Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Doing It Jesus' Way (Reflections on All Saints Sunday)

Image result for Images of cemeteries in autumn
Okay. So here I am, sitting in a family conference room at the George Washington Memorial Park in Plymouth Meeting, PA, waiting to officiate a funeral in the chapel. My car is in the shop, so I hitched a ride with Joe the funeral director who had to be here a couple of hours early. I’m killing time in this sales office while the viewing is being held. I guess this is as good a place as any to start thinking about the recently—and not-so-recently—deceased who will be remembered on All Saints Sunday. I look around me at the pictures of different types of burial vaults and mausoleums you can buy if you want to make George Washington Memorial your final real estate purchase. The room is tastefully decorated, there’s a bowl of Jolly Ranchers on the table, and a brilliant autumn sun is shining through the windows; nevertheless, I am surrounded by the things of death.

I’ve been given permission by the cemetery staff to help myself to coffee in their break room. As I pour myself a cup I spy a cartoon caption on their bulletin board, “Life is priceless. Death will run you about six or seven grand.”

It was a long drive from the funeral home out here to George Washington. Joe and I talked shop on the way. I told him that, what with all the funerals I’ve officiated in my career, I’ve begun to recognize different types of grief. The most common I just call “Good Grief.” That’s when grandma goes home to Jesus after living ninety years of peaceful life and everyone says, “She was a good woman. It was her time.” It makes me think that Shakespeare’s Marc Antony might’ve been wrong. It seems the good that we do lives after us. The evil is oft interred with our bones. And I’m okay with that.

As we always do on All Saints, we at Faith Lutheran Church will light candles for each of our beloved dead who have passed since last November 1st. I’m thankful no one from the congregation has died this year. As I look at the list of those saints whom my parishioners wish to have remembered, I only recognize two names.

Rick Fluehr was a funeral director I’ve worked with for twenty years or more. He was 59. He often joked that he had me on speed dial and would call whenever an un-churched family needed a clergy to bury their dead. Rick was an undertaker’s undertaker. He cared deeply about the families he served and was a 100% professional in all he did. I once noticed he would wrap the skirt of the caisson around the handle of a casket before he touched it so as not to leave fingerprints. He was faithful in little things and big things as well, generous, a loving dad and husband, and infinitely patient.

Once Rick and I were returning from a burial at the Washington Crossing National Cemetery when he got a call from an irate customer. He put the call on speaker as he was driving and needed his hands for the wheel. I listened as the caller made unreasonable demands, failed to listen to Rick’s explanations of why he couldn’t oblige her, and—essentially—accused him of incompetence. I was shocked by the rudeness I heard in that call. Rick, however, kept his cool and was nothing but polite, apologetic, and sympathetic.

When the caller hung up, Rick quietly said, “You know, Pastor, people get upset when their loved one dies, and some feel they have to lash out at someone. I just take it. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last.”

“If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also…” (Luke 6:29)

At Rick’s funeral mass, Father Chris of St. Charles Borromeo said, “You can tell a lot about someone by the way they receive communion.” I didn't need to see him receive communion to know that Rick received Christ in his heart. I could see the way of Christ in his actions.

The other name I recognize on the necrology is that of Richard Fargason. Richard was the brother-in-law of Joy, my most colorful elderly shut-in member. Joy is, to say the least, unique. She has her own interpretation of events which doesn’t always reflect a firm purchase on practicality. It is something of an understatement to say that she can be demanding. Richard would indulge her, however, and do so with divine patience and kindness. He was her care-giver. He did her shopping, fixed what needed fixing in her house, looked in on her constantly, and showed as much love as any brother could—this joyfully and without complaint and in spite of his having a host of his own health problems. He passed away form a long-undiagnosed cancer at age 79.

Richard was a sweet, polite, southern gent from Georgia. Joy’s brother, Stan, said of him, “He’d do anything for anyone. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

“…and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you…” (Luke 6:29-30)

When I gave Richard the last rites in the hospital, he proudly told me that, even though he wasn’t a regular church-goer, he’d been baptized by full immersion in the Baptist church in Atlanta when he was young. It must’ve taken. 

