Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Only One Way In (Reflections of Easter 4, Year A)

Jesus Christ "the Good Shepherd" Orthodox Icon | Legacy Icons
“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” (John 10:1)

Boy. I bet Bernie Sanders would really dig the description of the early Christian church we find in the first lesson appointed for Easter 4, Year A (Acts 2:42-47). If you read verses 44-45, it looks pretty much like these guys were socialists. Look: they had no private property, they all contributed as they could to the common purse, and they took what they needed from it. Sounds great—even Utopian, right?

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for this system described in chapter 2 to fall apart. By chapter 6 some favoritism started to creep in, and the disciples had to create a sort of ecclesiastic bureaucracy to address it. I don’t consider myself an expert on world economics, but it seems to me that a totally socialistic system—one where the government controls the means of production and the distribution of wealth—will always, in this sinful world, become corrupt. By the same token, a totally free market system—in which everyone looks after their own interest and the only law is supply and demand—will quickly turn into a giant game of Monopoly in which a few will win and everyone else will lose.

But it’s not the system that’s important, is it? What matters is our motivation for supporting a system. When we enter into a social relationship, we’d better be sure we’re entering by the right gate. And that gate can only be Jesus Christ (John 10:9).

In times of crisis we look for leadership, but as Christians we’ve already found our leader. He’s the one hanging on the cross. In him we see the greatest depth of love for all people. We see sacrifice and forgiveness and hope beyond our present alienation. We see how deeply we each are loved in spite of all our mistakes and shortcomings. And we hear the command to love others as He has loved us—in humility, generosity, and forbearance.

Any theory or institution we put our trust in is mere idolatry unless it is born of the law of God and the gracious love of Christ fervently embraced in our hearts. There is only one gate to enter, the gate which acknowledges Christ’s love of all people—even those with values and cultures different from our own. Any other system is empty hubris or greed and will ultimately wound and destroy. Jesus told us to strive first for the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and then all will be added to us (Matthew 6:33). If we look to him, no one will hunger. He’s the Good Shepherd. All the others are poor copies or impostors. We know what he’d have us do and who he’d have us be. It’s up to us to do and be it.

God’s peace to you. Thanks for coming by this week.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

A Stranger on the Road (Reflections on Easter 3, Year A)

Thanks for essential workers, road-worker, social worker, doctor and nurse for their service amid corona virus outbreak
Oh, Jesus. He shows up in the darndest places, doesn’t he? Of course, like those sad disciples trudging their despondent way back to Emmaus in the gospel lesson appointed for Easter 3, Year A (Luke 24:13-35), we don’t always recognize him. Maybe he’s been disguising himself as a healthcare worker or a supermarket employee or a delivery driver or an online teacher or even a friendly neighbor—any number of folks who, during this covid-19 pandemic, have been sacrificially putting themselves at risk out of a loving regard for the rest of us. Maybe our eyes have been kept from seeing him, but make no mistake, he is certainly present. I always feel that my job as a Christian is to see Jesus in others and to be Jesus for others. If I can’t see him, I won’t be able to be him.

What I’ve always liked about this gospel story in Luke is that it takes place in the midst of a journey. That’s a pretty sweet metaphor, don’t you think? Jesus meets us while we’re on the road, while we’re not yet settled or at rest. He just loves that liminal time when we’re not quite comfortable. I imagine Cleopas and that other disciple were pretty bummed out when they made that post-Passover trip back to their home in Emmaus. They must’ve been filled with both grief for Jesus and great disappointment. When the thing you’ve hoped for turns to crap, you find yourself wandering around wondering what to do next. Do you start over? Do you look for something new? Do you get mad, say "screw it!” and assume there’s no point in hoping for anything ever again?

Then along comes a stranger who makes you see something in a new light. He might ask, “Was it not necessary that he Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” After all, all of the prophets suffered. The children of Israel suffered as slaves in Egypt, captives in Babylon, and vassals of a host of conquerors. Could anybody in Israel ever really relate to a Messiah who didn’t know what suffering was about? Suffering sucks, but it also leads to wisdom. And it leads to compassion and empathy and the comfort of knowing that you’ve been understood. God couldn’t give us a Messiah who couldn’t look us in the eye and say, “Yeah. Dude. I’ve been there.”

