Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Do You Really Want the Light? (reflections for Candlemas)

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“…a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:32)

Merry Candlemas!

Yup, February 2nd, long before it became Groundhog Day, was celebrated as Candlemas. It’s also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord or the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It probably won’t come as a shock to Lutherans that we don’t use that latter designation, but I think a word of explanation for it is in order.

Normally, we don’t make a big deal out of this minor festival in the liturgical calendar unless February 2nd happens to fall on a Sunday. It celebrates an event in the life of Our Lord which Luke records and is used as the Gospel reading for the day (Luke 2: 22-40). Mary and Joseph come to the temple in Jerusalem out of pious observation of Levitical law. They’d already had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. Now they’re observing two other statutes. The first is to present this little guy, Mary’s first born, as an offering to the Lord.[i] The second is to offer sacrifice so Mary can become ritually clean again after giving birth.[ii] The price of being a mom was the sacrifice of a lamb, but poor people like Mary and Joseph could get the discount price of a bird. I always like this detail Luke includes because it reminds us all that Jesus came from poor folk.

When Mary and Joseph bring their little tyke to the temple, they encounter two really cool senior citizens, Simeon and Anna. Old Simeon blesses the baby boy because God has promised that he wouldn’t die until he had a chance to see the Messiah. He sings a little song of praise which, in liturgical Latin, is called the Nunc Dimittis, which are the first words of the hymn—roughly translated “now thou dost” or “now you do.” We use this hymn often as part of our liturgy for the canticle we sing after we’ve received Holy Communion. Like ol’ Simeon, we too have seen the Lord’s salvation through the Holy Supper and can depart in peace.

Where the term “Candlemas” comes in is Simeon’s belief that this little baby boy has come to bring light to the nations of the world. Subsequently, church tradition held that candles were to be blessed on this festival. But preaching Jesus to non-Jewish folks isn’t the only kind of light Simeon suggests. He tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed…” (v.35)

Now think about that: Would you really want your inner thoughts revealed? If the candle of Jesus’ righteousness were lit in the cellar of your brain, what do you think it would illuminate? We’ve always been taught that Jesus is the light of truth. Jesus in the gospels is a light of compassion, mercy, inclusivity, generosity, and forgiveness. It’s just possible that we don’t really want that light to shine on us, you think?  Compassion, after all, will cost us. It will require sacrifice we might not want to make. Inclusivity, as Jesus showed to the Gentiles, might mean we lose our feelings of superiority over others. Forgiveness means we might have to surrender the grudges which provide a sugar high for the voracious appetite of our brittle egos. If our inner thoughts were revealed, would we embrace Jesus or oppose him? Would we fall or rise?

There’s something else I love about this passage. I really dig that it lifts up the wisdom of two mature individuals. Anna is celebrated as a prophet (or profhtis in Greek), a term which refers to one who is a channel of communication between the divine and the human worlds. There aren’t that many women who get this title in the Bible, so you’ve really got to love Anna. She’s the first to see in this little boy the promise of God, and she’s not afraid to tell folks about it. She may be old, but she gets around. In my ministry I’ve known many an elderly widow who has spent lots of time doing God’s work in a house of worship, and—believe me!—the church could not stand without the faith and prayers of such as these.

So, Merry Candlemas, everybody. The challenge for this feast, I think, might be to let a little of the light of Jesus into your inner thoughts and, like Simeon and Anna, be ready to receive him.

So glad you visited today. Please come again.

[i] See Exodus 13:2
[ii] See Leviticus 12:4-5. Mary had to wait 33 days after Jesus was circumcised before she could step back into society. If Jesus had been a girl, Mary would have to wait 66 days. Those ancient Hebrews were really sexist bastards, weren’t they?

Thursday, January 23, 2020

"Follow Me" (Reflections on Epiphany 3, Year A)

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“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matthew 4:19)

The story in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus calling the first disciples (Matthew 4:12-35) has always had me a little perplexed. In Luke’s gospel it makes sense: Jesus performs a really cool miracle. He has these professional fishermen who have fished all night—these guys who are sure, based on their own personal expertise that there’s no catch to be had—drag their butts back out into the water and shazzam! The Sea of Galilee is spewing fish like a slot machine paying off in quarters. Now that story makes sense. If you’re confronted with a miracle, you may well have faith in the guy who performed it.