Both Rick Fluehr and Richard Fargason illustrate the Gospel appointed for All Saints (Luke 6:20-31) as both men seemed to choose the way of Christ over the ways of this world. The things this world values—riches, fame, and power—are transitory. We’re feeling blessed today but feeling woe tomorrow. That’s because our values are not God’s values. In the end, if we wish to be remembered, if we wish to leave a positive impact, it’s best to do things Jesus’ way. It’s better to ask humbly for a spirit of wisdom as the inheritance of our baptism. It’s better to receive Christ with a joyful heart and a spirit of submission so that we may also receive the gifts of compassion, patience, mercy, contentment, and the humility which allows us to love selflessly and be loved in return.

I look out the window of the cemetery office and see the beautiful leaves drifting down onto the lawn. I see the monument of General Washington on horseback, erected to honor those who served our country, and I think of the worlds of an old hymn:

“And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know:
We may not count her armies, we may not see her king;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”

God bless, dear saint! Thanks for reading.

PS – The hymn I’ve referenced was composed by Gustav Holst in 1921 with lyrics by Cecil Spring-Rice. You can listen to Katherine Jenkins sing it by clicking HYMN.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A Generic Reformation Sunday Sermon

"Luther Before the Diet of Worms" Anton von Werner (1843-1915)

I tried really hard to come up with a new twist for a Reformation Sunday sermon this year, but darned if I could think of anything. If I were the campus chaplain of a university, I guess I’d be using Luther’s example to incite the students to acts of civil disobedience in protest of the corruption and abuse of power of this current administration. Unfortunately, I’m the pastor of a bedroom community parish on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and I have to find something meaningful to say to a congregation of folks who are mostly older in age and just trying to get by day-to-day. All I could come up with is this generic Reformation Sermon[i]. I hope it’s enough.

So what are we celebrating on Reformation Sunday? What and who is this festival about? Reformation Sunday is the Sunday on our liturgical calendar which falls on or immediately before October 31. It was on Halloween in 1517 that Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses[ii] to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany—thereby defying the power of the Roman Catholic Church and sending the metaphoric fecal matter on a collision course with the fan. Western civilization took a sudden and shocking lurch when an insignificant religious accused the most powerful machine of the Middle Ages of both ignoring its duty to preach the Gospel and systematically abusing the poor.

So who was Martin Luther? The pugnacious founder of Protestantism was the son of a copper miner who hoped he’d gain some upward mobility (not an easy trick in the feudal Middle Ages!) by sending his son to law school. It is said that, while journeying home from school on a break, Luther was caught in the mother of all electrical storms. This scared the crap out of him and, being a medieval man, he feared for his immortal soul and promised to appease God’s wrath by becoming a monk should he survive the storm.

To Luther’s credit, he was a pretty first-class monk. He was even ordained as a priest. Nevertheless, he was deeply troubled by the state of his immortal soul. Baptism, it seemed, didn’t do it for him. The dogma of his day told him that the little dip he had in the font when he was an infant only removed original sin—the sin inherited by being human. Personally, I have no problem with the idea of original sin. After all, if you’re born on the beach, you’re going to get sandy. If you’re born on planet Earth, you’re going to be a screw-up. We all inherit it. It’s just who we are. Luther’s problem—and the problem with the doctrine as it was taught to him—was that original sin could be forgiven, but what happens when you sin again? Luther went crazy trying to work off his debt to God. He knew he was captive to sinful thoughts and desires. If the truth is supposed to make us free, an honest self-appraisal only made Martin Luther more enslaved to despair and guilt. He could only conclude that God must be one rotten bastard for demanding righteousness and knowing full well we couldn’t achieve it.

Luther’s superior thought he could help the anxious monk by sending him on a diplomatic mission to Rome. This only made Luther more despondent when he saw the complete corruption of the Holy See. It is said he called Rome a “sewer” and noted that the Church put up with every kind of vice and greed while Pope Julius II concerned himself with building projects and acquiring real estate. Still fearing God’s wrath, the disillusioned monk nevertheless persisted in his Biblical studies and became a professor of Old Testament at the University of Wittenberg.

