Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Zeal for the House (Reflections on Lent 3, Year B)

Jan Sanders van Hemessen "Christ Driving the Money Changers" (16th Cent.)

 

“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” (John 2:19)

 I have to give a shout-out to my esteemed colleague, Pastor Daniel Eisenberg of St. John’s Lutheran in Philadelphia who gave me this really whacky illustration for the Gospel lesson for Lent 3, Year B (John 2: 13-22):

 Try to imagine we’re all in church on a post-COVID Easter Sunday morning. We’re all just as happy as a poodle with a pork chop. No more masks or social distancing. We have a full church. Here we are: singing our favorite Easter hymns, smelling the flowers, dressed in our finest spring fashions, and delightfully full from the annual Easter pancake breakfast. Just as we get to the second verse of “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” Jesus suddenly bursts in and starts yelling at us. “Just what the freak do you people think you’re doing?! Is this really what’s important to you? Seriously..??!!”

 Before we can stop him, he begins to kick over the pots of Easter lilies. He throws the candelabras and the communion chalice off the altar and starts tossing the paraments around the room. He knocks over our electric piano and chases the musician and the Praise Team out the side door with a whip he’s made out of the cincture of his robe.

 How would you react?

 If anyone but Jesus did that, we’d certainly have the police on their butt in no time flat. And even if Jesus himself did this…well…we might consider converting to Unitarianism.

 If you can imagine this illustration, you can imagine how outrageous Jesus’ behavior would be to the people who witnessed it firsthand. You’d have to ask what it was that got this guy so p.o.’d. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus claims that the authorities have turned his Father’s house into a den of thieves.[i] That is, he’s concerned that the buying and selling involved in the purchase of sacrificial animals was yet one more exploitation of the poor—a greedy rip-off by the guys in the upper percentile which jacked-up the prices and manipulated the rate of exchange.

 But: John’s Gospel shows Jesus having a different concern. He’s not so much bothered by the oppressive thievery as he is by the impiety of it all. He knows that to prepare for the Passover, the folks had to make a ritual sacrifice of an animal without spot or blemish.[ii] The temple priests were all too happy to sell Passover pilgrims a “perfect” critter for any budget—a cow for the rich, a sheep for the middle class, or some birds for the poor working stiffs. But Jesus wasn’t impressed with any of it.

 The love of God made perfect in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is not transactional, and any emphasis on the form blinds us to the purpose. If you’re focused on buying the perfect lamb, you’re forgetting that the Lord your God has already done a mighty act for you. You might be tempted to forget that God doesn’t need any favors from you in order to love you and find you worthy. You might be more focused on yourself than on the abundant grace of the living God.

 How does your heart feel when you remember that someone loved you enough to die for you? That’s the point. Not he pancake breakfast or the lilies or the church music. When Jesus gets all funky in the temple, his disciples remember the words of an old song, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”[iii] But just what does that mean? What is God’s house? Is it just a building where we gather, or is it the place where we encounter Christ? And does that have to be anyplace specific?

 At our last Church Council meeting, some expressed concern about the lack of in-person worship because of the pandemic. It was even suggested that some parishioners might stop making their offerings if they didn’t “get something” in return. I certainly understand that this fear is not without foundation, but I must remind everyone that the church is not a marketplace. We contribute nothing to our salvation. The disciplines of Lent call us to return to the grace of God, not just to a building.

 The temple in which Jesus made such a fuss would be torn down a few years after his crucifixion and never rebuilt. It was just a building. The temple of Christ’s body would be raised form the dead and would become our hope, our faith, our truth, and our joy forevermore. This temple does not require walls or perfect liturgies. We enter into it every day with believing and trusting hearts. The sacrifices we make are not made for Christ, but for others because of Christ.

 This time of pandemic has been a test, but one which we will pass.  Let’s keep our eyes trained on what God has already done as we worship in spirit and truth.

 Stay safe  everyone.

[i] See Mt. 21:13, Mk 11:17, and Lk 19:46

[ii] See Lev 23:12, Num 6:14, etc.