But Matthew and Mark’s telling of the call of these first disciples offers no explanation. Jesus just wanders up to these fishermen and says, “Follow me,” and they follow him. Why? What is it about this dude that gets working men to walk off the job (and leave their dad in the case of James and John) and start marching around behind him? Would you do it?

Short of performing a miracle, it’s awfully hard to motivate folks to leave the comfortable and familiar and set off into the unknown. But I imagine that, given their circumstances, Peter and Andrew and James and John said to each other, “What have we got to lose? Things are crappy enough as it is. John the Baptist is in jail, so we might as well give this new guy a chance.”

It’s significant, I think, that Matthew marries this story of call and response to the promise from Isaiah: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Things must’ve been pretty dark for working stiffs in Jesus’ day. They could choose to give up and sit in the darkness, or they could take a chance on finding light.

Matthew says that Jesus withdrew to Galilee after John had been arrested. Galilee was the territory run by Herod Antipas, the tyrant who arrested John. Maybe the fishermen were impressed with the gutsiness of a preacher who would come and continue the message of a man who was already in danger of death and do so right under the nose of the ruler. Maybe they wanted to hang on to that faint glimmer of hope that God had not abandoned them completely, and so they were willing to take a chance on a man who told them that God’s rule was near, and that they had to change their way of thinking in order to experience it. Maybe they were just plain friggin’ desperate.

I think we all know that, when times are hard, people are willing to fall for anyone who comes along with a slick line of b.s. But these guys not only followed Jesus, but stayed with him. The proof was in the deeds, not just the words. Jesus showed them compassion for the ones on the margins of society, the sick and those with diseases. He also broke the barriers by welcoming those from the other side of the Jordan in the land of the Gentiles (vv. 24-25). This must’ve been something new they hadn’t seen before.

Today in the United States it seems that just about everyone who is a registered Democrat thinks he or she should run for President. Some of the candidates have dropped out, but some are still slugging it out, trying to attract voters. If someone wants to get my vote, I want to see a little Jesus in them. I want to be challenged to repent—that is, to change my mind and see things a new way. I want to see compassion for the ones who have been left out, just as Jesus showed love for those who had been discarded from the society of his day. I want to see faith. I want to know that someone believes that change can happen, and that that change will be for God’s glory. Please, someone, give me a vision of a world and a society that works as God intends—full of peace, mercy, and justice—and show me how we’ll get there.

But the story isn’t just about the charismatic power of Jesus. It’s about the willingness of the fishermen to leave their nets and follow him. Certainly God Almighty, if displeased with this hapless rock we call Earth, could just snap his/her Almighty fingers and make everything perfect again. But God is a more loving God than that. God desires our active participation.

The story of the call of the first disciples comes right after the story of Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the wilderness. The two tales together remind me of a Kris Kristofferson song called “To Beat the Devil.” The lyrics tell of a down-and-out musician who is advised by a mysterious stranger to give up his singing because “no one wants to know.” The singer is tempted, but ultimately decides:

And you still can hear me singin' to the people who don't listen,
To the things that I am sayin', prayin' someone's gonna hear.
And I guess I'll die explaining how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin', hopin' someone's gonna care.

Discipleship requires that we cast new nets—nets of vision and faith—and be active participants in changing our world, our church, and ourselves.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

What's Up with the Lamb? (Reflections on Epiphany 2, Year A)

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“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

Don’t you love those dollar stores? I was in my local “everything-for-a-buck” place the other day to buy some thank-you notes. The cashier was this young guy named Haim[i] who, I noticed, had a whole passage from the Book of Proverbs tattooed on his left forearm. He seemed a nice enough kid. Noticing my clergy collar, he asked if I were a priest. I told him I was and, as there was no one in line behind me, we got to talking for a bit. Haim told me that he was recently in recovery from an addiction to drugs (I’m guessing opioids). He said that both of his parents were first generation Americans. His dad was Jewish and his mom was Roman Catholic.

“Neither community accepted me,” Haim said. “But Jesus accepts me.”

As long as his faith in Christ keeps him clean and sober I won’t quibble about where he worships. I’m thinking he probably belongs to some evangelical non-denominational church of which there are many in my community. I wished him well and said I’d pray for his  recovery, but I could’ve kicked myself as I got into my car and thought that I’d missed an opportunity to invite Haim to worship with my congregation.