It was in the study of scripture that Luther found his freedom. In reading St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans he came across these words:

For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 8:28)

This was the truth and freedom he’d been looking for. No one gets it right. Everyone is a screw-up. God loves us anyway, forgives us, and came to share all of our pain on the cross. Then he rose on Easter so we would know this broken life isn’t all there is. Holding on to this faith is what gets us through this crappy and uncaring world and directs our path while we’re in it. We can’t earn God’s favor. God just gives it to us out of love. Our kind and compassionate deeds don’t buy us God’s love—they’re our response to having it.

Yet just as Luther was getting all cozy with the concept of God’s loving grace, the Roman Church was drumming up capital for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome by selling “Get-Out-of-Hell-Free” cards called indulgences.[iii] The sale of indulgences got Luther hopping mad for several reasons. First, because the “good work” of buying God’s forgiveness flew in the face of scriptural teaching. Second, those who purchased the things could easily grow complacent in their faith. Third, the sale of indulgences were a sin against charity in that they denied the grace of God and the suffering of Christ and preyed mostly on the poor and uneducated.

I consider it must’ve been a pretty big decision for Luther to protest against the abuse of the indulgence racket. Standing up to the Church in the sixteenth century could get one tied to the stake and roasted like a marshmallow. Luther risked his life to proclaim the truth of scripture. Many of his followers were martyred for supporting him.

So what does a Reformation Sunday celebration mean? Let’s not just put red paraments on the altar and sing “A Mighty Fortress” out of nostalgia for an event that happened over 500 years ago. Let’s draw some inspiration from Luther and respond to God’s loving grace. Let’s free ourselves from our own preoccupation with ourselves and start loving God and our neighbor out of gratitude for the love we were shown on the cross. Let’s spend, as Luther did, some time with the scriptures so that law might be written on our hearts. And let’s believe that the world can be changed, that power can be confronted, and justice and mercy can abound in this world as well as in the next.

Thanks for visiting!

[i] The texts used for this peculiarly Lutheran celebration are Jeremiah 31:31-34, Romans 3:19-28, and John 8:312-36
[ii] Luther called this document The Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. It is now considered somewhat doubtful that Luther did the nailing himself.
[iii] You probably don’t need to know all the background on this, but in case you’re interested, it went down like this: The Church had been selling forgiveness for some time in various ways. In 1517, however, Pope Leo X was trying to finish the building of St. Peter’s so he sold an archbishopric to a slimy German named Albert for 10,000 gold ducats. Albert borrowed the money from the Imperial bankers, and paid them back by having a master salesman, John Tetzel the Inquisitor of Poland, go about selling the indulgences to German peasants. Luther’s sovereign, Duke Frederic the Wise of Saxony, forbade Tetzel from hocking his forgiveness coupons in his domain because he, Frederic, was doing a Taylor Swift concert business by selling peeks at his own collection of holy relics. Luther eventually convinced Frederic that both buying the indulgence coupons and genuflecting in front of relics wouldn’t get anyone any closer to God. To his credit, Fredric got out of the relic business and protected Luther after Luther was declared an outlaw.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Saints of the Month: Katherine Jenkins and Lauren Daigle

Image result for images of katherine jenkins  Image result for images of lauren daigle

I love to sing. I guess it’s my Welsh heritage. There’s just something spiritual in letting yourself be transported through song. To release the sound which is beyond language—the sound your soul makes—can only really be done through music. Not only do I love to sing, I love to hear people sing. I love it when someone makes a joyful noise unto the Lord. I really love it when that person can sing well.

It’s only natural, of course, that I should adore Katherine Jenkins. I mean, what’s not to love about this exquisite classical mezzo soprano? She has the voice of an angel, she’s Welsh, and she’s cardiac-arrest gorgeous.

