Thursday, February 27, 2020

Where Were the Angels? (Reflections on Lent 1, Year A)

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Have you ever seen those cartoons where a guy has a little miniature devil sitting on one of his shoulders? The devil is looking wonderfully dastardly—complete with red cape, horns, and pitchfork. You know what I mean? The little stinker is whispering all kinds of temptations in the guy’s ear, while simultaneously there’s this beatific mini angel sitting on the dude’s other shoulder. The tiny angel is telling him not to listen to the devil, and is encouraging him to holiness. You must’ve seen this somewhere. This image is used in cartoons, sit-coms, and TV commercials ad nauseam.

Do you know where it’s not used? It’s not used in the gospel lesson assigned for Lent 1, Year A in the revised Common Lectionary (Matthew 4:1-11). Yeah, there’s a devil and angels in this story, but they don’t show up simultaneously. Jesus is left to deal with the devil all by his lonesome. The angels don’t show up until the ordeal is over. If I were Jesus, I might be tempted to tell the angels, “Thanks a lot, you guys! Fat lot of good you turned out to be! Where the freak were you when I needed you, huh?”

Personally, I don’t blame the angels for not showing up. I’m much more relieved that Jesus was left out in the desert to struggle alone. I mean, that’s how I feel a lot of the time. I’m not sure I want to worship a Messiah who hasn’t felt alone in the wilderness or who got extra miraculous help to deal with all the stuff a world drowning in sin can throw at you. I just have to give Jesus props for going it alone.

When I look at this story, I notice that Jesus is on pretty shaky ground from the start. First off, he’s just been praised by John the Baptist, baptized, and called the Beloved by Almighty God. That makes him a target for the Tempter right there. Second, he’s led by the Spirit into the wilderness—a deserted place, mind you—for a substantial length of time. I don’t advise anyone to spend too much time alone. That’s when your head really gets messed with. Finally, of course, he’s really, really hungry. If you’ve ever done without or wondered how you were going to pay for a meal, you’ll know you aren’t in the most spiritual of places. Hunger, fear, and desperation hang out a “Welcome” sign for the devil.

Twelve-step programs like to warn newcomers about temptation. The basic message is, “Stay out of the wilderness.” That is, of course, metaphorical. It’s not that your AA group doesn’t want you to go hiking in the Poconos, it’s that they want you to steer clear of those places and situations that are going to make it easy for you to screw up your life and the lives of the ones around you. As a recovering person myself, I never had to worry about hunger or loneliness. If, in my youth, a girlfriend dumped me and I felt abandoned, I always had a good book or my own company to enjoy. If I were out of work, I’d gird my loins both professionally and financially and set about getting back on track. It was when I was on my feet—when I felt successful and had the world by the Fruit of the Looms—that was when my self –destructive tendencies blossomed into giant, man-eating plants. I totally get why the Spirit would drive Jesus out into the wilderness just as Jesus is being proclaimed the new hot thing. It’s because that’s the moment when the temptation to self-reliance and arrogance is the strongest. That’s the moment when our eyes look inward at ourselves and away from God.

What makes the Tempter in this gospel lesson so freaky is the fact that he’s dealing with Jesus. When he says, “If you are the Son of God…” given the Greek grammar, he might as well be saying “Since you are the Son of God…” The grammatical construction suggests that Jesus already has the power to do that which the Tempter suggests. Now, if you just wish you could do something evil but you don’t have the guts or the opportunity to actually try to get away with it, you’re not really being tempted. BUT: if you’re honestly weighing the possibility of harming yourself or another, of getting wasted, of committing an act of betrayal, of completely giving in to despair, of indulging in the cream-filled lies we like to tell ourselves to make our own greed and selfishness seem okay, or of imagining how great life would be if we just didn’t have to give a crap about anyone else—if that’s where you are—than you’re in the same place Jesus was.

And Jesus has been where you are.

It sucks being in the wilderness. But once you’ve made it out, you might just discover that the angels have been with you all along. It’s only when the struggle is over that you can appreciate their presence.