[iii] Psalm 69:9


Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Living Up to the Covenant (Reflections on Lent 2, Year B)

 

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34b)

Have you ever changed your name? In America it takes a lot of paperwork to do that. You have to get a new Driver’s License and Social Security Card. I have to say that I really like my name because of its ethnic and etymological significance; nevertheless, I find that I’ve been the recipient of new monikers given to me by others. My folks baptized me as “Owen,” but school buddies knew me as “Griff.” Since 1998 I’ve been “Pastor” to most people I encounter. Each name, I’ll confess, has a slightly different identity attached to it.

 In the First Lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary for Lent 2, Year B (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16), Abram and Sarai are given new names by God. This re-naming is a sign that they’re now new people, people who are living in a covenantal relationship with God. The idea here is that the closer we get to God, the more we find ourselves changed.

 Some years ago I decided to revive the old tradition of giving confirmands new names when they affirmed their baptisms. Sometimes the kids pick their own names, but I like to choose the names for them. I try to come up with a handle that will reflect who the student is and who the student, in relationship with God, could very likely become—assuming, of course, they’re willing to keep up their end of the bargain. After all, our baptism, as Luther tells us[i], means that we’re always in the process of being changed.

 Like Abraham and Sarah, we, too, are living in a covenantal relationship with God through our baptism. We are blessed to be the blessing to others. I guess there are some TV preachers who will tell you we’re blessed just to be blessed, but this rather spits in the face of the Gospel appointed for this Sunday (Mark 8:31-38). Jesus is pretty clear about what it means to be part of his posse—it means sacrifice and suffering, the inevitable result of discipleship.

 Now, you may think to yourself, “Well, that sucks!” and, to an extent, you’d be right. In Jesus’ day, it really sucked because all that jazz about taking up the cross (v. 34) could be taken quite literally. A person almost had to die for the sake of the Gospel, because the Gospel is such an offensive, threatening affront to the sinful nature of the world.

 Look: When Jesus preaches radical inclusivity, it means that our folks aren’t the special, entitled people anymore. People who are different, foreign, of another race, or differently made have the same share in the Kingdom of God as we have. That really offends some folks. 

When Jesus preaches forgiveness of enemies, it means we don’t get to feel smugly superior. We have to give up our sense of “fairness” and love people we don’t want to love. We no longer have the luxury of holding grudges, and we can’t dream of the day when we can see people we don’t like annihilated by some delightfully diabolical act of violence. The old ideas of victory and defeat have to go in the dumpster. Peter really hates that. He was so looking forward to bloody revolution.

 When Jesus preaches sacrifice, it means we have to confront the fact that we never created nor owned anything on our own. All we have—even our lives—is a result of God’s generous grace. Jesus asks us to be the conduit of God’s blessing, but that’s going to mean denying ourselves, and some folks just don’t want to do that.

 It’s easy to see—isn’t it?—why Jesus says the Son of Man must be rejected and be killed. No one who attacks the self-satisfied comfort of the social order as defiantly as Jesus does is going to get away with it without being persecuted and denounced as a liar, a fool, or an enemy of the people.

 This is our baptismal covenant, that we die every day to our old, selfish ways and rise again to be people who will make Jesus proud. It means we choose righteousness and abundant life over mere existence and survival. It means we trust in God’s way and not lean on our own understanding, because—face it—our own understanding usually just gets us in trouble.

 Being part of Jesus’ covenant always leads to death—the death of our self-importance, intolerance, covetousness, anger, and fear. But losing these things will lead to abundant life. Along with Peter and Abraham and a whole bunch of folks in the Bible story, we’ll make missteps along our path, but God loves to use imperfect people. So take heart. God’s already renamed you.

 You’ve been called “Beloved.” Try to live up to it.