When Cleopas and his buddy get back to Emmaus, they do a pretty cool thing. The strange guy they’ve met on the road seems to have a longer journey to make, but the two disciples realize that it’s getting on for dinner time, and this guy must be hungry and tired. They welcome the stranger just as if they were welcoming the Lord. After all, didn’t Jesus say that when you have done it for one of the least of these, you have done it for him?[i] So they open their home and their hearts and—by golly!—there was Jesus right in the midst of them after all.

You have to give these two guys credit. Not only were they—in the time of their sorrow, disappointment, and confusion—able to see Jesus in someone else, they also practiced being Jesus. They were loving, welcoming, and generous. In seeking to live out Christ within themselves, they had their faith and their joy restored.

That’s kind of the point. We’re all on the same road, we’re all unsettled pilgrims unsure of our destination. The safest rule of the road will be to keep our eyes open for Jesus. You never know when he’ll show up.

God’s peace. My friend. Thanks again for reading!

[i] Matthew 25:40

If you'd like to see this message on video, click Easter 3.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The New Normal (Reflections on Easter 2, Year A)

Lately we’ve been hearing the phrase “new normal.” It’s funny, isn’t it, how “new normal” always seems somewhat abnormal. We’re enjoined to stand six feet away from each other, stay in our homes, and wear protective masks when we venture into any area where we might potentially run into another member of the human race. We’re working from home, home schooling our kids, and even having church services via our computers or smart phones.

I daresay, most of us don’t like the new normal. I’m sure we can’t wait to get back to the old normal. It felt so much more normal, didn’t it?

But let’s face it: an extremely contagious and potentially deadly virus has made its nasty little way into our normal lives and screwed up everything. Of course, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. The so-called “Spanish Flu” epidemic of 1918 (see my article at the right) caught the whole world unaware. Yet, after it had done its dreadful work, we were smarter people. We learned a whole lot more about epidemiology than we’d known before. When we get past the first onslaught of covid-19, we’ll be even smarter. I hope.

But back to normal..? I don’t think so. Sometimes stuff happens like a pandemic or a terrorist attack or the death of a loved one or the loss of a job and we just have to figure out how to live in the new normal.

The appointed gospel lesson for Easter 2, Year A (John 20:19-31) is that familiar story of Jesus visiting the disciples and poor doubting Thomas not believing when he’s told that the Lord has been raised. I have to wonder if Thomas really wants to believe. After all, he’s been following this Galilean rabbi around for three years, left his family, lived a life of expectation and controversy, had a shot at fame (or so he thought) and then watched everything turn to crap when Jesus was arrested and crucified. Maybe the poor guy just wants to get back to normal. Wouldn’t you?

But now he has to face it: Jesus has been raised. Jesus is alive. No revolution against Rome. No earthly kingdom. Instead, there’s the certainty of eternal life and the command to love the world in the light of forgiveness. Thomas could, conceivably, hand in his Disciples Union card and go back to his old life, but he can’t escape the fact that Jesus has changed everything and nothing will be normal again. Once he’s seen the risen Jesus with his own eyes, he can’t un-see him. Once he’s heard the command to love and to teach forgiveness, he can’t un-hear it. Once he’s known the love and forbearance Jesus has shown him—the risen Jesus, the eternal Jesus, that is—he can’t un-know it. He’s going to have to live in the new normal.

The historian Eusebius recorded Thomas the apostle heading east and preaching the love of Jesus in Parthia (in modern-day Iran). Christian tradition has held that he continued his eastward missionary journey and brought the gospel as far as India, where he was martyred. It seems he embraced his new normal.

It is not insignificant that the thing Jesus wishes for the disciples, the gift with which he blesses them, is peace. It’s somewhat unfortunate that, in our new normal, we might not find ourselves wishing peace on each other in quite the same physical way in which we did it in the past. Nevertheless, if Jesus can blow a breath—a spirit—of peace on these guys who are about to go out and change the world, he most assuredly can grant us the peace to grab onto the changes we will have to make. Now is a time to recognize that we’re all human, we’re all fragile. Now we can push to the forefront of our minds how small our differences are when we’re confronted with hardship. Now we can see the heroic in everyday life, and recognize the priesthood inherent in our own vocations. Now we can pray for God to lead us forward—not backward—into a new normal, still held safe in the nail-scarred hands.

