Sunday, December 27, 2020

Reflections on Christmas One

 22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon;[a] this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.[b] 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon[c] came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon[d] took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant[e] in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
    which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon[f] blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

36 There was also a prophet, Anna[g] the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child[h] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him. (Luke 2:22-40)

 Merry Third Day of Christmas! Sometimes, I think, we forget that the Christmas holiday is actually twelve days long. Usually, after December 25th, we’re so sick of hearing “Frosty” and “Rudolph” on the radio that we can’t wait to be done with the whole thing. This year, however, we actually get two Sundays to celebrate in the Christmas season (usually we only get one, but Christmas was on Friday this year).

 There are four things I’d like to point out about the Gospel reading above: 

First: The Law of Moses required the faithful—as a sign of true, “I-ain’t-no-scaredy-cat-and-I-trust-in-God” faith—to offer the first-born of any animal or human as a sacrifice to God. It showed you trusted God to give you more of what was already provided if you could easily part with the first one. Obviously, you weren’t going to sacrifice your kid, so the Law allowed you to buy back your first-born child by offering an animal sacrifice instead. 

Second: Your animal sacrifice was prorated according to your personal wealth. I think it’s interesting that the Savior of the World was only worth the price of two pigeons.

 Third: Simeon’s prayer of praise has often been set to music and used as a canticle during our worship service. It’s sung right after we receive Holy Communion. We’ve met Jesus, so we can go in peace. I just always find this story touching. God let this old guy live long enough—not to see Jesus perform miracles or rise from the dead—just long enough to die knowing God is always active and, if we don’t live to see it, others will. 

Finally: This story really respects the prayers and faith of elderly people. I know we in the church keep asking, “Where are the young people?” All the same, there is something to be said for those who have run much of their race and are now resting in retirement. If I don’t tell you often enough, I want you to know how much I value your prayers, your faithfulness in giving, and your wise understanding that God has a way of making everything work out. To all you “Annas” out there, I offer my sincerest thanks and appreciation. Our congregation could not get along without you, and I love you all very much. May God continue to bless you today as God has in the past.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Choice is Ours (Reflections on the Nativity of Our Lord)


“Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people…” (Luke 2:10) 

In one of my favorite Christmas stories, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, “One Christmas was so much like another…that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.”  I know what he meant. As much as I love Christmas, and I’ve celebrated the night of Our Lord’s birth for the last twenty-two years in the chancel of Faith Lutheran Church of Philadelphia, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you on which year we sang which anthem or which year it snowed, or which year the candles on the sconces burned down too fast and the ushers had to put them out or risk setting the church on fire. After a while, the years and memories, like the candles, seem to melt down and lose their clear shape. 

But not this year. This year I will remember. So will we all. 

This year, because of the COVID-19 restrictions, we will not be able to gather as a family in worship of the baby in the manger. There will be no Praise Team singing, no bell choir, no hugs in the narthex, no pews packed with folks singing the Christmas hymns which never get old. This year, many will not be able to gather with family around the tree on Christmas Day or at the dining table. The feasts will be smaller, the gifts will be sent through the mail and opened at a distance. The smiles will be seen on the screen of a smart phone or laptop. 

We will remember this Christmas, and the long months which preceded it. We’ll remember the shut-down; the death of George Floyd and the riots, destruction, and protests which followed; the fires in the west and the floods in the Gulf Coast; and the bitter presidential election and its aftermath which articulated our brutal divisiveness as a nation. 

The question, of course, is how will we remember these things? Will this be a time of petulant disappointment, or will this be a moment to experience God’s grace? Will we, in the midst of all that has happened, be able to hear the voices of the angels proclaiming God’s intervening presence in our chaotic world? 

Last Christmas I told a story from my late friend, Wayne Martin, a beautiful Christian man whom I’d known from my vicariate congregation in New York[i]. In 1997 I had the honor of sharing a Christmas dinner with him at the home of some mutual friends. As we sat around the table he told us of a Christmas that was vividly in his memory—Christmas of 1944, which he’d spent as a scout for Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of the Bulge. 

It seems that Wayne and two other scouts found themselves pinned down in a farm shed in France on Christmas Day. A German patrol had spotted the three GIs and opened fire with small arms. The American boys tried to return fire, but the temperature, well below freezing, was so miserably cold that they could barely move their fingers. Worse, the grease which lubricated the action on their rifles froze, rendering the weapons useless. One of the soldiers would warm a rifle over a small fire in the shed, then pass it on to one of his two buddies who would fire off a few rounds until the weapon seized again. 

The soldiers kept up this desperate relay for what seemed to be hours until they noticed that the Germans were no longer returning fire. The grease in the enemies’ weapons was also frozen. Both sides simply gave up. Wayne said to his comrades, “I guess Jesus doesn’t want us fighting on his birthday.” 

