Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Saint Andrew Kept Awake (Reflections on Advent 1, Year B)


“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37)

Awake? We’ve been awake for some time now. Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve been watching for something to happen. We’ve certainly seen signs of change: the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protest movement, wildfires in the west and hurricanes in the Gulf coast, a close and tense presidential election and a president who refuses to believe he has lost it. There have been so many weird signs in 2020 that I think we’re ready for Jesus to come back and rescue us all! 

So the Gospel for Advent 1, Year B (Mark 13: 24-37) tells us to keep our eyes open for something. What that something is, however, we just don’t know. It’s what former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to call the “known unknown.” So what are we supposed to do? 

Maybe we should take the example of someone who has been this way before. I’ve noticed that the Sundays in Advent 2020 all fall on (or just before) the commemorative festivals of certain saints. The day after Advent 1, November 30, is the Feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle. Now here was a guy who kept awake. We have to remember that life back in Andrew’s day was every bit as crazy as life in our own time. Israel was under Roman occupation—which nobody liked. There were all kinds of riots, protests, and attempts at revolution. It wasn’t hard to get yourself crucified, and you couldn’t even trust your religious authorities. Anyone with a good speaking voice was claiming to be a prophet, and you didn’t know who to believe. Andrew, the Gospels tell us, was just a blue collar fisherman, but he must’ve been looking for some kind of truth to get him through life in those turbulent times. John’s Gospel says he attached himself to John the Baptist, a preacher who warned everyone to prepare themselves because God was getting ready to send a Messiah. 

One day, John tells Andrew, “You see that guy Jesus walking past over there? He’s the one we’re waiting and watching for!” So what does Andrew do? He quits John, meets Jesus, and immediately spends the day with him.[i] He then goes to find his brother Simon and tells him, “We have found the Messiah!” 

Andrew is not a particularly spectacular disciple. There’s really not that much said about him in the Gospels and, unlike some of the other apostles, early church history doesn’t attribute any wild and amazing miracle stories to him. All we know is that he was faithful to Jesus and, after the resurrection, went on to spread the Word in foreign lands like the other eleven. And, like ten of the others, he was martyred for his faith somewhere in Greece. Perhaps his most significant contribution was sharing his exciting discovery about Jesus with his brother. Peter gets lots of attention in the Gospels and in Acts as a true champion of the faith in spite of his rather obvious flaws. He wouldn’t have met Jesus, however, if his brother hadn’t told him. Andrew may not have sunk all the winning shots, but he should certainly get credit for the assists. 

I think sometimes that crazy chaotic times are time when we are nearer to God. We start to fill with expectation. If we fear something is ending, we have to believe that something new is starting. I don’t think I’m quite ready to start looking for signs of the End Times, but I’m always looking for signs of God’s time. I hope I’m always alert to the opportunity to do what God has planned. This may not be a spectacular work of mission, but it just might be—as in Andrew’s case—an opportunity equip someone else for some wonderful work for the Kingdom. 

We are told as Advent begins to keep awake. How? One way is to keep ourselves involved with the scriptures. Another way is to keep our prayers sailing strong and regularly. To keep listening to others, to be present with them, to be open to the Holy Spirit giving us the words which just might change a life. Keep believing that the time of turmoil might be a time of opportunity. So keep awake. 

May God’s peace be with you this Advent season!

[i] See the story in John 1:35-42

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Reflection on Good Friday, 2020

Good Friday
When I first began my pastorate at Faith Lutheran, the congregation had no tradition for observing Good Friday. The worship space was left open for prayer for anyone who wished to take advantage of it (which no one did), but there was no formal liturgy. To me, this was a serious omission for the worship life of the congregation.

True, there are those who have said to me that they find the observance of our Lord’s suffering to be “too depressing.” To this I say, “That’s the point.” Good Friday is a day to contemplate our lostness and the suffering we’ve inflicted on others and on ourselves. This year, when covid-19 forbids us from attending a liturgy, we have little choice but to reflect on human sorrow as we hear the numbers of those stricken with this illness and those who have perished from it continue to rise.

I don’t see this pandemic as either a scourge from God or a harbinger of apocalyptic cataclysm. But, like all tragedies, it has its roots in human sin, in our “missing the mark.” The scientists are telling us that this coronavirus is another zoological virus, the inevitable consequence of humanity’s poor stewardship of the earth God entrusted us to maintain. If we indulge our appetites and encroach on areas we don’t naturally require, nature will visit repercussions on us. God does not protect us from the consequences of our own poor judgment. But God does call us constantly to repentance, and God is always provides us with healing. Our current situation is yet another call to heed the words of the prophet Joel: “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” (Joel 2:13)

Our Good Friday story (Matthew 26-27) is also a call to repentance, for in this saga we see just about every sin our self-involved natures commit. We see in the elders and the scribes who condemn Jesus greedily keeping score of wrongs, delighting in iniquity, and longing for a reason to justify their jealous hate. How often have we looked for reasons to stoke the fires of arrogant contempt for those we dislike?

We see also Pontius Pilate and his indifference to injustice. He cares only about his own position. He can let the innocent suffer and simply wash his hands of the problem. How often have we seen the pain of others and said, “It’s not my problem?”

