Wednesday, August 28, 2019

VIP Seating (Reflections on Pentecost 12, Year C)

Related image
David LaChapelle (1963-) 
“…you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” (Luke 14:14)

Boy howdy do we ever love status. I guess that’s why facebook is so appealing. We can really show ourselves off like we’re all still trying to be the cool kids in high school. With the ability to publish our every thought and activity to hundreds of “friends” at once, Mr. Zukerberg has successfully managed to keep America in a perpetual state of adolescence. I’m just glad the acne doesn’t come with it.

But status, prestige, the adulation of the masses, and big rewards are the things Jesus warns us about in the Gospel reading assigned for Pentecost 12 in the Revised Common Lectionary this year (Luke 14: 1, 7-14). Jesus has been invited to a dinner party at some big-shot Pharisee’s house. It’s pretty clear the host didn’t invite Jesus in the hope of a reciprocal invitation to an equally swanky soiree. Nope. Jesus doesn’t have those kinds of bucks. But I suspect the itinerant rabbi’s fame is what put him on the A-list. All the other guests are looking at this peasant preacher, the current flavor of the month around Israel, and wondering what he’s going to do and say. Maybe some of them only showed up because they heard the famous Jesus of Nazareth would be attending. If we can’t be a celebrity, you know, we at least like to say we’ve met one.

Jesus is watching them, too. He sees how they jockey for position, everybody trying to get the VIP seats at the table to show off their stature within the community. So Jesus busts out with the parable in verses 7-11. The moral is pretty obvious: Don’t go around puffing yourself up, because somebody will—inevitably—come along and let the air out of you. Then you’ll be disgraced. Which is bad. There are some folks who would prefer cancer to humiliation.

I’d like to point out, however, that I don’t think there’s any real sin in being successful or well-regarded. In a brilliant speech he gave at King’s College, London in 1944[i], C.S. Lewis likened having status to inheriting a fortune from your maiden aunt. If she dies and leaves you a ton of money, there’s nothing wrong with that. The sin is in coveting it. That is, if you want the old broad to kick off so she can leave you her loot, you better get yourself right with God. The hunger for status, fame, adulations, or what have you is the real problem. It’s like a drunk’s thirst for booze. A little bit is too much, and a lifetime of praise is never enough. It will be cool for a while, but will eventually leave you unsatisfied. You’ll discover your fellow high-status people are just as messed up and insecure as you are.

When I re-read Jesus’ suggestion for a better dinner party in verses 12-14, I thought of that great old MGM melodrama Dinner at Eight.[ii] A society lady wants to show off to her friends by inviting a British peer and his wife to dinner. She’s so obsessed with the impression she’ll be making that she never notices the illness of her husband and the turmoil of her daughter. We, the audience, see how all of the dinner guests, in spite of their tuxedos and evening gowns and glittering jewels, are just a bunch of broken and miserable human beings full of sin and unhappiness.

What would the world look like, I wonder, were we to put all the effort and resources we put into making ourselves look successful and important into providing mercy and aid for the “unimportant” people of the earth? Those “little people,” you see, are pretty big and important in God’s eyes. And so are you.

Just remind yourself. Once a man loved you so much that he went to death on a cross for you. You were that important. You mattered that much to him. Is there any job or honor you’re going to get, any swanky friend you’re going to make, any award you’ll win or applause you’ll receive that will matter more to  you than the knowledge of how much God already loves you? I mean, come on. Do you really give a crap about where you sit at the table? Because at the head of the table or at the foot, the end of the meal will be the same.

May God’s peace go with you this week, my friend. I’m honored, as always, that you dropped by this week.

[i] You can read the text of this speech if you go to .
[ii] It was released in 1933. It’s brilliantly over-acted by an all-star cast and based on a play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. If you ever see it, you’ll know why folks in the Depression found it great escapism.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Jesus Heals on the Sabbath (Reflections on Pentecost 11, Year C)

So Jesus heals on the Sabbath? Good. That’s what the Sabbath is for, isn’t it? The stuffy leader of the synagogue in the Gospel lesson appointed for Pentecost 11, Year C (Luke 13:10-17) seems to have missed the memo. He quotes only part of the Third Commandment as it appears in Exodus: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work (Ex. 20:9),” but he leaves out the whole rationale for the rule in the first place:

“But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” (Exodus 20:10-11)

Get the point? The Sabbath is for rest. Rest restores and heals. It’s necessary. Ever go without sleep? Ever deal with something that was so relentless you couldn’t catch your breath? Sucks, doesn’t it? We need the rest. Our souls need it as well as our bodies. The Sabbath is God’s gift so we can be healed. Nothing should be more natural in the world than that Jesus should see the woman who is in slavery to her affliction, and—without her even asking for it—he calls her over and makes her whole. That’s what the Sabbath is for.