“Jesus accepts me.” That kind of says it all, doesn’t it? In the gospel lesson appointed for Epiphany 2, Year A (John 1:29-42), two of John the Baptist’s disciples—Andrew and an unnamed seeker—inquire of Jesus where he hangs out. I guess they asked him that to see if he was a local guy, or maybe it was just a way to start a conversation with someone who just might turn out to be the Messiah. Jesus (who rarely gives a straight answer to any question he’s asked in the Fourth Gospel) answers them with “Come and see.” This is a pretty cool invitation. It’s about 4 pm, so it’s possible he invites the boys to stay for supper. We’re told they remained with him that day. Maybe they spent the night. That’s pretty accepting of people you just met!

Andrew, of course, was looking for Jesus because John the Baptist had pointed Jesus out as the Lamb of God. And that’s John’s job—to point the way to Jesus. I’d like to think that’s the only job any of us really has. Well, maybe we have two jobs—both of which are illustrated in this gospel selection: we are to follow Jesus and to point others to him.

So what are these lads looking for? John has told them that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We probably think of this as an atoning sacrifice. That is, a lamb was given to pay for a fault. I was surprised to find out, however, that lambs weren’t used as sacrifices for sin in Jesus’ day. If you wronged someone back then, they handled it pretty much the same way we do now. You went to court and paid your fine or took whatever punishment the law prescribed. A “sin offering” was actually a sacrifice made to cleanse the temple should some poor schmo wander in without having observed one of the billion and one purity laws they had in those days. Lambs were not offered as sin offerings. For an impure temple you needed to sacrifice some beef. Why? Beats me, but those were the rules.

When John calls Jesus the “Lamb of God,” he’s actually making a reference to the Passover Lamb, that poor critter that got eaten the night before God freed the captive Israelites from bondage in Egypt. The blood of the lamb was the blood of rescue, of liberation. It’s not just paying the price of having done wrong, because we’ll all pay for our mistakes one way or another, right? We pay the cost of sin in guilt, or in broken relationships, or in physical ailments, or even in legal punishment.

The Lamb isn’t here to bail us out of the earthly consequences of our sin, and he’s not just a “Get-Out-of-Hell-Free” card. No. Instead, he is here to change us. He is here to be our way out of slavery and bondage and guide us through the wilderness of our circumstances into something that God would have us be. For someone like Haim, it’s a radical release from addiction to sober living. For someone else, it might be the radical knowledge that Jesus accepts us even if we haven’t proven ourselves to the satisfaction of the world’s standards. Jesus frees us from those false expectations. The blood of the Lamb should liberate us from resentment, regret, and disappointment and lead us into acceptance and thankfulness.

At the end of the day, we have only two jobs—seek Jesus and show Jesus. Everything else we do can be evaluated in light of these two tasks. If we’re okay with this, the opinion of the world doesn’t matter.

[i] Haim is a variation of Chayyim, the Hebrew word for “life.” Just thought you might be interested. It’s a popular Hebrew name.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Usual Way (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord, Year A)

“And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” (Matthew 3:17)

There was this old guy in my congregation named Bob, now, alas, numbered among the saints in glory, who always liked the old Ferlin Husky country/gospel song, “On the Wings of a Dove.” If memory serves, we played that song at Bob’s funeral. It’s a really sweet song set in ¾ time or waltz tempo. It was a big hit for Husky in 1960[i], and it’s been covered over the years by many country and Christian artists. When the famous duo of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton recorded it, they added a verse which recounts the gospel lesson appointed for the Baptism of Our Lord in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 3: 13-17). The verse goes like this:

When Jesus went down to the river that day
He was baptized in the usual way;
When it was done,
God blessed his son.
He sent down his love
On the wings of a dove.

If you ask me, the Spirit of God alighting like a bird—and a particularly peaceful bird at that—seems rather anti-climactic when compared to the hoopla that went on the night Jesus was born. A dove seems pretty puny next to the multitude of the Heavenly Hosts praising God and singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” don’t you think? The whole event seems a bit too normal. Shouldn’t the beloved Son of God get a slightly more miraculous baptism? But the Bible suggests (as Dolly Parton sang) that Jesus was, indeed, baptized “in the usual way.”

