Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Blessings Now (Reflections on Pentecost 9, Year A)

So have you heard this story before? I’ll bet you have. The feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14: 13-21) is the one miracle of Jesus told in all four of the Gospels, and pretty consistently, too. When we were all kids in Sunday School this was probably just another of those “magic Jesus” tales. You know: Jesus does something really cool and mysterious so people will know he’s the Son of God. As we get older—and we’ve heard this story more times than we’ve had eggs for breakfast!—we have to look for a new meaning in it. I guess some TV preachers might interpret this as “put your faith in Jesus and he’ll turn your meager holdings into an abundance.” I’m sure some of us would like to believe that, but experience and the rest of the Gospel tell us that this just isn’t what Jesus is all about.

What’s making this story difficult for me at the moment is Jesus’ compassion (and don’t forget he’s just learned about the beheading of John the Baptist, so he’s pretty bummed out) is leading him to cut short his boating trip, engage with a crowd, and start curing their sick. With the death count from COVID-19 reaching over 147,000 Americans this week (to say nothing of those who have perished around the world from this disease), I sure wish Jesus would get himself back here and start curing the sick now. We are all part of the great hungry crowd, hungry for security, healing, and hope and desperately wanting a sense of the normal and the familiar.

In the story the disciples come to Jesus with their concern for the crowd. What if all these people go hungry? Shouldn’t the folks be sent away to provide for themselves? But Jesus turns it all back on the disciples. You’re concerned about these folks..? Okay. Cool Then you guys give them something to eat. Ah! They say. But we don’t have enough. So what’s the Messiah to do in a situation like this? He makes all the people sit down on the grass. He takes what has already been provided and blesses it. That’s to say, he says grace. He gives thanks to the Father for what has already been given rather than whine and lament about what is lacking. He prays in the spirit of God’s abundance, not in the spirit of human scarcity.

Well son of a gun! It turns out there was enough for everyone after all. In fact, there was more than enough. The disciples are able to collect twelve baskets of leftovers. Hey! Did you ever wonder where they got the baskets? What if some clever folks actually had the foresight to bring their picnic baskets with them? What if the miracle here was not the multiplication of food but the creation of a caring and sharing community? Suppose some of the families sitting on the grass opened their baskets, and then looked over and noticed their neighbors had nothing. Maybe they invited them to share what they had brought because they realized that all blessings come from God, and in God’s Kingdom we all look out for each other.

In this time of pandemic it’s real easy for us to lament about what we don’t have. We may see church attendance sliding off because people don’t want to social distance, wear face coverings, or not have their familiar sanctuary in which to worship. We’re begging God for a healing, but we already possess the means of killing this virus just by keeping it from spreading. God has already provided. We still have each other, we still have the Gospel, and we still have our God-given imaginations to find ways to make this time of quarantine and uncertainty bearable. We still have Jesus’ command to feed and care for each other—even if caring means standing six feet away.

Perhaps it sounds hackneyed and trite, but our ability to count the blessings of God is one of the strongest weapons we have.

May God bless you and keep you safe!

Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Kingdom's Like What..? (Reflections on Pentecost 8, Year A)

I guess the folks who lived in Jesus’ day weren’t all that different from folks today. A lot of them would put on their “Make Israel Great Again” ball caps in hope that this Jesus guy would turn out to be the kind of Messiah who would restore their idea of what the Kingdom of God should be—a mighty Utopia made up of people just like them. No Romans or other gentiles. It would be feared for its military might by other nations, and have a booming stock market.

Jesus had to set them straight about this. That’s what the parables were all about.

