Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Little Ones (Reflections on Pentecost 4, Year A)

Showdown between Prophets – Prophets and Monarchs

“…and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (Matthew 10:42)

Whenever I’d see my late sister Maryanne’s name come up on my caller ID I’d answer the phone by saying, “Shwmae, Fach!” She’d reply, “Shwmae, Bach!”[i] This salutation roughly translates from the Welsh as “Hello, Little One!”

“Little One?” It’s actually a term of endearment. I call my wife “Little One.” Granted, Marilyn only stands 5’ 1” tall, so, technically, she is pretty little by the standard of our society, but that’s not why I call her that. I call her that out of endearment. Don’t we refer to our kids as “the little ones?” It almost brings a smile to our lips when we think of them like that. Granted, your “Little One” might be 6’4” by now, but he’s always a little one in your heart. The expression implies a sense of delight, but it also makes us feel protective of the one we’re referring to. We cherish our little ones, and so we are always on the lookout for their welfare.

In our Gospel lesson for Pentecost 4 Year A (Matthew 10:40-42), Jesus is referring to us as “the little ones.” That should give you an idea about how he views us. He’s not saying we’re small and weak (although we are!), rather, he’s saying that he cherishes us and he desires we should be kept safe and be loved—just as we desire the same for our “little ones.” He blesses anyone who shows kindness to his little ones, just as we would do to those who act kindly towards the ones we cherish.

So, you may be asking yourself, what’s this got to do with the Hebrew scripture lesson (Jeremiah 28:5-9) which the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary paired with this Gospel? To be honest, I sometimes wonder what these guys were smoking when they yoked these readings together, but—aside from the reference to prophets in verse 41 of the Gospel text—I think I can see a connection.

First, let me set the scene of the reading from Jeremiah. This takes place after Judah has been pretty badly whooped by the Babylonians.[ii] The Babylonians have thrashed them militarily, looted Solomon’s temple, and carried off a number of hostages. Two prophets are in the temple in front of a packed house of priests and others having a debate about what the next course of action should be following this crisis. Do they submit to the Babylonians, or do they resist as they have been doing? Jeremiah, having a flair for the dramatic, shows up wearing a wooden slave’s yoke on his shoulders. He’s trying to demonstrate that Judah is already a vassal to Babylon, and that the best possible course to take is to choke down their pride, suck it up, and surrender before more people get killed and everything turns to crap.

Not to be outdone in the showmanship department, Jeremiah’s adversary, Hananiah, takes the yoke from ol’ Jerry’s shoulders and smashes it, graphically demonstrating his belief that God loves Judah better than God loves Babylon, and that everything is going to be groovy. The crisis is a hoax. God will just fix everything, and there’s no need to change the course the country is already on. Jeremiah responds saying he certainly wishes Hananiah is right, but if he isn’t, Judah is going to be in a world of hurt, more people will die, and God will not be happy. The priests and the rulers—believing the prophecy they want to believe—side with Hananiah. The result is more bloodshed and the total destruction of all of Jerusalem. God strikes Hananiah dead, which, considering how bad things got, was probably doing him a favor.[iii]

So what’s the take-away? We have a responsibility to the little ones. To the young, the aged, the sick, the stranger, the helpless, the oppressed. It might be inconvenient. It might require we face some unpleasant truths, but it is what God asks of us. Right now, we modify our worship, we sacrifice our ritual, we wear masks, we social distance. We don’t like it, but we do it to cherish and protect the little ones. I don’t believe God sends us crises—human beings are good at creating them all by ourselves. Nevertheless, God always uses situations like the present to teach us how to love one another the way God loves us.

Try this: Start by identifying yourself as God’s “Little One.”  Take some time to think God is smiling on you with loving delight and desires you to be loved and protected and cherished and aided by the folks around you. Take some time just to let God love you as you love your own “little ones.” If you can see yourself in this light, perhaps you can say to others, “You are God’s Little One!” Perhaps you’ll view your family members, your friends, strangers, and even the folks who irritate you in a new and gentler way. Perhaps this will guide your heart to a new openness which will allow the love of Christ to come flooding in. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful reward?