[i] See Luther’s explanation to The Sacrament of Baptism (Part IV) in the Small Catechism. Luther references Romans 6:4.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A New Chapter (Reflections on Lent 1, Year B)


 

“…repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15b)

 If you were to write a book about your life, how would you define each chapter? How do you know when one part of your story ends and another part begins? What chapter are you in now? When did it start? How do you think it’s going to end?

 For our evangelist Saint Mark, the real story of Jesus begins with our Gospel reading for Lent 1 (Mark 1:9-15). Yes, he gives a little back story about John the Baptist, but that’s just to set the scene for what starts at verse 9. Mark can’t be bothered by Jesus’ early life. He doesn’t even have a good Christmas story to share with us. For him, the show starts when the adult Jesus gets baptized and begins his ministry. That’s when God rips the heavens open, sends down the Holy Spirit, and starts a new relationship with us—his spoiled, self-involved, and bratty kids.

 This is a place where the Old Guard gives way, too. John the Baptist winds up in the clink (and gets beheaded to boot!), and Jesus takes over as the new prophet on the scene. John’s done his job. He’s got people ready for Jesus. Before John, any pious Jew could have his sins forgiven by making an animal sacrifice at the temple, but John’s got folks actually washing themselves, getting spruced up for the change that was about to come. This may have been cheaper than giving a priest a goat or lamb, but it was certainly more personal. Jesus joins with them—with us—in this ritual as another sign that God, who seems so distant, has actually chosen to come near.

Of course, nothing new ever starts without a few hiccups. You know the old joke: How many Lutherans does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer: None. Lutherans don’t change anything.

 Change is hard, after all. If you’re a pope and you want folks to hear the mass in their language so they can understand it, there are going to be some who’ll complain they liked Latin better. If you’re a president and you create a social safety net, there will be some who’ll complain that folks should look after themselves and not expect the government to do it. If you’re a tech entrepreneur and you create a new gadget to bring people together, there will be some who’ll refuse to learn how to use it and will claim it’s ruining society. Every change will come with the loss of something or with some resistance or with some problem you didn’t count on. You can bet on it.

 It’s no surprise when Jesus joined us in our bath water the spirit drove him out to where Satan (literally “the adversary”) attacks. No new beginning or new chapter is every really easy if it’s worth starting at all. (If childbirth were easy, men would be doing it, right?) We will always face a temptation to just chuck it and go back to the way things used to be.

 But, for our sake, Jesus faced the wilderness. The forty days may be meant to remind Mark’s readers of the forty years the Hebrew people spent in the wilderness before God made them a real nation again. It could also just be a literary device meaning “a pretty long time.” Sometimes it feels like a new start takes forever. The wait in the wilderness is filled with dangers like “wild beasts,” as well as with the dull, boring emptiness and lack of refreshment.

But there are also angels in the wilderness, messengers from God who remind us why we’re there and why we need to keep going.

 The late Christian writer Phyllis Tickle often wrote that we are entering into a new chapter in the life of the Christian faith. She noted that about every 500 years or so, something happens which shakes up our structure and sends us on a new path. We’re just about due.

 If more Americans identify as having no religion at all, it simply means that we Christians have a larger mission field. If COVID-19 temporarily closes our houses of worship, it gives us a chance to begin our cyber ministry. If our nation seems divided, we then have an opportunity to be the inclusive peacemakers. If we’re fed up with listening to “wild beasts,” maybe we should start appreciating the angels God’s put in our lives.

 The time has come. It’s time to wash off the old and believe that God has a new chapter in store for us. Let’s enter this Lenten season with repentance and rejoicing.

 

Monday, February 15, 2021

Reflections on Ash Wednesday, 2021

 

Last year at this time..?

 Even though Lent was approaching, we at Faith Lutheran were preparing for our own little Mardi Gras. Our congregation was about to celebrate sixty years of ministry in Northeast Philadelphia with a spectacular dinner dance soiree which would include greetings from our bishop, recognition of outstanding members of the congregation, a sentimental family reunion with old church-goers who had moved out of the area, an open beer and wine bar, and a colossal raffle with more prizes than a week’s worth of episodes of “Let’s Make a Deal.” And why not?  For Lutherans, nothing says “Thank you to God” like a little booze and gambling! I tell you, a grand time was had by all.