Thanks for reading. A blessed Lent to you, my friend.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Visible Truth (Reflections on Ash Wednesday)

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“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6: 16-18)

So Jesus tells us not to disfigure our faces when we begin a fast? Gosh. It always amuses me slightly as we begin the holy season of Lent that this verse is read every year—just as we are doing exactly the opposite of what it indicates. In the Ash Wednesday mass we purposely disfigure our faces! All day long on this solemn holy day people are walking around with black smudges on their foreheads, proudly displaying to God and everyone that they are nothing but dust and are journeying on their way to the grave. We conspicuously broadcast this ancient symbol of both contrition and sorrow.

I guess we could be like the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 24: 15-27) who obeys God’s command to refrain from signs of mourning. God tells the old boy to look sharp and not advertise the grief he feels over the death of his wife. He has to suck it up and not ask for comfort as an example to all the people of Israel. They are expected to do the same, even though their holy city is destroyed and they are carried off as exiles to a foreign land. They don’t get to weep or show signs of bereavement. This is their punishment for unfaithfulness and apostasy.

But I guess it doesn’t matter whether they rip their garments or put ashes on their heads. The pain is still going to be there. The regret, the guilt, the isolation—none of that goes away. The ashes are always present even if they are invisible. Yet, all the same, on this sacred day we wear the ashes, the symbol of that most terrifying truth—we are helpless.

I recently read Elaine Pagles’ touching memoir, Why Religion?[i] In this poignant book the Princeton University professor of religious history tells of how her son, Mark, was diagnosed with a rare and invariably fatal pulmonary disorder. She walks the reader through the excruciating knowledge that her little boy will never live to see adulthood, and later through the stages of grief when Mark died at the age of six. As if the loss of a child were not enough sorrow, Pagels’ husband was killed in a hiking accident 15 months after their son’s death. Like Job, Pagels found herself sitting in her own spiritual ash pit asking why? Her double tragedy convinced her that she would rather feel guilt than helplessness; nevertheless, she came to the conclusion that it is pointless to look for meaning in the face of such pain. We must ultimately create meaning out of it.

On this day we wear our grief and shame and solitude on the outside. Ash Wednesday is the day for truth-telling, for acknowledging that we are all confused, all wounded, all filled with regret. But we also put our pain in the shape of a cross, the reminder that our Father who sees in secret has sent his Son to live that pain with us. We take meaning from the thought that Jesus on the cross knew and felt and understood and acknowledged everything we are going through. And we can look to the crosses on the foreheads of our neighbors and realize that we are not really alone at all, and that in the spirit of humility and compassion, Jesus has come to sit beside us.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Put the Time In (Reflections on Transfiguration, Year A)

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The wonderful and mostly retired gentlemen who assist funeral directors in Northeast Philly are always very respectful to me, but they’re often a little uncertain as to how I should be addressed. “Do I call you ‘Father’ or ‘Reverend?’” one such gentleman inquired of me recently. “What title do you prefer?”

I thought about this for a second and replied, “I think I prefer ‘Monsignor.’”

It took the old fellow a second to realize that I was having him on, and then we both had a chuckle. Now, I wouldn’t want to make too big a deal out of this, but it’s recently occurred to me that there are only three ELCA pastors in the city of Philadelphia who have served in their current calls longer than I’ve served in mine. I am the longest-serving pastor in my parish’s history, and I’m the oldest man in my conference pericope group. I’m actually rather shocked to find myself in the role of elder statesman—mostly because I’m not at all sure I’ve gained any wisdom whatsoever in my time in the pulpit. Yes, I’ve done hundreds of masses, hundreds of funerals, sat at hundreds of sick beds, read tons of religious books, watched kids I’ve baptized grow to young adulthood, and seen fellow clerics come and go. Still, I think I remain spiritually just the same as everyone else—patiently among the ranks of the perpetually perplexed.

But, even if God never speaks to me in a whirlwind or a burning bush, I’m glad I’ve put the time in. Conventional wisdom says that a long-term pastorate will not guarantee the success of a congregation, but a series of short-terms will pretty much guarantee its failure. 