In the selection from Matthew’s gospel assigned in the RCL for Pentecost 8, Year A (Matthew: 13: 31-33, 44-52) Jesus gives us five similes for what God’s Kingdom is really like. Each of these examples has a slightly different flavor, and I’ll bet that Jesus used them on different occasions to illustrate different lessons. Our evangelist Matthew, however, has lumped them all together in one discourse. If I were to parse each of them you’d probably fall asleep before you finished reading this post, so I’m just going to pick two and save the other three for some other time. Are you okay with that? Good. I will say first off that all five parables have something in common: Unlike the other parables we’ve been reading during this Pentecost season, these five don’t come with a spiffy explanation. It looks like Jesus is making us work to figure out their meaning. So here’s my take on the mustard seed and the fish net.

The mustard seed is—duh!—something small which turns into something bigger. But how much bigger? Jesus says it grows into the “greatest of shrubs.” (v. 32) [i] Greatest of shrubs? That’s like saying the tallest of midgets. Wouldn’t Jesus make a stronger point if he referenced an acorn growing into a mighty cedar of Lebanon? Perhaps, but size doesn’t matter here. Quantity is a human value. God doesn’t give a rip about it because God is bigger than anything we can imagine. You can’t impress God with magnitude. God is magnitude. To God, the tallest and most majestic tree in the forest is no more precious than the bush which produces a great condiment for your hotdog and provides shelter for some of God’s creatures.

Our congregation in Northeast Philly operates on pretty paltry resources—just faith the size of a mustard seed. We’re not a 3,000 seat mega-church with a TV station and world-wide ministry. But we are no less a manifestation of God’s Kingdom. In our “branches” is shelter for all kinds of “birds”—alcoholics seeking to recover, Haitian immigrants who can’t afford a worship space of their own, LGBTQ people, and the otherwise homeless birds who find a temporary nest in our facility through our partnership with Interfaith Hospitality Network. We may not be producing mustard, but with all of the tomatoes harvested each summer in the organic garden we grow for our food pantry we could make one boatload of ketchup! We know that God’s glory can be seen in what the world sees as insignificant.

Now, about that fishnet (v.47). God’s kingdom is full of lots of stuff—some good, some not so good. Dragging a fishnet along the bottom of the lake can get you lots of things. You can get fish to sell or fry up yourself. You can also collect gross stuff like slimy eels and gooey mollusks and old Styrofoam cups, beer cans, hubcaps, and used disposable diapers. There will be some crap in that net which will be just down right unpleasant and smelly. But the net holds all of it. There’s good and bad in God’s Kingdom. There’s virtue and sin, joy and suffering, fulfillment and emptiness—but it’s all still God’s net. Eventually, the useless, rotten stuff will get sorted out (like this COVID-19 pandemic!). For now, though, we live with it all, secure in the knowledge that God is wrapped around us, holding everything together.

We really miss the point if we think God only shows up in the glorious, the successful, or the “feel-good” moments.  God surrounds us in the smelly garbage moments, too. God is present in our small and humble efforts. God’s Kingdom doesn’t require awe-inspiring deeds on our behalf, just simple deeds done consistently in faith and trust. Luther reminded us that when we pray the Lord’s Prayer and pray “Thy Kingdom come,” we’re really asking for God’s Kingdom to come and reveal itself so we can see it and be strengthened by it, for it surely comes whether we pray for it or not. God’s Kingdom is eternal. That means we’re living in it now.

Peace and joy be with you this week. Thanks again for stopping by!

[i] If you want to get fancy about this the Greek calls it the greatest of lacanon (pronounced lachanon) which literally translates as “herb.” Jesus says it grows into a “tree,” but the word we’re translating as “tree” in Greek is dendron (dendron), which can mean a tree but can also mean a bush like a rose bush. Face it. Mustard just doesn’t grow that big.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Those Darn Weeds (Reflections on Pentecost 7, Year A)

Image result for weeds
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic I’m spending a lot more time in my garden these days. Gardening is not exactly my thing, but there’s not a lot else to do, so why not? Every day I patrol my flower beds for weeds. Every day I pull weeds. Every day there seem to be more friggin’ weeds! They never stop. In the parable for the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 7 (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), Jesus uses weeds as a metaphor for “children of the evil one” (v. 38).  It seems that the devil’s spawn are always popping up side-by-side with the children of the Kingdom. You just can’t get away from the weeds. Ever.