This year, I think of those three boys, thousands of miles from home, shivering through one of the coldest winters ever recorded in Europe, and fighting for their lives. Did they remember it as a day of fear and desperation, or as a day of grace and salvation? 

Perhaps this year we will remember why we celebrate December 25th. It is not about the gifts or the parties or the family traditions. It is a dark day which reminds us that God has not abandoned us. God has sent his own Son into the world to be a light of hope. 

I think of the shepherds, filled with both fear and wonder, hired men living on a subsistence wage in tents in a field like the homeless who lined the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philly this year. Suddenly, God ripped open the heavens to tell them deliverance was at hand—a baby was born in Bethlehem who would be the Messiah. But what good could a baby do? This baby, born to peasants, homeless in a barn? It would be thirty years before Jesus would proclaim the Kingdom of God had come near. Perhaps some of those shepherds would not live long enough to hear the Good News. 

And yet, they went with haste to Bethlehem all the same. They proclaimed the promise that God was still active, still at work, never forgetting God’s people. They returned to their tents glorifying and praising God—not for what God had done, for their circumstances remained unchanged—but for what God was doing. God had given them the gift of hope. 

Perhaps this year the COVID Christmas will remind us of our mutual struggle and of the responsibility we all have to each other. Perhaps we will, God willing, emerge from this pandemic with a greater sense of togetherness, a greater respect for the fragility of life, and a greater joy for the gifts with which God blesses us every day. Whether this Christmas is remembered with bitterness or triumph will be our choice. 

God’s peace be with you all. 

[i] See the Featured Post at the right for another of Wayne Martin’s Christmas stories.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Saint Katy Inspires


I really love Advent Four. This is the Sunday when we get that beautiful story of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38). Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th Century theologian and church leader, said there were three miracles present in this story: 1) that God would condescend to become human, 2) that a virgin would conceive and bear a child, and 3) that this little girl, Mary, would actually be willing to be the mother of the Savior. Martin Luther believed that the third miracle was the greatest of them all. After all, God can do whatever God wants to do. It’s only when we want God to do God’s thing, when we say “yes” to God, that things really happen. 

This was a pretty big “yes” for a young girl like Mary—to be willing to be the bearer of God’s redemption for the world. In Mary’s day her pregnancy out of wedlock would certainly mean scandal and social exclusion (possibly even stoning!)—to say nothing of the pain and medical dangers of childbirth itself. Luther gained a real appreciation of what she’d agreed to thanks to the influence of the saint we commemorate on December 20th in our liturgical calendar, Katherina Von Bora, a.k.a. Mrs. Martin Luther.

 Katy Von Bora had been sent to a convent to study at the age of five. When she was nine she was moved to a different convent where one of her aunts was a nun. Katy was expected to enter into the religious life and spent the next sixteen years in the cloister. A brilliant young woman and accomplished scholar, Sister Katy became fascinated with the growing Protestant movement. With the aid of Luther, to whom she had written, she and several of her sister nuns made a daring escape from the convent by hiding in a fishmonger’s cart.

 Luther had the audacity to preach that God’s grace smiled no more brightly on cloistered nuns and monks than it did on any other sinner.[i] Subsequently, many men and women in religious life left their vows of chastity and sought spouses. Luther served as something of a match-maker for these former monks and nuns, but Katy had no interest in any of the suggested husbands. She was holding out for Luther himself.

 The Luthers had six children and adopted four orphans. While Luther was out reforming Europe, Katy raised eleven children, managed the enormous house they had been given by the Elector of Saxony (which included managing the frequent guests and lodgers), ran the estate (including livestock), greatly increased the family income, and still found time to advise her husband on his work, brew his beer, and serve as a volunteer nurse when sickness struck the community. She taught Luther respect for the role and capabilities of women, and she is remembered along with her husband as a renewer of the church.

 On Advent Four we give thanks to God for the heroic women such as our Lord’s mother and Elizabeth, her cousin, the mother of John the Baptist. It’s fitting that we should also give thanks for all who have said “yes” to God’s call to be caregivers—for parents of both sexes, nurses, teachers, healthcare workers, and nursing home caregivers among so many others. In this time of pandemic their selflessness is a manifestation of God’s love. 

Peace be with you.