I find in the First Lesson for Transfiguration, Year A (Exodus 24:12-18) there’s value in being a guy who is willing to wait. Dear Moses goes up the mountain to find God, but God takes his sweet time with Moses. Forty days and forty nights the old boy has to wait before he can come down and get back to the job of leading the children of Israel. Fortunately, he’s arranged for some good coverage while he’s away (v. 14), but taking off for over a month might’ve seemed a bit excessive to the folks left behind. While God spends the next six chapters of Exodus giving Moses an excruciatingly detailed lesson in liturgics, the gang down at the foot of the mountain starts to panic.

The children of Israel don’t seem to have much patience. They don’t get that building relationships—be they with each other or with Almighty God—will be time-consuming. Nope. Moses doesn’t come back in time to suit their short attention spans, so they go and start worshiping a Golden Calf[i]. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

God, of course, is not real happy with this turn of events, and it’s just one more reason why the Lord teaches this bunch patience by having them wait another forty years before they can reclaim the land promised to their ancestor, Abraham.[ii]

I think it speaks well for Moses that he’s willing to put the time in up on that mountain. He really wants to get to know what God wants of him. He’s different from Peter in the gospel lesson (Matthew 17:1-9). Pete’s an impulsive dude. He gets a little glimpse of the glory of God, and he starts shooting his mouth off. God has to tell him to shut up and listen. Moses is willing to be quiet, listen, and be taught by God. When he gets what God wants, it’s written in stone.

I don’t think we ever learn anything instantly. We have to put time in and learn slowly in order to have anything that looks like mastery. It doesn’t matter what you’re trying to do—hit a baseball, shoot a free-throw, write a novel, repair a carburetor, replace a heart valve, or fall meaningfully in love. It all takes time. So does learning to be a Christian.

If you’re reading this, I’m probably preaching to the already converted. But maybe not. If you’ve come seeking a transfiguration experience of God’s glory and promise, you may just have to wait a while. We’re on God’s time, not our own. The best we can do is be patient, faithful, and disciplined. That’s kind of what Lent is about: a return to discipline.

When young folks tell me they’re “spiritual but not religious,” I always ask them what their spiritual disciplines are. They generally look at me as if I were speaking Mandarin. But faith and understanding come with practice. Scripture takes on new and deeper meaning the more we expose ourselves to it. Prayer gets richer the more we pray. Generosity gets easier once we realize how generous God is. Worship is more of a blessing when praise of God becomes part of who we are. The “C & E” faith will certainly get you to heaven, but it may be a very dry and unsatisfying wilderness in this world.

Put the time in. It’s worth it. 

[i] I always figured that the Golden Calf was a symbol for money in the bank. After all, nomadic folk looked on livestock as a sign of wealth. If you’ve spent any amount of time around bovines, you’d be hard pressed to find anything else majestic or god-like in their personalities.
[ii] 40 is a real big number in the Bible in case you’ve noticed. In Hebrew numerology, 4 is the number of earthly completeness. If you intensify it by adding a zero, it means you’re more than complete. If you’re wandering in the wilderness 40 years, you’ve certainly been there long enough to get your act together. Possibly, you’ve been there long enough for all the whiners and weenies to die off and pass the leadership to young people accustomed to rugged living.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Right and Wrong (Reflections on Epiphany 6, Year A)

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“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:18)

I’m not in any hurry to go to heaven, but when I finally reach the golden streets, I really hope there’s a golden Starbuck’s where I can find a comfy leather chair, enjoy a grande dark roast, and have long conversations with interesting dead people. One of the guys I really want to meet in the Great Hereafter is C.S. Lewis. I think he was one of the best Christian apologists of all time. He had a wonderful gift for explaining our shared faith in eloquent, erudite, but delightfully understandable ways.

It seems that Lewis had considered himself an atheist when young, and service in the trenches of the Great War didn’t do a whole heck of a lot to change his views. Fortunately for the rest of us the Holy Spirit began to work on him. By the age of 31 “Jack” Lewis, after many years of contemplation, accepted faith in God and Jesus Christ. If you read his wonderful apologetic Mere Christianity, you’ll discover that a lot of his thinking starts with the notion of right and wrong.