Granted, over the years we Christians have made Sundays as dreary and burdensome as the synagogue leader who gives Jesus a hard time in our Gospel story. In one of my favorite novels, Of Human Bondage, W. Somerset Maugham describes a dreary English Sabbath in which a young boy must suffer through interminable Anglican liturgies in both the morning and evening, interrupted by a monotonous Sunday afternoon in which all activity ceases and an oppressive edict of silence is imposed on the household. It’s shear Purgatory. And it was supposed to be good for the soul.

For me, however, the Sabbaths of my youth were always very pleasant times. I got to see my buddies at church, the folks were friendly, the singing and preaching were joyful, and there was always—even well into my adulthood when my siblings and I had moved out of the family home—family time. We’d gather around the dining table in my parents’ home or at a local restaurant. We’d get caught up. We’d talk about the service we’d just attended or whatever else. After Sunday dinner there was our traditional Sunday snooze. I think the whole clan would hit our bunks and doze off until it was time to watch 60 Minutes. The Sunday afternoon nap was as much a part of Sunday as church and dinner. Even when I went away to graduate school, I pretty much kept up our Griffiths family Sabbath routine.

But today, it’s different for a lot of folks. There’s no rest on the Sabbath. Some people have to hold down more than one job to make ends meet. Sales clerks and waiters don’t get their weekly schedules until the last minute, so they can never commit to weekly worship. The “gig” economy has people working seven days, or so dog tired on a Sunday morning that all they can do is stay in bed. America—once home of the “blue laws” which forbade businesses to be open on Sunday mornings and forbade the sale of alcohol on the Sabbath—has effectively killed the Lord’s Day of Rest.

So, okay. The Sabbath doesn’t have to be a specific day. When I was in seminary I knew a Lutheran pastor from Tanzania who had a seventeen point parish back in his home country. It didn’t matter what the calendar said. Whenever Pastor arrived in the village, that day was Sunday.

Martin Luther interpreted obedience to the Third Commandment as hearing the word of God and learning it. This could be done during a lunch break at Walmart or before a shift at the Taco Bell. I think what’s necessary for the Sabbath is not the liturgy or the trappings of a church building (as much as I love these things), but the quiet moment to come to the Word and know that you are loved and valued. If you can couple that with the fellowship of other believers—with your Christian “family” in whatever form they take—and find a few restful, peaceful, healing moments to do it, so much the better.

A Good Sabbath to you, my friend. Thanks for dropping in.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

It's Not Always Good to be Nice (Reflections on Pentecost 10, Year C)

Students From A Maryland High School Organize Walkout And March On Capitol Demanding Gun Control Action From Congress : News Photo

Everybody is saying it: we live in a divided nation. Folks in America have really strong—but really divergent—views on how this country should be run and what rules we should live by. People get so worked up they almost come to blows. At my neighborhood community center they’ve gone so far as to adopt a standing rule that no one may discuss politics on the premises. We just want to keep everything nice and friendly. We are, after, all a “55 and Over” community. No one wants to see geriatrics try to body slam each other over immigration policies or gun control.

But I’m not sure if “nice and friendly” is the way we need to go right now. In the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 10 (Luke 12:49-56), Jesus says:

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” (v. 51)

This may not sound like the sweet Prince of Peace with the lamb on his shoulder we see in stained glass windows or in our kids’ Sunday school books, but it sure sounds like the Jesus who entered the Temple of Jerusalem and drove out the guys who were ripping off the poor.[i] Jesus wasn’t afraid of sowing a little division where the truth was concerned.

Saint Paul also reminds us that division can be a good thing:

“Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” (1Cor. 11:19)

Yes, Christians should be friendly, welcoming, peace-making, and nice. But, quite frankly, I’m a little tired of “nice” these days. When innocent people keep getting gunned down in places like El Paso and Dayton, I think it’s time to do away with “nice.” In fact, I think it’s time to scream our heads off, and if people don’t agree, that’s just too friggin’ bad.

It’s now been twenty years since the shooting at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Since that time acts of mass gun violence have only increased. Decency and regard for public safety demand that our lawmakers enact some kind of gun control legislation. This needs to be shouted so loud that even the dimmest sycophant of a politician sucking at the NRA’s teat can get it through his head. There are common-sense measures which can be voted on if our elected representatives have the guts to make them law:

1.      No American civilians need an assault rifle. These weapons should be outlawed along with high-capacity magazines, bump stocks, etc.
2.      There needs to be a federal law standardizing background checks for all gun purchases which includes a mandatory waiting period.
3.      We must outlaw the direct or immediate sale of guns at gun shows and through the internet. All dealers must take responsibility for the firearms they sell.
4.      We must strengthen domestic violence and “red flag” restrictions on gun ownership.

