Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Blessed Are the Obscure (Reflections on All Saints, 2020)

 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

If ever a phrase contradicted our culture it would be the above phrase from Matthew’s Gospel. Meekness and humility just don’t float the boat of our celebrity-obsessed culture. Thank God for social media, right? It’s given us all the chance to show off our own accomplishments, brag about the places we’ve been, the meals we’ve eaten, and the pounds we’ve lost. I’ve heard it said that facebook has kept Americans perpetually in high school—we’re all still trying to convince ourselves we’re the cool kids who can make everyone else jealous.

Now along comes Jesus in our Gospel for All Saints (Matthew 5:1-12) and proclaims that the poor, the mourning, and the meek are the blessed ones. He tells us the favored are the ones who want to do right but keep seeing wrong. He claims that God loves the ones who give up, make peace, step aside, and don’t get any credit. He might as well have said, “Blessed are the obscure.” 

Gosh. If we could only see with the eyes of God. Scripture tells us that God made the world and called all that was created “good.” Every individual life has an epic importance to the One who brought it into being. Why would any of us want to be a superstar in the eyes of the world when we’re already superstars in the eyes of God? I like the way C.S. Lewis explained God’s appraisal: 

“…the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…”[i] 

I guess there’s something perverse in my nature that makes me look forward to those necrologies that are part of every entertainment award show on TV or every year-end news wrap-up. I confess to getting nostalgic over the loss of favorite actors, musicians, or other public figures. I try to be appreciative and inspired by the talents God has given others and by the contributions they have made. Nevertheless, I know that, in the eyes of God, the famous are no more celebrated than the dull, the average, the unambitious, and the forgotten. Sainthood is not a title conferred only on the most pious, spiritual, do-gooders among us. When Saint Paul used the term “saint,” he meant it to describe all of us who are made holy by the blood of Jesus—even if we don’t exactly look like angels and our resumes don’t land us on Wikipedia.[ii] 

Lutherans haven’t always been big on canonized saints. The Augsburg Confession explains it like this: 

“…our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith…However, it cannot be demonstrated from Scripture that a person should call upon the saints or seek help from them, ‘For there is only one single reconciler and mediator set up between God and humanity, Jesus Christ.’ (1 Timothy 2:5).”[iii] 

Now, as the autumn drops over us, we traditionally reach our thoughts back to the ones who aren’t with us any longer. On All Saints Day it’s only right that we strengthen our faith by the examples of saints who are dear to us—however meek or obscure they may be in the eyes of the world. Here are some we remember with love.

Bill and Cass Laigaie were faithful members of our congregation ever since they called on me to solemnize their wedding in 2001. Life doesn’t always give us second chances, but here were two older Americans who found love the second time around. I confess that it was hard to get to know Cass as she was, by nature, a very quiet and private person. Most of us now might think of her only as “that lady with Alzheimer’s” who sat next to her husband in the chancel while he sang with the Praise Team. I can tell you, however, that she was always meek, cheerful, and smiling before and after dementia robber her of her faculties. She radiated a natural kindness which so touched her husband’s heart. I have always been proud of how our congregation embraced her, inappropriate as she could be at times because of her condition. Having her around was a reminder of God’s grace. 

Bill, in his own right, was the most devoted spouse anyone could’ve asked for. He took “for better or worse” with the utmost seriousness. Although he’d often been advised to find a care facility for Cass as her memory began to slip, he refused to be separated from her, always insisting that he was called to be her chief caregiver. When she was finally confined to the Immaculate Mary Home, he visited her every day. He died within two months of her passing, and I imagine he just couldn’t live without her. 

Kathy “Bunny” Berry, a devout Roman Catholic, came to Faith Lutheran when we welcomed her son Jason and his partner, Doug. As sweet as a Tastycake and as tough as an overcooked steak, Bunny loved worshiping with us. Her life hadn’t exactly been a day at the beach—she’d lost a husband to ALS and a son to drugs—but her faith in God never abated. I loved our visits when she went on the homebound list. In spite of her cancer she could always make me laugh, and her courage was inspiring. 