God bless you, my friend. Stay home for now and stay safe.

For a video version of this message, click Easter 2.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Reflections on Easter 2020

Pieter Fris - Noli me tangere
Every Easter our Revised Common Lectionary gives us the choice of reading the Resurrection story from the appointed synoptic gospel or from the gospel of John. I have to confess to a certain sentimental bias for John’s account (John 20:1-18). There’s something about seeing dear Mary Magdalene mourning outside the tomb that really touches me. This year I think we can all relate to her. Her beloved rabbi has died and she’s had to put her mourning ritual on hold because of the Sabbath and Passover laws. I wonder how many people have been in her shoes lately because of the covid-19 outbreak? There are many who have lost loved one but have had to postpone memorial services because of social distancing requirements. All of us, I think, have been in a state of limbo, wanting to be with loved ones on this Easter, but trapped in this weird moment of uncertainty. I guess we're all in the same fix as Mary.

Every time I read this passage I’m touched by Mary’s grief and her devotion to Jesus. She tells the man she thinks is the caretaker that she will carry the body of Jesus away if he’ll only tell her where he’s put it. Now, can you imagine yourself carrying the body of a deceased loved one?

What really strikes me, though, is Jesus’ words in verse 17: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” You just know from reading this that Mary must’ve lunged for the Lord as soon as she recognized him—just as we’ll all lunge for our loved ones as soon as this quarantine is lifted. John doesn’t have to tell us that Mary is just bizzaco with joy. We feel her Easter rapture coming off the page.

But Jesus’ words may seem a little odd. I mean, he doesn’t have to observe social distance, so why is he telling Mary not to hug him? I have a theory: It’s because in walking with us and suffering every temptation and every pain and sorrow we’ll ever experience, then in rising from the dead and promising us everlasting life, Jesus has done his job. It’s not enough to hang on to the memory of the earthly Jesus. Instead, it’s time to embrace the Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father, the Jesus who comes to abide with us through the Holy Spirit. It’s time for Mary and the others to stop being disciples—students and followers of Jesus—and time for them to become apostles—ambassadors for Jesus.

Our Easter message is always the reminder that the job has been completed. As Saint Paul told the Romans:

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angles nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else n all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)

Isn’t that great? The victory is won. We don’t have to prove anything anymore. We are living as heirs to eternity. Everything we do, every prayer we pray, every relationship we enjoy, every cause we take up, we can now do as our joyful response to being promised eternal life through Jesus. We don’t need to hold on to worldly things when we trust in heavenly things. As C.S. Lewis put it, “Aim at heaven and you’ll get earth thrown in.”

What we are enduring now is just a moment in eternity, and anything is bearable when you know it is only temporary. Today we may be waiting as Mary waited, but there is so much joy waiting for us up ahead. So stay strong, and say with the Christians of all the ages the ancient celebratory cry: “Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!”

If you'd like to hear a short video message, click here: Easter.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Some Thoughts on Holy Communion for Maundy Thursday

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I’ll admit to being disappointed at not being able to hold Maundy Thursday mass this year. This is one of the most moving liturgies in our calendar, and, traditionally, at Faith Lutheran, it’s the mass at which we introduce first-time communicants to the Lord’s Table. I look forward each year to washing the feet of the kids who are making their First Holy Communion and to re-living that sacred night in which our Lord showed such humility and love, and in which he suffered so much.

Unfortunately, the global covid-19 pandemic forbids us from celebrating together this year. Some of my parishioners have asked if it would be possible for us as a congregation to observe safe social distancing in the midst of the epidemic with a “drive-through” communion. At my wife’s suggestion, I ran this idea past our very sagacious bishop, the Right Reverend Patricia Davenport, who declined to permit such a celebration and graciously sent to me an article from my old Lutheran Confessions professor explaining why this is not something Lutherans do.