 And then came COVID-19.

 We may not be rending our garments and sitting in ashes, but the ubiquitous facemasks—to say nothing of the shuttered businesses, stores, restaurants, and churches—are a testimony to our fragile mortality. Over 470,000 Americans have lost their lives to this disease and the economic impact has been devastating. Faith Lutheran closed down for almost three months, and our average attendance dropped by about 60%. A year after the first closure, we are still staggering from the impact of this disease and wondering if things will ever be the same again.

 Will they?

 Yes and no. Even without COVID, the worshiping life of Americans has been changing. There are more kids today who are raised outside of the church and more working families who are not free to choose how they spend a Sunday morning. We will never go back to those glory days we celebrated at our 60th Anniversary party—those days of single-income families, stay-at-home moms, ethnic allegiance to religious denominations, and assumed piety. Those days are gone for good. The churches which sprang up during that bygone era will have to learn to tighten their belts and find new ways to create meaning and reach out to a religiously illiterate public.

 But there are some things which do not change at all. In the Ash Wednesday text from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21), Jesus warns his disciples (that would be us) against practicing their piety in public. Spiritual exercises are not given so that we may win praise from others of from God for observing them. They are given from God for our own benefit. Even in a time of pandemic and great sociological change, generosity is still a virtue. Prayer is still necessary—perhaps even more necessary. Self-denial is still essential, and the acquisition of wealth for its own sake is still futile. If the current pandemic has taught us nothing else, it has taught us to center our lives on things that really matter and will truly endure.

 I understand how frightening it is for us not to have a public place in which to exercise our piety, but now is the time when we must walk by faith and not by sight. Our Father sees in secret, knows our hearts, and rewards our faithfulness. COVID-19 has already forced us to fast-track our efforts into cyber evangelism, and I’ve noticed that some who have not worshiped with us when we were public are now doing so in the privacy of their own homes.

 All of life is change, and that can only mean that all of life means losing some things even as we gain others. It also means we will constantly be sifting out the ephemeral from the eternal. But whether we are together or apart, we practice the disciplines of Lent—generosity, self-denial, forgiveness, and prayer.

   Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;

   Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away;

Change and decay in all around I see;

O thou who changest not, abide with me.

 

 

 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Going All the Way (Reflections on Transfiguration, Year B)

 


“And there appeared to them Elijah and Moses who were talking with Jesus.” (Mark 9:4)

 The Feast of the Transfiguration is always problematic. Just what do we do with this passage (Mark 9:2-9 in the RCL this year) in which Jesus appears to be the model for an OxiClean commercial? And what’s up with the special guest appearances by Elijah and Moses? Haven’t you ever wondered how the three disciples knew the guys they saw on the mountain with Jesus were Elijah and Moses? I mean, there weren’t any photographs in those days, and the two prophets had been dead a pretty long time.

 I think most of us are pretty familiar with Moses. After all, haven’t we all seen Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 turgid opus The Ten Commandments? ABC-TV runs it every year around Easter time. It’s pretty corny by today’s standards, and I think it might unintentionally tell us more about 1950’s America than it does about the Book of Exodus. Elijah, however, may not be quite so well-known unless you’ve spent some time ploughing through the Hebrew Scriptures.

 The Revised Common Lectionary pairs the story of Jesus on the mountaintop with the story of Elijah being carried away to Heaven in a chariot of fire. I suspect that the common link is the inspiring view of God’s glory, but I think there’s a bit more in the First Lesson (2 Kings 2:1-12) than that.

 Now, just by way of introduction, Elijah is a pretty badass prophet. A polite, non-violent Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. would pale in comparison with Elijah. Even Jesus and Saint Paul look pretty tame next to this guy. He’s more like Martin Luther at his angriest or a strident Malcom X or the incendiary John Brown. He calls ‘em as he sees ‘em, and he has no mercy for those on the wrong side of God’s law. He’s certainly not the most charming or lovable guy in the Bible.