Granted, John very modestly—and modesty is not a real big thing for John—suggests that Jesus should be baptizing him. But Jesus shows respect for the senior prophet on the scene and does things the usual way. I always figured that this was Jesus’ way of showing us that he’s willing to be just like the rest of us. In doing so, he’s practicing a becoming modesty just like John does. The event seems to be a little lesson in Christian courtesy.

Still, it’s not very spectacular. Even the Father God is somewhat laid back. Not only does he decide to let his Holy Spirit float down in a very calm and unobtrusive manner, but his pronouncement over the whole things seems a bit tepid. He says he is “well pleased” with Jesus. That’s nice, but don’t you expect that there’d be a little more effusive praise of Jesus? The word in Greek is eudokasa (eudokhsa for you Greek-reading folks[ii]) which basically means that God made a good choice or that he approves of Jesus. This isn’t exactly a stellar endorsement.

But then, does it really have to be? Maybe there’s something more divine in the quiet, gentleness of Jesus’ baptism. Not every encounter with the Holy Spirit has to be the rushing wind of Pentecost. We don’t always need the heavens to rip open and a chorus of angels to appear. A few sprinkles of cleansing water and the sedate reminder that God approves of us is really all we need. God speaks most profoundly at times in quiet whispers, in gentle moments of reflection, and in simple people.

It might be a good idea this week—when the world seems to be going crazy again—to take a break, sit quietly, and reflect that you are baptized. God loves you and God approves of you. Let the Spirit alight on you gently like a slow, soothing gospel song sung in ¾ time.

Be still. It works. Really.

PS-If you don’t know “Wings of a Dove,” listen to it by clicking here.

[i] I should mention that old Ferlin didn’t write the song. It was composed by a fellow named Bob Ferguson.
[ii] There probably aren’t many of you. I just dig that my computer has a program that lets me write in Greek. It makes me feel smart!

Thursday, January 2, 2020

In the Flesh (Reflections on Christmas 2, Year A)

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“And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” (John 1:14a)


The word gets a bad rap. If religious folk say someone is “in the flesh,” they generally don’t mean it as a compliment, do they? The word “carnal” comes from an old medieval word meaning “flesh” or “meat,” and is usually used to describe someone who is preoccupied with sex. In the third century there was a popular religious belief called Manichaeism which proposed that everything was divided between good spirit and bad matter. The spirit was divine but the flesh was evil. Medieval monks—Martin Luther included—tried to purify their souls by mortifying their flesh through fasting, hard labor, self-flagellation, or the wearing of very uncomfortable underwear.

Now of days, of course, we’re a little more kind to the flesh. We’re told the body is beautiful—just not your body. Nope, says the popular culture, you have too much flesh or not enough or it’s not in the right places or you’ve had it way too long. We don’t put on sackcloth or beat ourselves with rods these days; instead, we take spin class and inject poison into our face.

In a few days I’m going to turn sixty years old, and I have to tell you, my flesh hurts. It doesn’t look or act like it did forty years ago. I can’t divorce myself from it, so I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

What makes this acceptable to me is knowing that Jesus’ flesh on the cross hurt a lot more than mine does. If I feel pain or a loss of mobility, it’s nothing next to the loss of mobility that comes when you’re impaled on a piece of wood and left hanging there to die.

And that’s the amazing and glorious mystery of our faith: we see the Living God becoming flesh and living among us so that we can see his glory, grace and truth. God becomes one with us, wrapped, as Shakespeare put it, in “that small model of the barren earth which serves as paste and covering to our bones.” Jesus felt hunger and fatigue and physical pain just as we do. He wept and laughed and bled and experienced all the sensations of the flesh.

Why wouldn’t we want to embrace our flesh? Through it we have identity. We have our age, our gender, and in it we so often experience our emotions—we laugh, cry, smile, and feel in our guts and in our hearts. Best of all, it is through the flesh and blood of human experience that God came to know us, and it is because the Word became flesh that we can relate to God. We remember that every time we receive his body in the Holy Eucharist. But maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if—every time we feel that stiffness, ache, numbness or twinge—we remember that Jesus felt it too. He came to take on our flesh so that in our flesh we might recall his glory and love.

Happy 2020! Please drop by again.