Lutherans have always kept this celebration sacred by insisting it be presided over by a properly called and ordained pastor.[i] Nevertheless, it is not actually necessary for our salvation. Instead, we have always valued the communal aspect of this sacrament. We all get to hear the Word of God together, we confess our sins together, and we share this common meal. If we are to distribute the elements without everyone participating in the prayers of consecration, and if we’re all segregated in our own vehicles, we rather defeat the communal benefit this meal is intended to provide.

Holy Communion is not a good work which grants us points with God. Neither does it promise us salvation by its mere performance. Rather, it’s an expression of God’s love for us through the death of Jesus Christ. It is best experienced in a community setting, and it is best received by those who believe the words “for you” and “for the forgiveness of sins.”[ii]

When I teach First Holy Communion class to third and fourth graders, I try to impress on them five things they should know:

1.      Holy Communion reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice for us on the cross.
2.      By “for us” we mean for everyone.
3.      Jesus offered the sacrifice of his own body and blood, so he is with us in his body and blood whenever we receive Holy Communion.
4.      We know when we take Communion that God has forgiven us all our sins. It’s pretty obvious we are loved when Jesus is willing to die for us.
5.      Even though we are remembering a very sad event, this meal is actually a Thanksgiving dinner because Jesus loves us, is with us, and forgives us all our faults.

Even if we can’t celebrate at the Lord’s Table together this year, I’d like to recommend to everyone that we read Matthew’s description of this holy night in Matthew chapter 26, and also look at the appointed gospel lesson in John 13:1-17, 31b-35.

We will be together again soon. In the meantime, may the Lord bless us, protect us from all evil, and bring us to eternal life!

[i] See the Augsburg Confession, Article XIV.
[ii] See the Small Catechism under “The Sacrament of the Altar” Who, then receives this sacrament worthily?

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Hosanna! (Reflections on Palm Sunday, 2020)

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I guess I’m at the point where I’m too stinkin’ old to adapt to change. When I was a kid there was no such thing in the Lutheran liturgical year as Sunday of the Passion. The story of Our Lord’s Passion was reserved for Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. If you really wanted to experience this powerful week in the history of salvation, you couldn’t just show up on Sunday. You had to journey through the whole magnificent eight days—the waving of the palms and shouts of “Hosanna!” on Sunday, the washing of the feet and the Last Supper on Thursday, and the blackness of the crucifixion as the world went dark on Friday. Then the community would experience the joy of coming to the garden at sunrise on Easter morning to celebrate God’s promise of eternal life through the resurrection of Jesus. It was meant to be a week-long pilgrimage.

You’ll understand, I hope, why I don’t look at the Sunday before Easter as anything other than Palm Sunday—that day when Jesus came to Jerusalem, humble and mounted on a donkey, and was greeted with a carpet of peasants’ ragged clothing, flying pennants taken from the palm trees, and the desperate cry of “Hosanna!”

This word “hosanna” is a word imploring “save” in the sense of “rescue me.” We find the acclamation of the crowd welcoming Jesus in Psalm 118:25-26. The psalmist assumes that the call for God’s saving action will certainly be answered. It’s rather like getting a cramp while swimming and calling on a trained life guard to help you out. You know it’s the guard’s job to pull you out of the water to safety, and that he or she will assuredly do so. Your cry of “save me” is only an acknowledgment of your own distress. A good life guard—just like our Heavenly Father—has already seen your predicament and is swimming towards you before you even began to call out.

Just like us, those peasants who cheered Jesus were in need of saving, and they felt confident God had sent the answer to their prayers in the form of the itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. They were right that God had sent salvation, but utterly confused as to the way by which that saving grace would be experienced.

We’re just like them. Today we implore God’s rescue from a deadly world-wide pandemic, but rescue won’t come from a vaccine. It will come, perhaps, from a new sense of gratitude, and, as we see in the love of Jesus, a real, renewed faith in the power of sacrifice. Our salvation will be in living the words of St. Paul from Romans 12:2

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God— what is good and acceptable and perfect.

God bless, my friends. Stay home and stay safe!