 [i] Acts 10:34

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Saint Lucy Lights the Way (Reflections on Advent 3, Year B)


“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) 

December 13, the Third Sunday in Advent in 2020, is also celebrated as the Feast of Saint Lucy. I’m all up for celebrating Lucy since her name means “Light,” and our Gospel lesson for this Sunday (John 1:6-8, 19-28) tells us that John the Baptist came to testify to the light. This is also that fun, “pink candle” Sunday called Gaudete or “Rejoice” Sunday. For the past two Sundays we’ve been anxiously awaiting Jesus to show up, but on Advent Three we get to jazz it up a little and just be happy knowing he’s on his way. In some churches they not only light a pink candle, but the paraments on the altar and the pastor’s vestments are also pink. 

(Of course, since the City of Philadelphia’s COVID-19 restrictions have effectively shut down public worship at Faith, it really doesn’t matter what I wear this Sunday, does it?)

 But back to Lucy. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot to rejoice about in this girl’s story. It’s pretty similar to a bunch of other martyr stories of young girls in the early Christian church. Lucy was a Christian girl living in the late third and early fourth century of the Common Era in Sicily, and she really loved Jesus. Her dad died when she was young, but left her some money so she could pay a nice dowry and find herself a rich guy to marry. When she came of age, her mom made a marriage arrangement with a pagan gentleman, but Lucy wasn’t interested in getting hitched. She announced that she’d dedicate her life to serving others, offer her perpetual virginity as a sacrifice to God, and give away all of her inheritance to help the poor. As you might imagine, this didn’t sit well with her prospective fiancĂ©, and he complained to the local governor who ordered Lucy to get over herself and marry the guy or else he’d send her to the local house of ill repute to be violated. The rest of the details here are rather unpleasant, but the bottom line is Lucy was martyred on December 13, 304. 

So why the pink candle and the rejoicing? Both Lucy and John the Baptist were martyrs, a word which literally means “witness.” Our job as Christians, this Sunday and every day—pandemic or no pandemic—is to be witnesses to the light of Christ. If we are faithful and believe that God has all of this in hand, we can rejoice even in the crappiest of times. Before our current Western calendar was set, December 13th had been observed as the Winter Solstice, the darkest day of the year. In a spirit of defiant joy, Christians would light candles and sing, knowing that the True Light was already in this dark world, the light of Jesus who loves us, died for us, and is always with us.

 Whacky traditions which honor this day have been popular in Scandinavian countries, particularly in Sweden. Young girls sing in procession, all dressed in white robes tied with red cinctures. The white symbolizes Lucy’s purity, the red symbolizes her martyrdom. The lead girl will wear an evergreen wreath with lit candles on her head. Supposedly, Lucy, while ministering to the poor at night in the days before the flashlight, wore candles on her head in order to see better. Personally, I don’t recommend putting open flames on a young girl’s head, but the Swedes seem to be into this. There’s also a tradition that the oldest daughter in a family should rise early on December 13th, put on her white robe and red sash, light the candles on her head, and wake up her household by serving them delicious sweet breakfast pastries. Hopefully, she doesn’t wake them up by setting herself on fire!

 (By the way, and I’m only guessing about this, I think the reason Lucy is on our Lutheran liturgical calendar is because of the Scandinavian ethnic connection. Those countries were probably celebrating St. Lucy Day before the Reformation, but, when they became Lutheran, they hated to give up the tradition.)

 Whether we celebrate John the Baptist or Lucy this Sunday, let’s remember the words of John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5) There is no better witness for our faith than the irrational, defiant joy of Christ. So light the lights, get those bakery sweets from McDonald’s, and remember Emmanuel—God with us.

 Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Saint Nicholas Prepares Our Way (Reflections on Advent 2, Year B)


“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (Mark 1:3b) 

Advent 2 always shines the spotlight on that most dynamic and eccentric of Biblical figures, John the Baptist. Here he is, eating bugs and yelling in the wilderness for everyone to repent. He’s Jesus’ advance man, the necessary warm-up act to the Savior of the world. God knew that John was necessary because most of us wouldn’t know a good thing if we slipped and fell in it. The love, forgiveness, and sacrifice we see in Jesus Christ probably wouldn’t make any sense to us if we hadn’t first been told to be on the lookout for it.

This year, Advent 2 falls on December 6, historically the Feast Day of Saint Nicholas. Boy. If there ever was a saint for us to look to, this would be the guy. Unfortunately, we just don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the real, historic Saint Nick. Nevertheless, I hypothesize (and I do so love hypothesizing) that he must’ve made a pretty big impression on the folks of the 4th century since they told so many tales and legends about him. He became the Bishop of Myra, a town on the coast of what today is Turkey, just around the time Christianity was becoming a legal and official religion in the Roman Empire. After three hundred years of persecution, it was finally a pretty good time to be a Christian. The downside, alas, was that folks weren’t entirely sure of what being a Christian really meant. 

