—crosses the borders of nationality, race, and religion. Who is my neighbor? The one who shows me mercy like the heretic Samaritan in the parable. “Go and do likewise,” Jesus says to the lawyer. And he didn’t stutter.

Why provide healthcare for the indigent? Because the poor are our neighbors. Why welcome the asylum seekers? Because the refugees and the persecuted are our neighbors. Why provide quality public education for all? Because the children are our neighbors. Why send food supplies and medical aid around the globe? Because the oppressed are our neighbors. Why does my congregation grow vegetables on our lawn for the poor and sleep homeless people in our basement? Because they’re  our neighbors.

The Bible enjoins us to practice a compassionate generosity. Yes, I’ll admit it is possible to be too merciful and turn compassion into enabling. I’ll even go farther and confess that there are some unscrupulous folks who will take advantage of the generosity of others. But I don’t really care. I think the principle we need to follow as Christians in our public life is to love our neighbors without qualifications. For my money, it’s far worse to do too little than to do too much. Besides, if we were really to ask the question of worthiness, would any of us sinners merit what we have?

The political question never really changes. It always boils down to this: What are the responsibilities and limitations of our government? We go back and forth with this in America all the time. But one thing doesn’t change: If we’re truly Christians, we must love our neighbor. We can debate the best way to do this as a society, but we cannot deny Christ’s command to do it.

Thanks, as always, for reading. Let me know what you think, okay?