Ms. Jenkins has always been forthright about expressing her Christian faith. She began singing in church and often includes sacred music in her concerts and on her albums. You can hear her genuine love of God in her clear and passionate tones. It doesn’t surprise me that so many of her videos show her in sacred spaces. She seems to have been born to perform in cathedrals. Indeed, she first gained fame by singing at Pope John Paul II’s Silver Jubilee concert at Westminster Cathedral in 2002.    

There is something of the ethereal in Ms. Jenkins’ voice. Whether she’s singing classical sacred arias such as Pie Jesu and Panis Angelicus or crooning the Welsh Sunday school traditional favorite Calon Lan, there is a sweetness, a purity, and an innocence to her voice which makes me marvel that such lovely sounds could actually emanate from a human throat.

In 2014 Ms. Jenkins was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and awarded her OBE by the Prince of Wales on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II. The honor was not only for her contribution to music but for her vast work for charity. She seems always at the ready to sing for needy causes, one of her fondest being the entertainment of British troops deployed oversees. I’m sure they appreciate her presence—a presence which, in spite of her beauty and fame, always seems “girl-next-door” humble.

When I have a few extra minutes at work and want to treat myself, I play one of Ms. Jenkins’ CD’s or watch one of her music videos. As a pastor, I must say I was initially a bit disappointed by the video for her Sacred Arias album in that the photography focuses more on Ms. Jenkins’ physical beauty than on the theological content of the music. I excuse this, however, by reflecting on the words of Travis Tritt: “Ya gotta love the Lord for makin’ girls like that.”

In contrast to the elegant glamor of Ms. Jenkins is the spunky contemporary Christian artist Lauren Daigle. I’ll admit that I’m not big into contemporary Christian music, but this Louisiana-born rising star has got me hooked on her sound. I love her personality, her explosively happy stage presence, and the wild carnival of clothing she wears on her back—complete with funky hats, bangles, rings, and a host of accoutrements which make the young singer unapologetically herself. One can’t experience Lauren Daigle without experiencing the joy of the Lord. I can’t help it—this kid just makes me smile.

It seems a lot of Ms. Daigle’s sense of praise arises from a past illness. She was stricken as a teenager with cytomegalovirus, an incurable viral infection which compromises the immune system. This kept the youngster out of school for two years, but Ms. Daigle maintains that this period of illness was one of the most meaningful times of her life.

After completing a year of mission work in Brazil, the future chart-topping artist entered Louisiana State University with the intent of majoring in Child and Family Studies. She sang with the LSU choir, but family and friends encouraged her to try out for the popular TV talent competition American Idol. According to Wikipedia, Ms. Daigle made three attempts to achieve stardom on the popular show, but was unsuccessful. Undeterred, the artist persisted with her music and found acclaim on her own. Ironically, Idol invited her to be a celebrity mentor for contestants during the 2019 season. I recall watching her and being so impressed with her positive vibe, her very professional approach to vocal technique, and the kindness with which she instructed the young hopefuls. She’s the kind of individual one simply would enjoy knowing.

Ms. Daigle’s break-out hit is an anthem to God’s grace and compassion called You Say. Her songwriting is personal and spiritual, and I can’t help but think that many a young person may draw strength from her lyrics. I hope she has a long and prosperous career. I’ll follow it with interest.

I take a great deal of pleasure in listening to these two musical artists, and I thank God every day for the gift of music. We should all heed the words of the Psalmist:

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day!” (Psalm 96:1-2)

If you’d like to hear Katherine Jenkins sing, click on Katherine and hear her lead a congregation in singing How Great Thou Art.

You should also catch Lauren Daigle’s appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. Click Lauren

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Keeping On (Reflections on Pentecost 19, Year C)

 Rembrandt - Jacob Wrestling with the Angel - Google Art Project.jpg
"Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1)

The Revised Common Lectionary reading for Pentecost 19, Year C (Luke 18:1-8) really doesn’t leave much room for the preacher. Keep praying. That’s what this parable of Jesus is supposed to be telling us according to the gloss which St. Luke puts on it. Keep praying. Life may suck and the bad guys may seem to be winning, but keep praying. 