The legends tell us that Nicholas got the main idea that Christianity was about love and charity. This fellow was known for his humongous generosity. He inherited money from his folks, the legends say, and gave it all away to the poor. There’s a famous story of how he rescued an impoverished nobleman who had no money to dower his three daughters. If daddy couldn’t come up with the cash to marry these girls off, it looked as if they were going to have to learn to pole dance. Nicholas is said to have snuck by the bankrupt father’s house one night and chucked a bag of gold through a window to dower the oldest girl. When daughter #2 came of age, he did the same thing. The father, overwhelmed by these acts of anonymous generosity, stayed awake to watch for his mysterious benefactor when it came time to hitch daughter #3. He caught the bishop in the act, and the legend of Nicholas leaving gifts in the night morphed into the way we celebrate him with our kids and grandkids today. 

But what’s really important about Nicholas the bishop is that he was listed as being one of the bishops present at the Council of Nicaea, the convention which gave us the Nicaean Creed. The basic function of this dogmatic statement is to teach us about the triune nature of God, a doctrine which was in rather hot dispute in Nicholas’ day. The question Christians had was how do we understand God? How do we understand the person of Jesus Christ? The Council gave us the three-fold experience of God, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It’s stood the test of time, and I have to say, it works for me. 

Being a Christian is more than just wearing a cross around your neck and going to church at Christmastime. The living faith is seeing God in Creation, God in the Holy Spirit present in my life and in yours, and God in the loving gift of Jesus Christ—a child born in poverty who came to give himself as a gift on the cross for all of us. 

In our Gospel lesson (Mark 1:1-8) John the Baptist is calling us to prepare a way for Jesus. I’d like to suggest that you start preparing that way this week by looking at the Nicaean Creed and meditating on what the Holy Trinity means to you. It’s really important that we, as Christians, are able to know and articulate what our faith means. In case you haven’t noticed, there’s an awful lot of “us versus them” dialogue going on in American these days. I sometimes wonder if those doing all the shouting actually know what they’re shouting about. They may know what they’re against, but do they know what they’re for? 

Start preparing the way for Christ in your hearts this week. Look at the Creed, and look for the presence of God in your life. I think it will lead you to a place of gratitude and generosity as it did Nicholas. This will be a very different Advent and Christmas season for all of us, but the meaning of it never changes. 

Thanks for reading. Next week I’ll tell you about another popular Yuletide saint, Saint Lucy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Saint Andrew Kept Awake (Reflections on Advent 1, Year B)


“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

Awake? We’ve been awake for some time now. Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve been watching for something to happen. We’ve certainly seen signs of change: the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protest movement, wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the Gulf coast, a close and tense presidential election and a president who refuses to believe he has lost it. There have been so many weird signs in 2020 that I think we’re ready for Jesus to come back and rescue us all! 

So the Gospel for Advent 1, Year B (Mark 13: 24-37) tells us to keep our eyes open for something. What that something is, however, we just don’t know. It’s what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to call the “known unknown.” So what are we supposed to do? 

Maybe we should take the example of someone who has been this way before. I’ve noticed that the Sundays in Advent 2020 all fall on (or just before) the commemorative festivals of certain saints. The day after Advent 1, November 30, is the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle. Now here was a guy who kept awake. We have to remember that life back in Andrew’s day was every bit as crazy as life in our own time. Israel was under Roman occupation—which nobody liked. There were all kinds of riots, protests, and attempts at revolution. It wasn’t hard to get yourself crucified, and you couldn’t even trust your religious authorities. Anyone with a good speaking voice was claiming to be a prophet, and you didn’t know who to believe. Andrew, the Gospels tell us, was just a blue collar fisherman, but he must’ve been looking for some kind of truth to get him through life in those turbulent times. John’s Gospel says he attached himself to John the Baptist, a preacher who warned everyone to prepare themselves because God was getting ready to send a Messiah. 

One day, John tells Andrew, “You see that guy Jesus walking past over there? He’s the one we’re waiting and watching for!” So what does Andrew do? He quits John, meets Jesus, and immediately spends the day with him.[i] He then goes to find his brother Simon and tells him, “We have found the Messiah!” 

Andrew is not a particularly spectacular disciple. There’s really not that much said about him in the Gospels and, unlike some of the other apostles, early church history doesn’t attribute any wild and amazing miracle stories to him. All we know is that he was faithful to Jesus and, after the resurrection, went on to spread the Word in foreign lands like the other eleven. And, like ten of the others, he was martyred for his faith somewhere in Greece. Perhaps his most significant contribution was sharing his exciting discovery about Jesus with his brother. Peter gets lots of attention in the Gospels and in Acts as a true champion of the faith in spite of his rather obvious flaws. He wouldn’t have met Jesus, however, if his brother hadn’t told him. Andrew may not have sunk all the winning shots, but he should certainly get credit for the assists. 