See, too, the riotous crowd with a choice between two men—both accused of the same crime of sedition. One would rule by love, mercy, and high ideals. The other would rule by force and violence. How often have we chosen the way of this world over the things of God?

In the crucifixion itself we see nothing but our capacity for cruelty. As if the desire to kill were not enough, we hear the mocking of the elders, the guards, and even the other condemned prisoners. It is bullying at its worst—condemning the weak for their own weakness, kicking the beaten when they are already down. How often have we blamed the victims for their own misfortune and neglected God’s words of pity and comfort?

Here also are the soldiers at the foot of the cross, shooting craps for the garments of the condemned, profiting from the misery of others. Haven’t we heard of child laborers working for a pittance in third world nations to make us less expensive garments?

Finally, we see the body of Jesus hurriedly placed in a tomb in order to satisfy the religious code which prevents work to be done after sundown on the Sabbath. Those few faithful are given no time to mourn him, their feelings must be locked away as the stone is rolled over the tomb’s entrance. How often have antiquated religious notions locked out the feelings of others, condemning the divorced, the LGBTQ community, or those who have had abortions?

We need to look at this gospel on Good Friday. We need to feel the pain of it. We need to see ourselves in this dark mirror and pray for the grace to be penitent. We need to pray for God’s mercy on ourselves and on the whole world. Perhaps this time of enforced isolation will be good for our souls, and our Lord, who has given us and the earth we live on the tremendous power of healing, will make us better citizens, and more worthy of our membership in the Kingdom of Heaven.

For a short video version of this message, click Good Friday

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Oil Shortage or Just Mean Chicks? (Reflections on Pentecost 23, Year A)


Did you ever see the movie Bridesmaids? It’s a comedy about two girls who compete with each other over who can make the glitzier, more elegant, and more fabulous contribution to their girlfriend’s wedding experience The competition gets pretty fierce (and funny, too!) at times, and there’s a not-too-subtle streak of catty meanness running through the story line.

If you were to take a literal reading of the parable  Jesus tells in the appointed Gospel for Pentecost 23, Year A (Matthew 25:1-13), some of these bridesmaids[i] seem pretty mean-spirited. We can certainly applaud the prudence of the five young ladies who were clever enough to bring some extra oil for their lamps just in case the bridegroom’s arrival was delayed. If you think about it, this makes perfect sense. In all the weddings I’ve conducted in over twenty years, not one of them has ever started on time. We can also look down our noses at the five dumb chicks who didn’t have the foresight to think the groom might be late. These last have to make a late-night dash to the local Walmart, and they end up getting locked out of the party because the other girls won’t share with them. Can’t you just hear one of the smart girls saying, “Sorry, honey. It’s not my fault you forgot your oil. This is for my lamp. Better go buy some…and don’t be late.” Then the five smarty-pants girls giggle gleefully when the door gets locked and the others are shut out—rather like on The Bachelor when the girls still in competition share a champagne toast when their rivals are sent home in tears. There’s something cruel about this parable which I find unsettling.

In trying to break this story down and take some of the nastiness out of it, I’m aware of two things (besides the fact that young girls can be selfish where others are concerned!). The first thing is that time is limited. The second thing is resources aren’t evenly distributed. Nobody in this story knows exactly when the bridegroom is going to show. He could be hanging out with his buds having one more beer before he ties the knot. Nevertheless, when the party finally starts, the banquet hall doors get shut and those outside have to stay outside. Nothing in the story says the five prudent young ladies were 100% certain they were going to need the extra oil they brought. It’s possible they could’ve shared some with the other girls if they’d wanted to. Still, when the groom finally gets his lazy butt to the wedding, the opportunity to be generous is over. Perhaps we’ve struggled ourselves over the use of our resources, asking, “If I give, will I have enough for my own needs?” Perhaps, too, the door is already swinging closed on the ones who need our help. If we delay, it will be too late.

Of course, we could also look at the nature of the oil and what it might represent. In this story, there’s only so much oil to go around. Some have suggested that the oil represents righteousness, and personal righteousness can’t be shared. That is, you can’t give someone else your relationship with God. You can only be responsible for your own. You can only carry enough faith for yourself.

Another thing to consider is that the bridesmaids don’t choose to lock the door. The bridegroom is the only one who can decide who’s in and who’s out.

This is a tough parable in some ways, but Jesus might be being tough on us for our own good. None of us knows when the bridegroom will come. Like the girls in the story, we all fall asleep while waiting. None of us knows when to expect a life-altering event, so we’d better have our oil—our faith, our knowledge of the Word of God, our humility and acceptance, our self-knowledge and honest contrition, our willingness to forgive others, and our hope for eternity—with us at all times. We can’t share these things with our fellow “bridesmaids,” but we can encourage them to acquire some for themselves. Indeed, we are enjoined by the Gospel to do just that. And we can’t waste opportunities to be generous and compassionate to one another and the world in which we live, nor can we afford to be sloppy with our resources. We don’t know when the banquet hall doors will shut.

May God bless you today and always. I’m glad you stopped by. Please come again!

[i] If you want to get technical (and why wouldn’t you?), the Bible literally refers to these girls as “virgins,” or parqenois (parthenois). The fact that they’re going to a wedding and are performing the function of greeting the groom suggests that they’re bridesmaids. “Maid” or “maiden” always suggests an unmarried young woman, just as “virgin” does.