If ever there was a time to start sowing division, it is now. I’m sick and tired of people who only want to come to church to feel good. If you want to feel good, get a massage or watch an episode of Modern Family. Don’t expect that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will always be a comforting thing. Jesus came to shake things up.

Nothing makes me as spitting angry as hearing Evangelical televangelists assure us that we’re good Christians as long as we’re not gay or transgender, don’t have abortions, and give unquestioning loyalty to the Israeli government (no matter how much that government oppresses Palestinian Muslims and Christians). I want to ask these millionaire preachers how they can rant about the things they rant about while many Americans are living below the poverty line and don’t have decent healthcare.

I don’t want to hear platitudes from the—what is it now?—eighty-five or so Democrats who think they want to be president. I want a real Christian voice to rise up like Martin Luther risen from the grave and call out these hypocrites for their hypocrisy in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. And if that causes division, so be it.

We are called to be followers of Christ. Christ called out the money changers and the hypocrites. He caused trouble. So did Martin Luther and Martin Luther King. So does Pope Francis from time to time. We have to ask ourselves if it’s right to be silent and nice in the face of racism, xenophobia, and just plain bad public policy.

“Nice” isn’t nice if it masks the truth.

[i] Matt. 21: 12-13, Mark 11:15-17, Luke 19:45-46, John 2:13-17

Thursday, August 8, 2019

It Ain't Over (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year C)

Image result for images of stars in the sky
This month a bunch of my former confirmands will be heading off to college. I’m always amazed by how quickly the young stop being quite so young. I look at these young men and think it was only yesterday they were goofy-looking fourteen-year-olds. Now they’re tall, handsome young adults who still have the glorious adventure (and misadventure, too!) of their whole lives ahead of them.

Remember when you were that age? Life seems a little less adventurous now, doesn’t it? I’m staring down the barrel of the Big 6-0 and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get any better looking from here. I’m probably not going to get any more physically fit either. For that matter, I have serious doubts I’ll ever make a fortune or become world famous or run a marathon. Nope. Those ships left port a long time ago. It’s all pretty much downhill at this point.

Do you ever feel like Abram in the First Lesson appointed for Pentecost 9 this year (Genesis15:1-6)? You start to think about old age and death and all the cool stuff you may have missed out on and you wonder if you have anything to look forward to. Ever get like that? Poor Abram thinks God has forgotten the promise, but God gets Abe to see things in a different light. In this case, starlight. That’s a whole new perspective.

A few nights back I came home from a church council meeting and I took a few minute just to look up at the night sky and see the stars. I couldn’t count as many as Abram could in his day—what with light pollution from the city and all—yet I still found the sight astonishing. Those whirling balls of flaming gas are millions and millions of miles away; nevertheless their light still reaches us. The light we see left those stars millions of years ago. It almost makes your brain explode to contemplate the enormity of the universe. All I could think as I looked at the stars was, “How great is our God.”

In both the Hebrew and the Greek scriptures appointed for this Sunday in Pentecost, God’s people are given comfort and assurance. In this week’s Gospel (Luke 12:32-40) Jesus tells us, his “little flock,” to have no fear. The Kingdom is ours. It’s pretty reassuring to know that the God who created the vastness of the universe still has a blessing planned for us—even though we might think the final score is announced, the season is over, and all the players have hit the showers. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, as the saying goes, and we’re enjoined to keep alert for what God has planned next.

Jesus’ first piece of advice is to forget about the material things (v.33). The older I get, the more I understand that stuff is just stuff. There’s so much we can do without. Don’t you think it’s much more satisfying to know that we’ve stewarded the blessings God’s entrusted to us for the benefit of others? Jesus tells us,

“Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.” (V.33)

That’s something we can do at any age, right?

Jesus also tells us, just as the Father tells Abram, to keep watching and to be ready. The image he gives us, that of servants preparing for the return of the master, is an active image. We don’t just sit around playing Angry Birds on our cell phones and saying, “Gosh. Wonder when he’s going to get back..?” We’re supposed to be doing. There’s the fire to be lit and the table to be spread and the food to be prepared. There’s a house to be cleaned and snow to be shoveled off the walk and lamps to be lit outside. Jesus is urging us to look for the joy of God by being active.