I think sometimes that crazy chaotic times are time when we are nearer to God. We start to fill with expectation. If we fear something is ending, we have to believe that something new is starting. I don’t think I’m quite ready to start looking for signs of the End Times, but I’m always looking for signs of God’s time. I hope I’m always alert to the opportunity to do what God has planned. This may not be a spectacular work of mission, but it just might be—as in Andrew’s case—an opportunity equip someone else for some wonderful work for the Kingdom. 

We are told as Advent begins to keep awake. How? One way is to keep ourselves involved with the scriptures. Another way is to keep our prayers sailing strong and regularly. To keep listening to others, to be present with them, to be open to the Holy Spirit giving us the words which just might change a life. Keep believing that the time of turmoil might be a time of opportunity. So keep awake. 

May God’s peace be with you this Advent season!

[i] See the story in John 1:35-42

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Reflection on Good Friday, 2020

Good Friday
When I first began my pastorate at Faith Lutheran, the congregation had no tradition for observing Good Friday. The worship space was left open for prayer for anyone who wished to take advantage of it (which no one did), but there was no formal liturgy. To me, this was a serious omission for the worship life of the congregation.

True, there are those who have said to me that they find the observance of our Lord’s suffering to be “too depressing.” To this I say, “That’s the point.” Good Friday is a day to contemplate our lostness and the suffering we’ve inflicted on others and on ourselves. This year, when covid-19 forbids us from attending a liturgy, we have little choice but to reflect on human sorrow as we hear the numbers of those stricken with this illness and those who have perished from it continue to rise.

I don’t see this pandemic as either a scourge from God or a harbinger of apocalyptic cataclysm. But, like all tragedies, it has its roots in human sin, in our “missing the mark.” The scientists are telling us that this coronavirus is another zoological virus, the inevitable consequence of humanity’s poor stewardship of the earth God entrusted us to maintain. If we indulge our appetites and encroach on areas we don’t naturally require, nature will visit repercussions on us. God does not protect us from the consequences of our own poor judgment. But God does call us constantly to repentance, and God is always provides us with healing. Our current situation is yet another call to heed the words of the prophet Joel: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Joel 2:13)

Our Good Friday story (Matthew 26-27) is also a call to repentance, for in this saga we see just about every sin our self-involved natures commit. We see in the elders and the scribes who condemn Jesus greedily keeping score of wrongs, delighting in iniquity, and longing for a reason to justify their jealous hate. How often have we looked for reasons to stoke the fires of arrogant contempt for those we dislike?

We see also Pontius Pilate and his indifference to injustice. He cares only about his own position. He can let the innocent suffer and simply wash his hands of the problem. How often have we seen the pain of others and said, “It’s not my problem?”

See, too, the riotous crowd with a choice between two men—both accused of the same crime of sedition. One would rule by love, mercy, and high ideals. The other would rule by force and violence. How often have we chosen the way of this world over the things of God?

In the crucifixion itself we see nothing but our capacity for cruelty. As if the desire to kill were not enough, we hear the mocking of the elders, the guards, and even the other condemned prisoners. It is bullying at its worst—condemning the weak for their own weakness, kicking the beaten when they are already down. How often have we blamed the victims for their own misfortune and neglected God’s words of pity and comfort?

Here also are the soldiers at the foot of the cross, shooting craps for the garments of the condemned, profiting from the misery of others. Haven’t we heard of child laborers working for a pittance in third world nations to make us less expensive garments?

Finally, we see the body of Jesus hurriedly placed in a tomb in order to satisfy the religious code which prevents work to be done after sundown on the Sabbath. Those few faithful are given no time to mourn him, their feelings must be locked away as the stone is rolled over the tomb’s entrance. How often have antiquated religious notions locked out the feelings of others, condemning the divorced, the LGBTQ community, or those who have had abortions?

We need to look at this gospel on Good Friday. We need to feel the pain of it. We need to see ourselves in this dark mirror and pray for the grace to be penitent. We need to pray for God’s mercy on ourselves and on the whole world. Perhaps this time of enforced isolation will be good for our souls, and our Lord, who has given us and the earth we live on the tremendous power of healing, will make us better citizens, and more worthy of our membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

For a short video version of this message, click Good Friday

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Oil Shortage or Just Mean Chicks? (Reflections on Pentecost 23, Year A)


Did you ever see the movie Bridesmaids? It’s a comedy about two girls who compete with each other over who can make the glitzier, more elegant, and more fabulous contribution to their girlfriend’s wedding experience The competition gets pretty fierce (and funny, too!) at times, and there’s a not-too-subtle streak of catty meanness running through the story line.