Actually, that’s not bad advice. But, at the risk of making this too simplistic (thereby making this post and its subsequent sermon too short—God forbid!), I’d like to suggest that we interpret “keep praying” as keep doing and keep fighting, too.

It seems a little silly of me to try to illustrate Jesus’ illustration with an illustration of my own. Fortunately, the RCL has yoked this parable with a wonderful example of persistence from the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis 32:22-31). The tale of Jacob at the ford of the Jabbok[i] may not be so familiar to some folks who haven’t opened a Bible since they made their Confirmation, so it’s a good tale to retell.

Jacob is the second son of Isaac, making him the grandson of the Hebrew peoples’ patriarch, Abraham. He’s the twin brother of Esau, but he was delivered after his brother, so he’s out of the line of succession to be heir to his father’s estate and inheritor of the honor of being patriarch of the Jewish people. This doesn’t deter Jacob, however. He convinces his dim-witted brother to sell him his birthright as first-born for a bowl of soup, and, with the help of his conniving mother, he secures his father’s unwitting blessing. This gets Esau pretty pissed off as you can well imagine. He vows to kill Jacob, so Jacob high-tails it out of town to his Uncle Laban’s ranch. Years go by. Jacob marries two of his first cousins, acquires two mistresses, has a boat-load of kids, and—by ripping-off his uncle through a shifty deal that would make Donald Trump envious—manages to become a very wealthy individual.

Now, when we meet him in our Sunday lesson, he is on his way back to his ancestral land. The only hitch is that he’s learned Esau is on his way to intercept him with a formidable posse of what we can only assume are pretty rough dudes. This scares the crap out of Jacob. Nevertheless, knowing that he screwed his brother over, he decides to man up and meet Esau. He first sends a considerable bribe of livestock to his brother, doubtless in the hope that this will soften Esau’s heart. He gets his flocks and herds and hired men and family members across the Jabbok, but spends the night by himself on the far side of the stream, knowing that on the morning he’ll either get killed along with his whole clan or be forgiven.

This is where the story gets weird[ii]. Jacob can’t sleep that night. The Bible tells us that he wrestles with a mysterious man all night long. Who is this guy? Some itinerant WWE grappler looking for a work-out partner? We don’t know. He could be an angel or a personification of God. He might even be Jacob’s conscience. Whoever he is, he doesn’t get the better of Jacob. As dawn approaches, the mysterious adversary commits a wrestling foul and gives Jacob a kick in the groin which dislocates Jacob’s hip. Overlooking the pain, Jacob hangs on, telling his opponent, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

The wrestler gives in and blesses Jacob. This is a real blessing which Jacob earned—not like the one intended for Esau which he tricked his father into giving him. The problem with this blessing, however, is that it came with that nasty kick in the private parts which made Jacob limp ever after.

The story ends with the mystery man giving Jacob a new name—Israel. This literally means “God contends,” suggesting that Jacob had struggled with God. And don’t we all at times?[iii]

I like this Genesis story because I find it to be honest. Wrestling with God, your life, your conscience, or the injustice of this sinful world will—ultimately—result in you being blessed. And Jesus is calling us to a faithfulness which will last until he comes again to take us home. But this faithfulness will also come with a few kicks to the groin. We will most certainly find ourselves changed, our self-image altered, and our hearts bearing the wounds of the struggle.

Despair is easy. It is also sinful. We are enjoined to be wrestlers with the evil of this world and the brokenness of our own souls. So keep praying. It's the first step towards doing.

Thank you again for your faithfulness to my writing. Keep on keeping on. God blesses you!

[i] The Jabbok is a tributary of the Jordan River, about 25 miles north of the Dead Sea—just a little fun fact for you geography nerds.
[ii] Unless you think it’s weird already.
[iii] BTW, Esau forgave Jacob, just in case you’re interested. It turns out that Esau was a sentimental slob at heart, and when he saw his little nephews and niece he just couldn’t stay mad at their daddy. Sweet, don’t you think?