God bless you, Little One. Thanks for reading!

[i] Both of these greetings mean the same thing. The mutation of an F to a B is because of grammatical gender in the Welsh language.
[ii] This is around 598-597 BCE for you history buffs.
[iii] I could probably make a comparison with this story to our Administration’s negligent approach to the COVID-19 crisis, global climate change, poverty, the Black Lives Matter movement, etc., but I’ll let you do the math. I wouldn’t want to offend anybody, would I?

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Time to 'Fess Up (Reflections on Pentecost 3, Year A)

Most Americans support protesters over Trump, shifting opinion ...
“So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matthew 10:26)

So have no fear? That’s a tall order, Jesus. ‘Cause I’m scared, and it’s time I ‘fessed up to it. I’m scared of black folks.

No, I’m not afraid of people who are just as human as I am. I’m afraid of my own stupidity. I’m afraid, when I meet a person of color, that I can’t be myself because I know that terrible things have been done to people who look like the one I’ve just met by people who look like me. I am ashamed by the fact that I have enjoyed tremendous privilege which has been denied others just because of the color of their skin. I’m embarrassed my own ignorance—the truth that I can’t possibly understand this society the way an African American or African Caribbean does because my eyes don’t see what they see. I’m nervous about walking through the sacred space of their shared pain in the dirty feet of my preconceptions and hypocrisy.

So I avoid the subject. I don’t talk about race. It’s rather like avoiding the recently bereaved because you don’t know what to say to them, and their sorrow just makes you too uncomfortable.

But then George Floyd is murdered, and we watch his senseless execution on national television. We see it repeated night after night and we can’t avoid the reality that there’s one hell of a problem here in America. Just as Jesus told us in the Gospel appointed for Pentecost 3, Year A (Matthew 10:24-39), that which was whispered is now being shouted. The truth will always come out.

We can’t hide the brokenness of our society any longer, so we might as well confess it. As Christians we have a sacred obligation to love our neighbor and seek healing for all. We are to cast out the demons that make our society so sick. The trouble is, we probably don’t know how to perform such and exorcism.

For a small, mostly white congregation in mostly white Northeast Philly, there may not be much we can do as individuals. Nevertheless, what we can do, we should do. We need to gain knowledge even when it puts us out of our comfort zone. We need to seek healing through our democracy, asking our elected leaders to support fair housing, education, and healthcare reforms as well as reforms in criminal justice and policing. And we need to be able to talk about this as advocates to people whose minds may be closed. No minds can be changed if they are never challenged.

We need to refuse to allow the whispered denigration to pass without correction. We must speak the word of dignity aloud. As a child, I often heard the “N Word” spoken by the parents I loved. As much as I cherish their memory for the good things they taught me, I must now denounce their racism. I will no longer allow that hateful word, that which came so freely to their lips, to be spoken in my presence. I regret I did not have the courage to take such a stand when my folks were living. Jesus warns that those who love father or mother—or just keeping peace in the household—more than they love Jesus and righteousness are not worthy. It’s a stinging rebuke.

Perhaps the most valuable thing we can do in our local context is learn to listen to our African American brothers and sisters and educate ourselves in the world as they see it. I think we at Faith Lutheran have an opportunity to do this because of our relationship with the Beersheba Seventh Day Adventists who share our worship space. We have been together for over three years now, and their generosity contributes over $10,000 annually to our budget. However, we have never gotten to know them. When the quarantine is over, it might be time to break bread with our friends and listen to their experiences. It’s time to know them as people and fellow Christians, not merely as “those people” who use “our” building.