If you were to take a literal reading of the parable  Jesus tells in the appointed Gospel for Pentecost 23, Year A (Matthew 25:1-13), some of these bridesmaids[i] seem pretty mean-spirited. We can certainly applaud the prudence of the five young ladies who were clever enough to bring some extra oil for their lamps just in case the bridegroom’s arrival was delayed. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. In all the weddings I’ve conducted in over twenty years, not one of them has ever started on time. We can also look down our noses at the five dumb chicks who didn’t have the foresight to think the groom might be late. These last have to make a late-night dash to the local Walmart, and they end up getting locked out of the party because the other girls won’t share with them. Can’t you just hear one of the smart girls saying, “Sorry, honey. It’s not my fault you forgot your oil. This is for my lamp. Better go buy some…and don’t be late.” Then the five smarty-pants girls giggle gleefully when the door gets locked and the others are shut out—rather like on The Bachelor when the girls still in competition share a champagne toast when their rivals are sent home in tears. There’s something cruel about this parable which I find unsettling.

In trying to break this story down and take some of the nastiness out of it, I’m aware of two things (besides the fact that young girls can be selfish where others are concerned!). The first thing is that time is limited. The second thing is resources aren’t evenly distributed. Nobody in this story knows exactly when the bridegroom is going to show. He could be hanging out with his buds having one more beer before he ties the knot. Nevertheless, when the party finally starts, the banquet hall doors get shut and those outside have to stay outside. Nothing in the story says the five prudent young ladies were 100% certain they were going to need the extra oil they brought. It’s possible they could’ve shared some with the other girls if they’d wanted to. Still, when the groom finally gets his lazy butt to the wedding, the opportunity to be generous is over. Perhaps we’ve struggled ourselves over the use of our resources, asking, “If I give, will I have enough for my own needs?” Perhaps, too, the door is already swinging closed on the ones who need our help. If we delay, it will be too late.

Of course, we could also look at the nature of the oil and what it might represent. In this story, there’s only so much oil to go around. Some have suggested that the oil represents righteousness, and personal righteousness can’t be shared. That is, you can’t give someone else your relationship with God. You can only be responsible for your own. You can only carry enough faith for yourself.

Another thing to consider is that the bridesmaids don’t choose to lock the door. The bridegroom is the only one who can decide who’s in and who’s out.

This is a tough parable in some ways, but Jesus might be being tough on us for our own good. None of us knows when the bridegroom will come. Like the girls in the story, we all fall asleep while waiting. None of us knows when to expect a life-altering event, so we’d better have our oil—our faith, our knowledge of the Word of God, our humility and acceptance, our self-knowledge and honest contrition, our willingness to forgive others, and our hope for eternity—with us at all times. We can’t share these things with our fellow “bridesmaids,” but we can encourage them to acquire some for themselves. Indeed, we are enjoined by the Gospel to do just that. And we can’t waste opportunities to be generous and compassionate to one another and the world in which we live, nor can we afford to be sloppy with our resources. We don’t know when the banquet hall doors will shut.

May God bless you today and always. I’m glad you stopped by. Please come again!

[i] If you want to get technical (and why wouldn’t you?), the Bible literally refers to these girls as “virgins,” or parqenois (parthenois). The fact that they’re going to a wedding and are performing the function of greeting the groom suggests that they’re bridesmaids. “Maid” or “maiden” always suggests an unmarried young woman, just as “virgin” does.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Blessed Are the Obscure (Reflections on All Saints, 2020)

 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

If ever a phrase contradicted our culture it would be the above phrase from Matthew’s Gospel. Meekness and humility just don’t float the boat of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Thank God for social media, right? It’s given us all the chance to show off our own accomplishments, brag about the places we’ve been, the meals we’ve eaten, and the pounds we’ve lost. I’ve heard it said that facebook has kept Americans perpetually in high school—we’re all still trying to convince ourselves we’re the cool kids who can make everyone else jealous.

Now along comes Jesus in our Gospel for All Saints (Matthew 5:1-12) and proclaims that the poor, the mourning, and the meek are the blessed ones. He tells us the favored are the ones who want to do right but keep seeing wrong. He claims that God loves the ones who give up, make peace, step aside, and don’t get any credit. He might as well have said, “Blessed are the obscure.” 