I read this tale Jesus tells as a reminder that we won’t be able to get away from the causes of sin while we’re hanging out on this side of eternity. Sin is with us like weeds. That’s why, if you’ve ever wondered, Lutherans baptize babies. You might think that an adorable three-month-old couldn’t possibly need to be washed of her/his sins; nevertheless, anyone born on this rock is going to need a good dose of God’s Weed Be Gone. That kiddo may look innocent, but just wait ‘til she/he hits age thirteen..! It’s like this: if you’re born on the beach, you’re going to get sandy. If you’re born on planet earth, you’re going to be sinful. There’s no getting around it.

The problem I have with this parable is it’s too easy to read it as an us versus them kind of thing. Yeah, we know we’re the children of the Kingdom. We go to church, we have “correct doctrine,” and we haven’t been jailed for any felonies lately. That makes us good folks, right? Those other people, however, are rotten, law-breaking, atheist dirtballs, and God’s going to see that they roast like Thanksgiving turkeys in eternal flames at the end of time. The question, of course, is how can we really tell them from us?

I mean, I know a whole bunch of people with whom I rather violently disagree. I think their politics or their ideas about Jesus are totally wrong-headed, and they get me just spitting mad whenever I even think about them. I hear on the news about atrocities committed by criminals or by acts of war, or even by police officers, and I want to call down the fires of damnation on the perpetrators of such acts. Unfortunately, I don’t get the luxury of condemning them to everlasting perdition. Truth be told, I don’t even know the whole story. When I think about it, some of the biggest jerks I know, once I got past initial disgust, turned out to be pretty okay people in many aspects of their lives. I’m pretty sure they probably thought exactly the same way about me.

So. What if “children of the Kingdom” or “children of the evil one” isn’t referring to individual people? In verse 41 Jesus says that at the end of the age the causes of sin will be collected and burned. What if these “children” are causes or spirits? Something to think about, maybe. Luther believed that everyone is made up of both “wheat” and “weeds.”[i] We can’t seem to separate the two natures. The weeds of sin grow up inextricably entwined with our desire for virtue.

The parable of the wheat and weeds urges us to forbearance and proclaims God’s patient mercy. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty darn glad God has been so patient with me. C.S. Lewis opined that everyone loves at least one person whose sins are utterly disturbing. That person is yourself. You know the weeds are growing inside you. You know that you’ve done or said things which you now deeply regret. But you also know that your heart is really in the right place, and you really want to do what is right and pleasing to God. Maybe if you can find love for a sinner like yourself, you can find it for other sinners, too.

I think there’s real good news here. It’s not just that bad folks get punished and good folks get rewarded. Forget that noise, because we don’t get to decide who is good or who is bad. The good news is that, at the close of the age, God will remove from us all causes of sin. All our weeds will be uprooted and we will be the good seed God intended us to be. Living in that hope and expectation can change our hearts, fill us with awe and gratitude, heal our relationships, an bring us peace in this world and the one to come.

God bless you, you perfectly imperfect one-day-to-be spotless garden of a saint! Please drop by again!

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

[i] Simul justus et peccator is the Latin phrase most associated with Martin Luther. It means “at the same time justified and sinner.”

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Prisoners of Hope (Reflections on Pentecost, 5, Year A)

Shoulder yoke | Photo Exhibits
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)

On hot and muggy July day 244 years ago, a colonial officer, Colonel John Nixon, stood in front of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia and, with his booming stentorian voice, read aloud the text of a long document which declared that the American colonists were fed up with the crap they were taking from the British Crown and, since no redress of grievances seemed to be forthcoming, they just weren’t going to take it anymore. When the good colonel had finished his announcement, the bell in the State House was enthusiastically rung, proclaiming to all within earshot—and all the rest of us down through these 244 years—Americans[i] would henceforth be a free and sovereign people.