Let’s face it: as Lutherans, because of our German and Scandinavian heritage, we remain the whitest denomination in the United States.[i] I recall a member of my home congregation in California looking at me in incredulity when, during a Christmas break form the Philadelphia seminary, I remarked that Emanuel Lutheran, my field education site, was 90% African American. He was shocked that there actually were African American Lutherans!

Our estrangement from people of backgrounds different from our own needs to end. We need to be educated and learn to love and understand those whom we have misunderstood for too long. To that end, I will recommend to the Worship Committee that we give priority to hiring a person of color when we hire our new Music Director. It’s a small thing, but it’s a start.

God be with you all.

[i] I’ve heard, however, that more Lutherans will worship Jesus Christ this Sunday in Namibia or Tanzania than will worship in Finland or other European countries where Lutheranism was once the state religion.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Priests in the Wilderness (Reflections on Pentecost 2, Year A)

Jesus Sends the Twelve, on a trial run - ROLAND'S GOSPEL COMMENTARY
So, okay, Church. Are you ready? It looks like the covid-19 pandemic infection rate is slowing down here in southeastern Pennsylvania. (Well, that is to say it looks like it’s slowing down. We don’t really know what the effect of mass protests in the streets and knuckleheaded behavior at the Jersey shore will do to the infection rate, but we’re still trying to be optimistic!). This means that the City of Philadelphia has moved into the first stage or re-opening, the “yellow phase.” Churches are now allowed to hold in-person worship with some very strict restrictions. In the liturgical calendar, however, we can say we’re now in the “green phase.” In Ordinary Time after Pentecost we bust out the green paraments and vestments and concentrate on growth and renewal. A lot of the Gospel lessons we get in the Revised Common Lectionary focus on the teaching of Jesus.

Now, I’d be willing to bet that after three months of quarantine a lot of folks have already learned some new lessons. Some of you have learned how to work from home while handling your home-schooled, bored, and disappointed kids. You may have taken a master class in online shopping, complete with an economics course in budgeting both your money and your time so that the monotony didn’t drive you to screaming, homicidal madness. Maybe you learned how to set aside more time for prayer. I’m sure we all learned a little more about the people we live with, and, I trust we’ve all learned about patience. Indeed, in these last few weeks, we’ve learned a lot more about racial injustice in America than white folks are comfortable knowing.

Whatever the last few months have taught us, our Lectionary Gospel for Pentecost 2 (Matthew 9:36-10:8) starts off this green phase with a reminder that our learning is to have a purpose. Here we see Jesus proclaiming that laborers are needed to go out into the harvest and get some work done because people are “harassed and helpless.” (v. 9:37) The Gospel refers to the twelve followers of Jesus as “apostles.” The word in Greek (apostolon for you Greek fans) means messengers or the “sent-out ones.” They’re Jesus’ representatives or ambassadors to the world, and their mission is to proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal everybody’s sickness. “Sickness,” of course, doesn’t mean only physical illness. It can mean a whole lot of ways we’re disconnected from God.

So are you up for doing that? Are you ready to participate in the Kingdom and be a healer for the planet?

Maybe you’re not sure. Don’t feel bad. I don’t think anyone ever undertakes a major project feeling fully prepared. That’s where faith comes in, doesn’t it? I’m sure the first ambassadors didn’t feel all that prepared either.[i] Just look at these guys: There are four blue-collar commercial fisherman, a cosmopolitan guy with a fancy Greek name, a sort of “antifa” dude who wants to tear down the system of oppression, a guy who used to work for the system of oppression, and a guy who is really good with money but can’t be trusted. They’re a mixed bag, but Jesus choose them all for his mission and God used them all—even the betrayer. After all, sometimes it’s the people who hurt us who teach us the most important lessons.

The Lectionary marries this story of the mission of the twelve with a story from Exodus (Ex. 19:2-8c). Here the Hebrews have been brought safely out of bondage in Egypt and through the Red Sea. They’re sort of like us. They’ve been rescued form their own form of “quarantine,” and allowed to worship God again. God calls them a “priestly” people (v.6). Priests, of course, are the folks whose job it is to connect others people with God. Like the twelve apostles, these folks are going to have a mission. Unfortunately, they’re not prepared to embark on this mission just yet, so God has them wander around the Sinai Peninsula for another forty years until they get their act together. God is patient like that.