Lewis begins the book with the thesis that we all have some idea of right and wrong. If we start bickering with one another over something, we invariably argue that our point of view has some kind of moral superiority to that of our antagonist. The other party will then counter that we’re wrong, and that they’re actually representing a higher moral code, or, at the least, they have a very valid reason for violating our moral expectations. But inherent in all of this is the idea—and we all have it—that other people recognize certain things as being morally uplifting, decent, proper, and just plain right. These values are right, not because they’re in the Bible or because your momma told you, but because they are empirically right. The world works better when we love one another, respect each other’s feelings, show compassion and generosity, don’t take what isn’t ours, value truth, keep our word, honor interpersonal relationships, and refrain at all times from inflicting intentional injury on others. Different cultures may have different norms, Lewis points out, but you’d be real hard pressed to find a culture that considers cowardice, treachery, deceit, wanton lust, bullying, and unbridled greed to be virtues.[i]

I like the way Lewis puts things:

(There) are two main points I’d like to make. First, that human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it. Second, they do not in fact behave in that way.[ii]

I think, in looking at the passage from the Sermon on the Mount assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Epiphany 6, Year A (Matt. 5: 21-37), Jesus is making the same point Lewis will make, but in a much deeper way. Jesus doesn’t pitch the Ten Commandments in the dumpster, instead he interprets them in such a way as to let us all know what kind of outlaws we really are at heart.

You think you’re righteous because you haven’t murdered anyone today? Guess again, dude! Your anger and arrogant disdain for your fellow human is still with you, and it’s just as destructive as if you’d blown someone away with a Smith & Wesson. The devaluing of others is what permits us to go to war. It's the sin that starts well before the violent act occurs but which makes the violence "acceptable" to us.

You think you’re pure because you haven’t tried to get it on with someone? Not so fast! When you’ve seen nothing but the object of your sexual wants in someone, you’ve dehumanized that person. And don’t blame her for being pretty—blame yourself for thinking that’s all she is.

Our Roman brethren have made, I think, something of a fetish out of the passage on divorce (vv.31-32), but divorce and remarriage aren’t the whole issue here. The sin Jesus warns us about in these two verses is a “what-the-hell” attitude towards breaking promises. In Jesus’ day, if a man divorced his wife, she could be left without resources. Not only did the man sin by neglecting an obligation, but he could very likely cause the woman to compromise herself because of her situation.[iii]

Jesus’ words in vv.33-37 assume that the righteous will be truthful without any need to ornament their testimony with oaths to the sacred. Such swearing is disrespectful and demeans the holiness of the object invoked. Honesty should always bring us to a place of humility, because if we’re honest with ourselves we’ll admit our helplessness.

Jesus’ interpretation of the law is not about mere behavior, but about the motivation which drives our behavior. Jesus calls us to a greater understanding of our sinful nature, our petty impulses, and our bondage to those feelings which are ultimately destructive if left unchecked. Martin Luther understood this to mean that the law, although it is always convicting us of our sin, is always drawing us back to our need for grace.

Our lived experience proves that Luther and C.S. Lewis were right—we’re never in full compliance with the law. It’s a mistake to confuse “right and wrong” with mere “do’s and don’ts.” We have to go deeper. We have to go to our hearts to seek the core of righteousness: the true, humble desire to love God and love everyone else.

God bless you, my friend. Glad you looked in this week!