Pastor Scott Nessel was a devoted single dad and a servant of the Gospel. We were students together in seminary, and I always found him to be one of the wittiest people I’ve known with a gift for an irreverent turn of phrase. I’m sorry I lost touch with him after seminary, but I’d heard through the grapevine about some of his domestic struggles (one of his children has special needs), and of his battles with recalcitrant congregations. Discipleship isn’t easy or fair, but blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Scott had served his most recent parish, Immanuel in Amherst, MA, only a short while before COVID-19 shut its doors. He died unexpectedly in his sleep at the age of 49. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t have us light a candle for Jim “Coffee Pot” Walsh. Although he was not a member of our parish, I’ve probably had more interaction with Jim in the last 22 years than I’ve had with some of our rostered members. Jim was the faithful coffee steward of the Auctus AA group. He’d sometimes come and put the coffee on at three o’clock in the afternoon for a 7:30pm meeting. Then he’d just hang around. I don’t know why Jim was the way he was—his sentences were full of non-sequiturs and often quite bizarre. I suspect he must’ve had some kind of brain trauma, but I never knew what caused it. As eccentrics go, he was high in the standings of odd characters who have frequented this church over the years. All the same, he was the most guileless individual, always seemingly happy, always willing to help, always offering me a cup of the particularly burnt and nasty coffee he’d brewed for his AA family. If his mind was somewhat scrambled, his heart was always on track. He will be missed. 

For the redeemed in Christ, there is so much beauty in ordinary lives. When we reflect on the lives of the saints—even these obscure saints—we are really reflecting on our own lives. God has given us wonderful companions on our walk to eternity. Some challenge us, some make our journey the more joyful. To see the beauty in these lives is to know that in Christ there is beauty, purpose, example, and mission in our own lives. To look to others is to see the love God has for us.

 Bless you, my saintly friend. Thanks for visiting.

[i] This is from a sermon called “The Weight of Glory.” I quote it from A Chorus of Witnesses (Eerdman’s Publishing Co.: Grand Rapids, 1994) I don’t know when Lewis delivered this homily.

[ii] See 1 Cor. 1:2, Philippians 1:1, or Colossians 1:2 for example.

[iii] Augsburg Confession Article XXI.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Free Slaves (Reflections on Reformation Sunday, 2020)

An early printed edition of "A Mighty Fortress" in German

“…and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32)

 I’m always amused by the response Jesus’ Judean followers give to the above quote. These guys must’ve looked at Jesus with their mouths open. “Whaddya mean ‘made free?!’ We’re the descendants of Abraham. We’ve never been slaves.” You don’t even have to know too much Bible history to know they’re kidding themselves here. Remember Moses and that Red Sea thing? The descendants of Abraham were slaves in Egypt, right? They were also slaves to Babylon, then to Persia, Greece and a whole bunch of little crappy kingdoms. By the time of Jesus they were a vassal of the Romans.  Freedom wasn’t their long suit.

 But, in a sense they were right. To them, “free” meant they were the rightful heirs of God’s promise to Abraham. No matter who was actually calling the political shots, the children of Abraham had full personhood in God’s eyes. They weren’t adopted in nor were they “property.” If their self-determination as a nation was taken away, they still had their heritage as legitimate heirs to the title of “Chosen People.”

 Unfortunately for their pride, Jesus had to remind them they were still slaves to sin—something they had a real hard time recognizing. Let’s face it: the truth hurts some times. If you’ve ever tried to live in denial, or defensiveness, or behind some excuse, or in just plain wishful thinking, you know how much it sucks. You want to keep up the pretense that everything is just groovy. Well, it isn’t. It’s the old saying, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” Perhaps the worst form of bondage is refusing to admit the truth to ourselves.

 We’re all salves in some way, I guess. These days I’d have to say that many of us are slaves to fear. We fear COVID-19. We fear economic catastrophe. We fear civil unrest. Most of all, we probably fear change and loss—especially the loss of things we’ve been comfortable with and counted on. Like the church.

 But the truth is, church attendance in America was declining before the pandemic. We’re becoming a more secular society. Young working people don’t have Sunday mornings free anymore. Youth sports, multiple jobs, and the gig economy have killed the Sabbath. I also fear that, as far as public proclamation goes, the more strident voices of fundamentalism outshout the voices of Christ’s mercy and inclusivity in the public media.

 I ask myself on this Reformation Sunday, “What would Luther do?” I wonder what our tradition and heritage as Lutherans give us to get us through this time of transition and worry? How would Martin speak to our fears?

 First, I think the brutally blunt reformer would want us to be honest with ourselves. As a church and as individuals we’ve made plenty of mistakes. Without confession there can be no absolution. We remember that we are slaves to sin, but we are also heirs to God’s promise of love and forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ. Simul Justus et peccator is the Latin phrase Luther was so fond of. It means simultaneously justified and sinner. The phrase calls us to remember that in these fearful times we’ve all been doubtful, we’ve probably been self-righteous, and our opinions have been less than charitable about people who hold views with which we differ. The good news is that whatever kind of jerks we’ve been, we’re still loved and forgiven by God’s grace. Like the Judeans Jesus addresses in our Gospel lesson, we’re both slaves and free people because we are the legitimate heirs—through no effort of our own—to God’s promise. We should remember that.

