Wednesday, November 20, 2019

The Power of the King (Reflections on Christ the King, Year C)

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There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Luke 23:38)

In my theatre days I had the privilege of working with a talented (if extremely eccentric!) Brit named David Perry. David was a senior tutor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. He drank Shakespeare with his mother’s milk, and I loved being directed by him in his whimsical but very British way. I think we worked on about four classical British plays together over the years. Once an actor asked him why the British would still have the archaic institution of monarchy in modern times.

“Because, my dear,”—David called everyone “my dear” regardless of gender—“of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. Even if you’re convicted by every court in the realm, you can still appeal to the Queen for pardon.”

Mercy and pardon are really the only powers the monarch has left. Britain’s queen and any king who comes after her won’t be able to raise or lower taxes, decree laws, send out ambassadors, or declare either war or peace with an enemy. The monarch is really a symbol of the government. The only power remaining to the crown is that of royal forgiveness.

And that’s still a pretty important power to possess.

On the last Sunday of the liturgical calendar, Christ the King, we behold in our gospel reading (Luke 23:33-43) another powerless king—Jesus. Declared to be “the King of the Jews” in an insulting taunt by Pontius Pilate, the condemned Jesus is nailed to a cross and hoisted aloft to suffer until his lungs fill up and he drowns in his own bodily fluid. The story in Luke’s gospel is one of complete and total loss. Jesus’ friends have abandoned him, his body is failing, his dignity has been stripped away as the crowds and leaders of the people rail and mock him, and his body is immobilized—he is powerless even to wipe the sweat from his own eyes.

Yet he retains the one power of the monarch—the power to forgive.

As the nails are going into his hands, so some versions say[i], Jesus proclaims, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (v.34) Not even extreme agony and disgrace can take away the power of compassion and understanding.

The Prerogative of Mercy is shown again in verse 43 when Jesus comforts the confessed and condemned criminal at his side, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The laws of this world may condemn, but they have no power over the mercy of Almighty God. And this is something we would all do well to remember. However we may revile those who have trespassed against us, God has seen to their hearts. God has understood the pain we’ve refused to see because we are blinded by our love affair with indignation and determined always to be right.

I hasten to point out that in the UK the monarch’s power to pardon does not include the power to acquit. If one is found guilty, the guilty verdict still stands. It is only the penalty that is lessened. If we are to exercise the power of pardon which our King has graciously bestowed on us as Christians, we certainly can’t pretend that a wrong isn’t a wrong or that a hurt isn’t a hurt. None of us can go back and change the past. But we can examine our own guilty verdict and the pardon we’ve received and try to apply it to others, always remembering that what we find impossible to do is still possible for our merciful King. Perhaps our best response may be to appeal to God to forgive those things which we cannot forgive ourselves.

May the spirit of mercy guide us all as we enter into Advent. Thanks for reading my blog this week.

[i] Some of the earliest known copies of Luke’s gospel do not include this saying. Bible scholars think it might’ve been inserted later, but I don’t think that matters. The fact that it became part of the accepted canon indicates that the early followers of Jesus must’ve preached about the power of forgiveness.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

After the End (Reflections on Pentecost 23, Year C)

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“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19)

Are you scared about the future? In our gospel lesson appointed in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 23 (Luke 21: 5-19) Jesus paints a pretty icky picture of the way things are going to turn out. He predicts that the magnificent temple of Jerusalem—which all his buddies have been admiring for its cool architecture—will someday become nothing more than a pile of construction debris. That must’ve shocked the heck out of the disciples.

Hollywood (and some heretical evangelists) have made boo-coo bucks off of scaring us about nasty stuff that is to come. Dystopian epics, a zombie apocalypse, and a post-rapture world ruled by the anti-Christ have proven to be crowd-pleasing money-makers. But what really scares you?

Personally, I’m really nervous about climate change. The Bride and I won’t be retiring to Florida if Florida is under water. As frightened as Jesus’ disciples are of the idea of Jerusalem’s Temple being leveled, I’m scared spitless about the prospect of St. Louis’ Cathedral and the rest of downtown New Orleans becoming a water park. I’m going to miss Long Beach Island when it’s gone, and I’m going to mourn all of those once-habitable places on the earth where we won’t be able to live any longer and those cute species of critters whose habitats will be destroyed because we were too stupid, lazy, and selfish to put a lid on our carbon emissions.

Know what else I’m going to miss? Lutheranism in America. For real. I really freakin’ love being a Lutheran. But I’m watching the congregations here in Northeast Philadelphia fold up like the offensive line of the Cincinnati Bengals. There’s no hiding the signs that the traditional Protestant Church—and maybe all of American Christianity—seems to be on the decline. Will I be around to see the church I’ve pastored for over twenty years be sold, bulldozed, and the lot turned into an apartment building or a 7-11?

It’s certainly something to think about, and Jesus, in the gospel, never lets us off the hook with warm, fuzzy “it’s-all-going-to-be-okay” platitudes. Instead, he reminds us for two important things:

1.      Bad stuff will happen.

2.      It’s not necessarily the end of the world.

Jesus doesn’t tell us to ignore the gut-ripping changes that are taking place. He only warns us about obsessing over them, buying into the hype, and thinking we can get out of it by our own cleverness.

There have been plenty of neighborhood churches, in my area and those I’ve heard of around the nation, that have been existing on a ventilator. Some long-dead Christians donated tons of cash to their beloved congregations. Bucks piled up in bank accounts in those “rainy day” funds. Were they used to feed hungry people? Educate children? Create advocacy programs? Shelter the homeless?