Martin Luther believed that when we were baptized we were, in a sense, ordained as priests. We too have a mission to connect people with God. We might be wandering around in the wilderness at the moment, but Jesus is expecting us to be proclaimers, healers, and reconcilers.

If a congregation is to thrive, it can’t just be about providing comfort and comradery for its members. We are called to take up our priestly and apostolic identity. Here in Northeast Philly—as in every neighborhood—there are unique opportunities to establish solidarity with our neighbors. We might end up spending a little more time in the wilderness, but that’s just so God can get us prepared to go to work in the harvest.

[i] If you read down to 10:9ff, you’ll see that Jesus wasn’t too concerned about their physical preparations for this work. That must’ve scared those guys a lot. It’s hard to be a control freak when you work for Jesus!

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Holy Trinity, 2020

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Greetings in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Since it’s Holy Trinity Sunday I thought I’d begin with a Trinitarian salutation. To be honest, however, I don’t really feel much like discussing the doctrine of the Trinity today, however vital it is to our understanding of the Christian faith. A great Lutheran theologian, John Tietjen, once said that theology is at the service of ministry. One way of understanding this is to say what we understand about God serves to teach us how to live righteously with one another.

I don’t have to tell you we’ve seen some very unpleasant things this past week in America. For me, it’s a case of deja vu. I lived and worked in Los Angeles during the riots of ’92—yet another case of racial injustice which convulsed a city and a nation with the force of a Howitzer shell. I can still smell the stench from the burning buildings. I vividly recall the sight of smoke, smashed store windows, and—something I’d never thought I’d see in the US—National Guard troops with M16s patrolling the streets near the school wear I taught. The tragedy is that after almost three decades nothing seems to have changed.

I think, too, about Martin Luther and the Peasants’ War of 1524. Luther sympathized with the circumstances of the peasantry and argued for their rights against their oppressors. Nevertheless, he decried their use of violence in their attempts to gain their freedoms. He encouraged the brutality with which the German princes suppressed the revolt—a military action which resulted in the massacre of nearly 100,000 human beings. This episode is an ugly stain on the history of our denomination and its founder. Mass violence is not an option for a Christian.

But neither is despair.

It is certainly natural that we should all feel somewhat violated by the recent events in Philadelphia and across the nation. Seeing massive destruction on the streets of a city we love is like seeing our child, parent, or sibling viciously attacked and maimed by a mugger. It wounds us. It’s possible we may question God at times like these when the suffocation of a pandemic is compounded with injustice, thuggery, and mayhem. In the assigned Gospel lesson for Holy Trinity (Matt. 28: 16-20) we see that even Jesus’ disciples had their doubts in the very midst of worshiping him (v.17). Why should any of us be any different?

All the same, the promise of Jesus, “I am with you always,” stands sure. Evil can make us fear, but it cannot make us hate. It can begin a cycle of violence, but it cannot sustain that cycle. It can steal or destroy our precious possessions and damage our memories, but it cannot rob us of hope. It can shut us up in our homes for a time, but it cannot invalidate our baptism or snatch away our identity as the redeemed children of the Creator God. There are things evil just doesn’t have the power to do unless we are willing to give it that power.

Sometimes it’s hard to see God at work. Sometimes we see no progress, but then we forget that it took almost 300 years for an oppressed, vilified Christianity to become a recognized and accepted religion. God’s time is not our time, and God’s vantage point is not ours either. We may be stuck on the ground unable to see past the present chaos, but from God’s viewpoint, the boundaries of our tribulations have already been set. We are here to strengthen our souls by choosing faith over fear, hope over despair, and love over anger. 

May God’s peace be with you all.

PS-For a video version of this post, click here.