What does that mean for you? I’d say a good start is by committing to spiritual discipline. My dentist told me I had to floss because my gums are getting too loose. If I give myself a good flossing one day and neglect to floss for a week, I’ll probably be on the road to a root canal. If I work out extra hard at the gym one day, and then don’t go for a month, the one-day workout won’t do me any good. I have to be consistent.

And so it is with our spiritual lives. Prayer is a daily activity we can do at any age. Worship is a weekly activity through which we keep learning and growing. Generosity is a habit which breeds wisdom in our lives. Fellowship with others and sharing our faith challenges us to examine our beliefs, gain understanding, and delight in the gift of each other’s company. To use Jesus’ metaphor, should a thief try to break in—illness, death of a loved one, loss of income, retirement, or anything that drastically changes our lives—we’ll be ready for him. We’ve prepared.

We have a really BIG God. We have a God who is calling us to keep looking toward tomorrow with hope. We have a God who keeps calling us out of ourselves to astronomical possibilities.

Keep looking up. God bless you!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Storing Up Treasures (Reflections on Pentecost 8, Year C)

Image result for Images of piles of currency
Rich has been my buddy for almost forty years, even though he lives in Wisconsin and I only get a call from him every now and then. I have to say he has always been a rather frugal individual. He cuts coupons, shops at discount stores, likes “one-price-all-you-can-eat” restaurants, and—at least when he and I hung out together—would pinch a penny so hard Abe Lincoln would beg for mercy. Several years ago he was fortunate to find a young woman brave enough to marry him. I, knowing him as I do, was quite astonished when he announced his plans for a rather luxurious honeymoon. He and his lovely bride would travel to California and from there on to a tour of Australia and New Zealand. Rich described the adventure with great detail, but ended the narrative by plaintively moaning, “But it’s gunna cost me eight thousand dollars, Griff, and…well…you know me and money.”

I reassured him, “Dude, this will be the best eight grand you’ll ever spend.”

Boy howdy, do we ever hate to part with cash! I’m sure your parents always told you to have something put by for a rainy day. Save for your retirement. Save for your children’s college education. Save to buy a house. Save for an emergency. Save to have something for the kids when your time’s up. Save for the grandkids. Save for your funeral. Saving is prudent and wise.

But. Did you ever know anyone who saved all their life and forgot to live their life? Someone who wanted to have their cake but never eat it? That rather defeats the purpose of cake, don’t you think?

Face it, a lot of folks are like the man in the parable Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel appointed for Pentecost 8 in the RCL (Luke 12:13-21). We think if we build bigger barns and store up more wealth we’ll be able to live in comfort and security—as if comfort and security are the purposes of our lives.

Too often, I suspect, we as individuals and as the Church aim for comfort and security but miss out on our real purpose. That purpose is to learn and grow and be the healing presence of Christ in a hurting world. We do this both as individuals and as part of the Christian community. We’re called to trust that God, who has given us this opportunity, will provide us with resources both spiritual and physical. Money is nothing but a tool to accomplish our purpose. It’s not the purpose in and of itself.

It seems, however, that we never believe that our resources are enough. What I’ve seen in congregations (and I’ve seen three parishes in my conference go face down in the dust within the last nine months!) is a greater belief in scarcity than a trust in God’s abundance. They’ve circled the wagons, cut the costs, and figured out how long they can survive on dwindling savings and income. Now, call me reckless, but I just can’t see spending down endowment funds or savings just to put off an inevitable death of a community that wasn’t producing fruit for the Kingdom in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather go out in a blaze of glory than wither away whimpering.

God provides us with abundance to use for God’s glory. As families of faith we’re called to invest in meaningful and vibrant worship and in compassionate care and love for our communities. We are to be alive while we are alive, not sit quietly waiting for death. The challenge is first to realize that reliance on our own resources is an insult to God. Why? Because it denies God’s willingness to bless us.  Second, we should recognize that our wealth is not just in bucks in the plate or butts in the pews. God may have gifted us in ways of which we are not aware: talented people, visions for ministry, ability to serve children, space for community needs, or neighbors who would welcome a partnership. Additionally, we have to remember that we are called to be givers and not hoarders. If our fists are closed, nothing else can come into them.

I’m not suggesting that you or your congregation should go out and start spending hell bent for leather, but I would ask you to consider: What are you saving for? What kind of abundance do you already possess? To what purpose are you called? How are you investing in the things of God? By living in faith? By believing in God’s providence? By your generosity to others?

Rich and his wife had a great time on their honeymoon, and began their life together with a shared adventure which drew them even closer than they’d been before. I’m sure my friend has long forgotten the cost of his trip, but he’ll never forget having taken it.

Enjoy God’s abundance today, my friend, and thanks for looking in this week.