 Secondly, I think Luther would remind us ecclesia semper reformanda est. That is, the church is always reforming. Our comfortable little congregations may be going the way of the 8 track, but that doesn’t mean that something new isn’t rising in their place. “God’s word forever shall abide” Luther reminds us in that great anthem we Lutherans love to sing (quietly and through our COVID masks this time!). 

Thirdly, Luther might advise us to take every advantage we can of new media technology. The world didn’t come to learn of the 95 Theses just because they were posted on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. No. Before nailing them to the door, Luther had his theses printed on the new-fangled machine called the printing press and mailed out copies to a whole bunch of interested—and some really ticked-off—parties. In our information age, we have the advantage to bypass the Sabbath and put church online. If COVID-19 has taught us nothing else, it has forced us to use the new means available to this generation for spreading the Gospel.

 Finally, I hope Luther would remind us as Christians to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Church people, Luther taught, have a duty to civic engagement. Yes, he believed that church leaders should not run countries or cities and secular leaders should not dictate theology. That doesn’t mean, however, that the church should remain unconcerned about the affairs of the world. I think it’s time we were all a little edgier (kind of like Pope Francis was this week!) Our faith in Jesus can’t just be for Sunday morning. Love of neighbor needs to be put into practice.

 So take heart, church. As our Reformation hymn reminds us, “The kingdom’s ours forever.” That’s pretty good news.

God's peace be with you. For a shorter video version of this post, click here.

 God bless. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

What Are You Wearing to the Banquet? (Reflections on Pentecost 19, Year A)

Everybody loves a wedding. In the parable Jesus tells in the Gospel appointed for Pentecost 19, Year A (Matthew 22:1-14) a king throws a big wedding bash for his son. He invites all the nobles in his realm, but they—for whatever reason—refuse to come. So, the king does what any good absolute monarch would do in such a situation. He has them all massacred. Then, he sends his slaves out to invite everyone else to the wedding banquet. This is a completely indiscriminate invitation. Everyone is welcome—the good and the bad alike (see v. 10). Unfortunately, one guy shows up being a little cavalier about the dress code (he’s not wearing a wedding robe), and the king has him chucked out. 

I don’t know about you, but I have to confess I really love performing wedding ceremonies, and I’ve been asked to marry couples in some pretty swanky and elegant venues all around Philadelphia. I’ve been part of some gorgeous weddings. Granted, as a steward of God’s blessings, I have to admit that some of these affairs may have been a trifle excessive. In fact, most couples could make a pretty decent down payment on a house for what they blow on a fancy wedding. Yeah, I’ll admit there’s often some rather worldly and conspicuous consumption involved in American weddings. All the same, I love these affairs because a wedding is the one time in our culture when people really try to bring their best selves. Everyone dresses up for a wedding. Face it: most of the time we Americans are a nation of slobs. I’ve even seen people dress in shorts and a T-shirt for a funeral! But weddings are different. 

 And why not? I’ve been told that when one gets an invitation, one dresses to honor the host. When we come to a wedding we’re being invited to share in someone’s love and joy. We’ll probably get a pretty good meal out of it, too—to say nothing of an open bar and a chance to party and dance the night away while we celebrate the possibility of “happily ever after,” a new family being formed, and a new hope for the future. That’s certainly an occasion to bring out our best selves, don’t you think? 

 When I read this Gospel parable, I think Jesus is reminding us that we’ve all been invited to our King’s wedding banquet. All of us, the good, the bad, the indifferent. As the appointed psalm for Pentecost 19 proclaims, God has prepared a table for us in the presence of our enemies. Even in the presence of enemies like COVID-19, racial injustice, civil unrest, floods and fires. We are still invited to celebrate the miracle of God’s creation, the beauty of the earth, and all the beautiful people God has put in our lives. We are served a sumptuous feast of our faith, complete with the promise of the Gospel, the assurance of the sacraments, the comforting beauty of the music, and the support of Christian fellowship. Decency dictates that we show up, even in times such as these in which we live, wearing our best selves—whether this be at home, at work, at church, or even in the car line at the Burger King take-out window. As Christians, we’re called to be decked out in gratitude, faith, hope, and love. The wedding garment Jesus refers to in verse 11 is a representation of a new self and a reminder that every day we are drowned to sin by the promise of our baptism and made new through the grace of God in Christ. 

Our spiritual life will never be about what happens to us, only about how we embrace it. Pain comes to the good and the bad alike, but so does the invitation to God’s celebration. You have been asked to be a guest at the party. Show up wearing your best self. (Just make sure your outfit includes your facemask!). 

May God’s peace be with you.

For a video version of this post, click here.