[i] Except, perhaps, in the Trump White House.
[ii] From Mere Christianity (1943)
[iii] You’ll want to note that Matthew’s version of this saying gives a man the option of divorcing a woman for “unchastity.” The King James Bible translated this as “fornication,” but the word in Greek is actually porneias (porneias) from which our word “pornography” comes. It can mean unfaithfulness, but it can also be used for any kind of sexual immorality. There’s a belief that this condition for divorce may have come when Christianity was spread to Egypt where there was a tradition of incest.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Salt of the Earth (Reflections on Epiphany 5, Year A)

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“Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matthew 5: 17)

Do you ever try to imagine what it must’ve been like to hear Jesus preach? The gospel lesson from the Revised Common lectionary for Epiphany 5 (Matthew 5:13-20) is part of the “Sermon on the Mount,” and there’s some really cool and pertinent stuff in it. Now, granted, if Jesus gave this sermon in my homiletics course in seminary, the professor would probably give him a D- grade and say that it was too random and lacked focus. Don’t let that throw you. Old Matthew probably, the Bible experts tell us, glued together a bunch of Jesus sayings and stuck them in the middle of his narrative. How Jesus actually preached remains a mystery to us. An equal mystery might be what it felt like to hear him.

The gospels tell us that Jesus attracted huge crowds. He was a rock star in his day, so he must’ve been saying stuff that no one had thought about before—stuff that really touched peoples’ hearts and imaginations. Here he’s saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” I’ll bet those Galilean peasants never heard anyone tell them that before! Salt in the ancient world could be used as currency. Jesus is telling these poor folks that they are something of value. This, I’m sure, may have made them feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but Jesus goes on to remind them that things of value have a purpose.

Normally, of course, we consider things to be valuable because they have a purpose. I don’t just admire my computer or my car because they are nicely designed. I value them because I can use them. It’s the use that creates the value. But God’s grace works a little differently than that. We aren’t valuable to God because we’re useful. We’re useful because God has valued us.

The confirmation class I teach is studying the Hebrew Scriptures, and I’m trying to get the kids to understand the idea of a covenant. God strikes a bunch of bargains with folks in the OT, but they’re always somewhat one-sided. That is, God ends up doing the heavy lifting, and God’s people get the benefit. The covenant at Sinai—the Law—is a great example. God has already promised never to destroy humankind[i], and God has promised to bless the descendants of Abraham only in exchange for Abraham’s faith that God will do this. By the time we get to Sinai, God has already freed God’s people from famine and slavery and delivered them safely out of Egypt. God’s already done God’s part before God asks anything of the beneficiaries. The Law is not a condition for God’s blessing. It’s supposed to be our response to it. God isn’t into quid pro quo.

God’s also not looking just for ritual piety. The scribes and the Pharisees might’ve been into that stuff, but, as far as Jesus seems to be concerned, they’re like salt that’s lost its flavor. Jesus is always calling to our hearts. He’s not like some evangelical TV preacher who’ll tell you that you’re holy as long as you aren’t gay and don’t have an abortion. A response to the Law of God calls for a radical repentance, a willingness to see God in others, a transcendent love. That’s the difference between real religion and superstition. We become hidden lamps and tasteless salt when we think all we need to do is get our kids baptized and confirmed so we can satisfy ourselves that we’ve paid our dues. Jesus wants us to experience that which goes beyond ritual observance—a righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees.

The lectionary pairs this passage from Matthew with a reading from Isaiah 58. Here the prophet lays out what righteousness means in terms of love of neighbor:

Is this not the fast that I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and to bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Our response to being God’s light and salt is to feed and shelter and heal and end oppression. It’s to restore relationships.

I have to say, I’m pretty proud of my little congregation for being involved in sheltering the homeless (we partner with Interfaith Hospitality Network), and for helping to feed the hungry and clothe the naked (we partner with Feast of Justice and support their clothing and food cupboards). If God has blessed us at all, it is certainly that we may continue to be a blessing. Nevertheless, I get a sneaking hunch that Jesus is calling us to even more. When I imagine hearing Jesus talk about righteousness, I imagine he’s firing me up to a more radical sense of mercy that goes beyond what’s done in church.

When I listen to the news these days or talk to folks I get a feeling that we’re confusing righteousness with “fairness.” We’d rather see needy people neglected than have “unworthy” people get something to which they’re not entitled by our way of thinking. But, if we are the salt of the earth, aren’t we called to something more?

[i] Please note, there’s nothing in the covenant with Noah that says God will prevent us from destroying ourselves. That’s all on us. If you think God will magically reverse climate change after we’ve put so much crap into the atmosphere, you’d better think again!