Nah. The cash just sat there and was slowly spent down so a handful of folks could go on having church exactly the way they wanted to have it until the needle on the tank hit “E” and the lights went out.

How much better it would be if, instead of concentrating on our institutions, we were to focus on our relationship with God and our purpose for being in God’s world. And maybe the best place to start will always be with refreshing ourselves in the Word of God. Faith, St. Paul tells us, comes from what is heard. Knowledge, I believe, can build both faith and enthusiasm.

One of my Confirmands recently presented me with her completed take-home quiz. I asked her how she thought she’d done on it, and she proudly told me she thought she got all the answers right. With a smug little grin she informed me, “I showed it to my dad, but he didn’t know any of the answers.” However proud I might be of my student, I have to lament the ubiquitous lack of Bible knowledge I’ve seen in some of the parents. I have to wonder how we expect to see a new generation of Christians when the current generation is so willing to take faith and the treasure of our tradition for granted.

Jesus warns us in this gospel lesson that we’ll never adequately prepare for the things which are to come; nevertheless, we can focus on how we will testify to our own love of God, we can let Christ’s words speak to us in the here and now, and we can trust that he will show us the direction the Church needs to take when the time comes.

If we are truly people of the WORD, what happens to the institution won’t matter.

May God be with you this week, and thanks again for visiting my blog!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Reflections on Veterans Day (And Pentecost 22, Year C)

I caught sight of my neighbor Frank in the rearview mirror as I was driving out of the Wawa parking lot with my morning coffee. Frank is an incredibly charming guy. I’ve seen pictures of him when he was young, and he was dashingly handsome in his day. Today he’s rounder and bald, but he still has a gallant panache. I watched as he held the door for an elderly lady. In his elegant fashion, he made a deep bow as she passed by him. I’m certain this must’ve brought a smile to her face—a display of courtesy from the Sir Walter Raleigh of the Wawa.

I’ll bet that lady never suspected that, almost half a century before, that same polite man at the convenience store was bleeding to death on a hilltop in Vietnam.

Frank fought with 101st Airborne Division on a hill called Firebase Ripcord. Most of us never heard about Ripcord. After the carnage of “Hamburger Hill,” the Department of Defense decided to blackout all news of this battle. I’m sure they felt that the number of American casualties reported would depress the folks back home watching the war on the nightly news. The survivors of the Ripcord don’t like to talk about, either. For decades their fear, pain, suffering, and loss went unknown, and they went among us, carrying it all inside themselves, strangers in their own country.

The First Lesson for Pentecost 22, Year C (Job19:23-27a) seems rather insignificant for the Sunday before Veterans’ Day unless we wind the reading back to the beginning of chapter 19 and read Job’s eviscerating lament in its entirety. Job’s anguish, like the anguish of those who bear the psychic avulsions of any trauma—war, domestic abuse, bereavement—requires near-Shakespearean poetry to express the loneliness and outrage of one whose suffering goes unseen and misunderstood by others.

As America honors her veterans this weekend, it’s appropriate that we consider their heroism. As an Army Dad, I feel that any kid who puts on the uniform is a hero since, peace time or war, every member of our military faces some kind of risk to life or limb. But it’s also appropriate that we try to see beyond the uniform to the hidden pain. Not every vet suffers from PTSD, but so many have seen things they can’t un-see or have done things they can’t undo. So many of them know loss. So may have had relationships break up, have developed dependencies on drugs or alcohol, have been sexually assaulted, or have faced financial hardships simply because they have chosen to give back to a country that has given to them. Perhaps too few of us civilians are willing to see the tear hidden beneath the salute.

Veterans’ Day in the United States is observed on the Monday closest to November 11th. It was November 11, 1918 when the First World War—supposedly the “war to end wars”—ended with an armistice. The promised peace didn’t last long, so Armistice Day became Veterans’ Day. I think the date is appropriate as we in the Church celebrate it as the feast of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers.[i] Legend has it that Martin, a Christian cavalryman of the Roman army in the fourth century, came across a nearly naked beggar. Having no money to give the man, the soldier took his sword and cut his own cape in half, giving half to help keep the beggar from the cold. That night Martin saw the person of Jesus Christ in a dream. Christ was wearing the half-cape and praising Martin for his kindness.[ii] Martin was moved to resign from the army and take up religious life, ultimately founding monastic communities and becoming one of the early bishops of France.

Besides Martin’s military background, what I like about his story is his ability to see Christ’s sufferings in the sufferings of the beggar. This, I think illustrates Job’s lament. The pain we suffer which makes us feel so alienated from others and makes them shun us in spite of their better inclinations is not invisible to God’s eyes. We know that the one who justifies us lives, and that we shall see him one day.

I would hope that, as we consider our military veterans, we will try to look, as Martin did, a little deeper into the eyes of those around us. Maybe we can consider their inner pain and the memories they carry with them. Perhaps we will learn to see them with great empathy, patience, and respect.

A happy Veterans’ Day to you all. Glad you stopped by.

[i] Fun Fact: Medieval Catholic tradition had children named for the saint on whose feast day they were born.  On November 11, 1483 when the wife of a Saxon copper miner named Hans Luther gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, they naturally named him Martin.
[ii] See Matthew 25:36 and following. Fun Fact: Martin’s “little cape,” is, in Medieval Latin a capella. From this comes our English words “chapel” and “chaplain.”