Gosh. If we could only see with the eyes of God. Scripture tells us that God made the world and called all that was created “good.” Every individual life has an epic importance to the One who brought it into being. Why would any of us want to be a superstar in the eyes of the world when we’re already superstars in the eyes of God? I like the way C.S. Lewis explained God’s appraisal: 

“…the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…”[i] 

I guess there’s something perverse in my nature that makes me look forward to those necrologies that are part of every entertainment award show on TV or every year-end news wrap-up. I confess to getting nostalgic over the loss of favorite actors, musicians, or other public figures. I try to be appreciative and inspired by the talents God has given others and by the contributions they have made. Nevertheless, I know that, in the eyes of God, the famous are no more celebrated than the dull, the average, the unambitious, and the forgotten. Sainthood is not a title conferred only on the most pious, spiritual, do-gooders among us. When Saint Paul used the term “saint,” he meant it to describe all of us who are made holy by the blood of Jesus—even if we don’t exactly look like angels and our resumes don’t land us on Wikipedia.[ii] 

Lutherans haven’t always been big on canonized saints. The Augsburg Confession explains it like this: 

“…our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith…However, it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture that a person should call upon the saints or seek help from them, ‘For there is only one single reconciler and mediator set up between God and humanity, Jesus Christ.’ (1 Timothy 2:5).”[iii] 

Now, as the autumn drops over us, we traditionally reach our thoughts back to the ones who aren’t with us any longer. On All Saints Day it’s only right that we strengthen our faith by the examples of saints who are dear to us—however meek or obscure they may be in the eyes of the world. Here are some we remember with love.

Bill and Cass Laigaie were faithful members of our congregation ever since they called on me to solemnize their wedding in 2001. Life doesn’t always give us second chances, but here were two older Americans who found love the second time around. I confess that it was hard to get to know Cass as she was, by nature, a very quiet and private person. Most of us now might think of her only as “that lady with Alzheimer’s” who sat next to her husband in the chancel while he sang with the Praise Team. I can tell you, however, that she was always meek, cheerful, and smiling before and after dementia robber her of her faculties. She radiated a natural kindness which so touched her husband’s heart. I have always been proud of how our congregation embraced her, inappropriate as she could be at times because of her condition. Having her around was a reminder of God’s grace. 

Bill, in his own right, was the most devoted spouse anyone could’ve asked for. He took “for better or worse” with the utmost seriousness. Although he’d often been advised to find a care facility for Cass as her memory began to slip, he refused to be separated from her, always insisting that he was called to be her chief caregiver. When she was finally confined to the Immaculate Mary Home, he visited her every day. He died within two months of her passing, and I imagine he just couldn’t live without her. 

Kathy “Bunny” Berry, a devout Roman Catholic, came to Faith Lutheran when we welcomed her son Jason and his partner, Doug. As sweet as a Tastycake and as tough as an overcooked steak, Bunny loved worshiping with us. Her life hadn’t exactly been a day at the beach—she’d lost a husband to ALS and a son to drugs—but her faith in God never abated. I loved our visits when she went on the homebound list. In spite of her cancer she could always make me laugh, and her courage was inspiring. 

Pastor Scott Nessel was a devoted single dad and a servant of the Gospel. We were students together in seminary, and I always found him to be one of the wittiest people I’ve known with a gift for an irreverent turn of phrase. I’m sorry I lost touch with him after seminary, but I’d heard through the grapevine about some of his domestic struggles (one of his children has special needs), and of his battles with recalcitrant congregations. Discipleship isn’t easy or fair, but blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Scott had served his most recent parish, Immanuel in Amherst, MA, only a short while before COVID-19 shut its doors. He died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 49. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t have us light a candle for Jim “Coffee Pot” Walsh. Although he was not a member of our parish, I’ve probably had more interaction with Jim in the last 22 years than I’ve had with some of our rostered members. Jim was the faithful coffee steward of the Auctus AA group. He’d sometimes come and put the coffee on at three o’clock in the afternoon for a 7:30pm meeting. Then he’d just hang around. I don’t know why Jim was the way he was—his sentences were full of non-sequiturs and often quite bizarre. I suspect he must’ve had some kind of brain trauma, but I never knew what caused it. As eccentrics go, he was high in the standings of odd characters who have frequented this church over the years. All the same, he was the most guileless individual, always seemingly happy, always willing to help, always offering me a cup of the particularly burnt and nasty coffee he’d brewed for his AA family. If his mind was somewhat scrambled, his heart was always on track. He will be missed. 

For the redeemed in Christ, there is so much beauty in ordinary lives. When we reflect on the lives of the saints—even these obscure saints—we are really reflecting on our own lives. God has given us wonderful companions on our walk to eternity. Some challenge us, some make our journey the more joyful. To see the beauty in these lives is to know that in Christ there is beauty, purpose, example, and mission in our own lives. To look to others is to see the love God has for us.

 Bless you, my saintly friend. Thanks for visiting.

[i] This is from a sermon called “The Weight of Glory.” I quote it from A Chorus of Witnesses (Eerdman’s Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, 1994) I don’t know when Lewis delivered this homily.