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Quid Pro Quo (Reflections on Pentecost 18, Year C)

Image result for images of Jesus healing the ten lepers
“…your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)

Quid pro quo. We’ve heard that term a lot in America lately. It’s Latin for “this for that” or “something for something.” For example, let’s say some head of state who calls himself a Very Stable Genius tells an eastern European head of state he’ll release four hundred million dollars’ worth of military aid (which his popularly-elected congress has already voted to do) to help the ally fend off Russian aggression if the eastern European ally will give him dirt on a political rival. That’s an example of “you-do-this-for-me-and-I’ll-do-that-for-you.” Quid pro quo. Of course, the problem with this could be that giving four hundred million dollars’ worth of aid to fend off Russian aggression might just be the right thing for one ally to do for the other, and nothing (especially not a personal political favor) should be expected in return. Giving without expecting back is the difference between generosity and commerce.[i]

Our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 18 in the Revised Common Lectionary (Luke 17:11-19) is an example of Jesus’ expansive generosity. As Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem in the region between Galilee and Samaria[ii] he encounters ten guys with leprosy who, by law[iii] had to keep their distance. They beg Jesus for mercy which he immediately grants without asking anything in payment or requiring that they show a valid green card or birth certificate. No. Not Jesus. He grants free health care to all because it’s morally the right thing to do. Theologically, this is called “grace.”

The cool thing is that one of these recently-healed ex-lepers, while on his way to the priest (the Health Department of the day who could officially end the quarantine), notices that he’s well and runs back to Jesus to offer praise and thanksgiving. That’s a nice thing to do and a good sign that the man has really been “made well.”

The Greek here is kind of interesting[iv]. In the original text, Jesus says “h pistis seswken se..” The old King James translated this as “Thy faith hath made thee whole.” Now, “seswken” is a past perfect form of the verb “swxw” which can also mean “save” or “rescue” or “preserve” or “keep safe” as well as “cure.” I have to wonder if Jesus means it in more than one sense. Yes, the leper has been cured, but he has also been rescued or “saved.” His fidelity—faithfulness—in remembering Jesus as the source of his well-being is greater than his physical recovery. Yes, he took Jesus at his word and headed off to the priest, but that’s just an act of trust or hope or assent or wishful thinking. Piously being called to gratitude is an act of faithfulness. He’s had an inward transformation as well as a physical healing.

The thing which sticks in my mind, however, about this story is that Jesus heals without expecting thanks—although he appreciates it when he gets it. The nine other lepers, ungrateful slobs that they are, don’t get their cure revoked because they’ve failed to send a thank-you note. And who knows? Maybe one or two of them will think about their healing later on and develop a more grateful and faithful relationship with God. It’s possible, don’t you think? In any event, Jesus has healed because it’s what Jesus does.

The older I get, the more I understand that God is too mysterious to deal in commerce and quid pro quo. We pray to God in faith, and God cures our illness or God doesn’t. Nevertheless, God still blesses us in many ways every day in spite of the circumstances which cause us angst. And God does not require our thanks or our praise. Gratitude in our hearts changes and blesses us, not God. Likewise, the acts of mercy we do should be done with the intention of blessing others, not ourselves. Yes, it’s really nice to be thanked and appreciated. It is not, however, necessary.

We in the Church should learn not to take ourselves too seriously when we do outreach to our neighborhoods and our neighbors don’t respond the way we want them to. Evangelism should be thought of as spreading God’s love through word and deed, not as increasing church membership. When we transmit the benefits God has given us to others, we do it because it’s the right thing to do to show our thanks to the God who has given us so much.

After all, we’re not here to build churches. We’re here to build the Kingdom of God.

I am GRATEFUL that you read my blog this week! May God be with you!

[i] It’s also the difference between statesman-like diplomacy and an impeachable offense.
[ii] The Gospel says he was in the area between the two regions. Many Jews considered Samaria a bad neighborhood and often went out of their way to avoid it.
[iii] See Leviticus 13: 45-46.
[iv] Well, at least I think it is. You may not care.