But what did “freedom” mean? What does it mean for us? Those enthusiastic colonists had to fight a bloody revolution to get free, and, when they’d achieved victory and thrown off the yoke of monarchial tyranny, they had to put the country back together again. The question would be how “free” is free? We still debate this. How much control should a government have? When a yoke is thrown off, what do we put back on? Some will always say government needs to get off our backs. “Don’t tell me how to live my life,” they say. “Government is doing too much!” Others will answer, “Government isn’t doing enough! We have a problem here, so why don’t they DO something about it..?!”

Yup. We Americans are typically human. That means we’re a pretty fickle bunch of folks. We’re just like the folks Jesus is dishing it out to in the Gospel lesson for Pentecost 5, Year A (Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). I guess it’s hard to be a Savior when you’re dealing with folks who don’t seem to know what they want or what’s good for them. The people in Jesus’ day complained John the Baptist was too austere. Then they whined that Jesus was too liberal!

As wise or smart as we think we are, we sure seem to have a real hard time figuring out who we are or who we should be. Just look at our situation today. Every night on the TV news you see people with their shorts bunched up because they don’t want government in their face. They don’t want to be told they must wear a face covering in public. They don’t want government to shut down their business, or keep them from their gym, or tell them they can’t get a drink in a bar. On the other hand, they don’t want to catch or spread a potentially deadly viral infection either. Freedom can be a really puzzling paradox, can’t it?

You know who loved a good paradox? Martin Luther[ii]. In The Freedom of a Christian (1520), Luther wrote:

“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.”

That is, you are in charge of your own soul. No one can tell you how to worship God or how to believe—not priest, pastor, pope, or prince. You’re not even a slave to the Law, because obedience to the Law did not earn you Christ’s love. Christ gave you that love of his own free will. When you realized this, you were set free from sin, shame, and doubt. Of course, in the very next sentence Luther wrote:

“A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

So what’s up with this? Yeah, your soul is free, but free for what? You are free to choose of your own true and honest will to accept the bondage of the Law which pushes you to love God and love everyone else. If you love them, you will be their servant.

Sometimes this bondage and servitude may seem too heavy to bear. Nevertheless, Jesus promises us in the Gospel that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and, should we choose to take his yoke upon us, he will give us rest. When we are finally released form the bondage of COVID-19, there will be more burdens to bear. Our congregation will be different. We’ll have to do the work of recreating a community that has been through an ordeal. We’ll have to hire a new Music Director and rebuild our worship program. When I look at what will need to be done, it seems exhausting.

The road ahead looks like the challenges faced by our colonial forebears who had set aside one yoke but needed to figure out what the next yoke should be. It’s also like the people of Judah in our Hebrew scripture lesson from Zechariah (Zechariah 9:9-12). They have been freed from bondage in Babylon, but now they have to figure out how to rebuild a nation in ruins. It looks like a tough job, and I have to wonder if they started to ask themselves if freedom was worth it.

But God always offers a word of hope. Zechariah tells them they’re on the road to a new kingdom. In this kingdom, the King won’t come busting in on a chariot or a war horse. He’ll ride humbly on a baby donkey, gently proclaiming peace. “Come,” he says, “all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” It’s a word of hope, and it reminds me that, however tough the road ahead looks, a day will come when I’ll look back and say, “You know, that wasn’t really so hard after all.”

I can only ask God to make me that dutiful servant and prisoner. Like the folks in Zechariah’s day, we are politically set free, but we must always be prisoners of hope. Some say we can’t live on hope, but I maintain we can’t live without it.

Hope on, fellow servant, and enjoy the freedom of your bondage to Christ!

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

[i] That is, Americans who were both white and debt-free. If you didn’t fall into those categories, you were still pretty much screwed.
[ii] Of course you knew that!