[ii] See 1 Cor. 1:2, Philippians 1:1, or Colossians 1:2 for example.

[iii] Augsburg Confession Article XXI.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Free Slaves (Reflections on Reformation Sunday, 2020)

An early printed edition of "A Mighty Fortress" in German

“…and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

 I’m always amused by the response Jesus’ Judean followers give to the above quote. These guys must’ve looked at Jesus with their mouths open. “Whaddya mean ‘made free?!’ We’re the descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves.” You don’t even have to know too much Bible history to know they’re kidding themselves here. Remember Moses and that Red Sea thing? The descendants of Abraham were slaves in Egypt, right? They were also slaves to Babylon, then to Persia, Greece and a whole bunch of little crappy kingdoms. By the time of Jesus they were a vassal of the Romans.  Freedom wasn’t their long suit.

 But, in a sense they were right. To them, “free” meant they were the rightful heirs of God’s promise to Abraham. No matter who was actually calling the political shots, the children of Abraham had full personhood in God’s eyes. They weren’t adopted in nor were they “property.” If their self-determination as a nation was taken away, they still had their heritage as legitimate heirs to the title of “Chosen People.”

 Unfortunately for their pride, Jesus had to remind them they were still slaves to sin—something they had a real hard time recognizing. Let’s face it: the truth hurts some times. If you’ve ever tried to live in denial, or defensiveness, or behind some excuse, or in just plain wishful thinking, you know how much it sucks. You want to keep up the pretense that everything is just groovy. Well, it isn’t. It’s the old saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” Perhaps the worst form of bondage is refusing to admit the truth to ourselves.

 We’re all salves in some way, I guess. These days I’d have to say that many of us are slaves to fear. We fear COVID-19. We fear economic catastrophe. We fear civil unrest. Most of all, we probably fear change and loss—especially the loss of things we’ve been comfortable with and counted on. Like the church.

 But the truth is, church attendance in America was declining before the pandemic. We’re becoming a more secular society. Young working people don’t have Sunday mornings free anymore. Youth sports, multiple jobs, and the gig economy have killed the Sabbath. I also fear that, as far as public proclamation goes, the more strident voices of fundamentalism outshout the voices of Christ’s mercy and inclusivity in the public media.

 I ask myself on this Reformation Sunday, “What would Luther do?” I wonder what our tradition and heritage as Lutherans give us to get us through this time of transition and worry? How would Martin speak to our fears?

 First, I think the brutally blunt reformer would want us to be honest with ourselves. As a church and as individuals we’ve made plenty of mistakes. Without confession there can be no absolution. We remember that we are slaves to sin, but we are also heirs to God’s promise of love and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. Simul Justus et peccator is the Latin phrase Luther was so fond of. It means simultaneously justified and sinner. The phrase calls us to remember that in these fearful times we’ve all been doubtful, we’ve probably been self-righteous, and our opinions have been less than charitable about people who hold views with which we differ. The good news is that whatever kind of jerks we’ve been, we’re still loved and forgiven by God’s grace. Like the Judeans Jesus addresses in our Gospel lesson, we’re both slaves and free people because we are the legitimate heirs—through no effort of our own—to God’s promise. We should remember that.

 Secondly, I think Luther would remind us ecclesia semper reformanda est. That is, the church is always reforming. Our comfortable little congregations may be going the way of the 8 track, but that doesn’t mean that something new isn’t rising in their place. “God’s word forever shall abide” Luther reminds us in that great anthem we Lutherans love to sing (quietly and through our COVID masks this time!). 

Thirdly, Luther might advise us to take every advantage we can of new media technology. The world didn’t come to learn of the 95 Theses just because they were posted on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. No. Before nailing them to the door, Luther had his theses printed on the new-fangled machine called the printing press and mailed out copies to a whole bunch of interested—and some really ticked-off—parties. In our information age, we have the advantage to bypass the Sabbath and put church online. If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else, it has forced us to use the new means available to this generation for spreading the Gospel.

 Finally, I hope Luther would remind us as Christians to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Church people, Luther taught, have a duty to civic engagement. Yes, he believed that church leaders should not run countries or cities and secular leaders should not dictate theology. That doesn’t mean, however, that the church should remain unconcerned about the affairs of the world. I think it’s time we were all a little edgier (kind of like Pope Francis was this week!) Our faith in Jesus can’t just be for Sunday morning. Love of neighbor needs to be put into practice.

 So take heart, church. As our Reformation hymn reminds us, “The kingdom’s ours forever.” That’s pretty good news.

God's peace be with you. For a shorter video version of this post, click here.

 God bless. Thanks for reading.