 Back in 1 Kings 19 Elijah takes on Elisha as his protégé. He sees this young guy working in the field with his team of oxen, and he throws his mantle over him by way of saying, “God’s calling, and you’re coming with me, Son!” Elisha says his good-byes to his folks, slaughters his oxen and gives the meat to the poor, and then sets out as an apprentice prophet. In the story in our First Lesson, he begs to be able to follow Elijah on the old guy’s farewell tour, even though Elijah tells him he doesn’t have to. What moves me is Elisha’s faithfulness. He knows the old prophet isn’t long for this world. Everyone who sees Elijah knows he’s going to be meeting his maker in short order, a fact which Elisha doesn’t want to discuss. But Elisha seems determined to stay with his mentor right up to the end. When Elijah asks him what he wants in return for his faithfulness, Elisha replies that he wants a “double portion” of the prophet’s spirit. That is, he asks to be his heir and successor.

 What strikes me about this is that Elijah, with a little advice from God, had planned on making Elisha his successor all along. Now, however, Elisha is at a point of wanting this for himself. It’s not always just a matter of having the gifts for a job. You’ve also got to have the desire to do it. Sometimes we need a good teacher or coach to help us see our own strengths and find our own purpose. Such a person becomes like a parent to us. Note that Elisha calls Elijah “Father” in verse 12.

 As Elisha commits himself to following Elijah right up to the moment the old boy is carried up to Heaven, so Peter, James, and John will commit themselves to following Jesus to the end. Unfortunately, their journey isn’t quite as faithful as Elisha’s. When things get sticky, they run away. Yes, ultimately, they’ll see Jesus ascend to the clouds, but they get a little queasy about watching him die on the cross. Unlike Elisha, they’re not quite in it for the whole journey.

 In the disciples’ defense, I’ll admit it’s not easy to stick with someone who is about to die. Nevertheless, it is, if you've ever done it, a tremendous honor. Like it or not (and confused as they are!), the boys are called to come down off the mountain and start this journey with Jesus towards Jerusalem and Calvary. We, too, are on this journey. Transfiguration ends the Epiphany season and starts us on the journey of Lent, a journey which begins with ashes on the forehead, a reminder that we are dust and to dust we will return. But, like Elisha, the mantle has been thrown over us. We are called to faithfulness—to God and to each other. And God, in God’s mercy and grace, offers us those little sneak previews of glory which give us courage to go the distance.

 May you be dazzled by the brightness of God, and may God’s peace be with you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Back to Being Us (Reflections on Epiphany 5, Year B)



 “Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her and she began to serve them.” (Mark 1:30-31)

 Don’t you feel sorry for Simon’s mother-in-law in our Gospel lesson for Epiphany 5 (Mark 1:29-39)? The poor old gal has just been healed of a fever, and BAM! They expect her to get up and start cooking dinner for her son-in-law, his brother, a couple of fishing buddies, and the weird new rabbi they’ve dragged home with them. Don’t you wonder why it’s always the women who get put upon? I mean, why couldn’t Simon or Andrew slap a few cold cuts on a plate for their guests?

 It’s always tempting to interpret a Biblical text in light of our own experience and values. It might be more helpful, however, to look at this text in light of the world and time in which it was written. You’ll note that Simon lives with his brother and his mother-in-law (The text says nothing about his wife. She could be deceased for all we know as life expectancy in the First Century was as pretty iffy proposition). It wasn’t uncommon back then for extended families—particularly peasant families—to live together in multi-generational and multi household compounds.  Every member of the clan counted, and everyone had their own job to do to keep the place running.[i] If someone fell ill, it was a disruption to the household. For the sick one, it wasn’t just the discomfort of illness but the loss of his or her place in the community. When Jesus restored Simon’s mother-in-law he not only restored her to health but to her purpose and identity within the family.

 One of the rottenest aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the plague of layoffs. Most folks, I feel certain, really like knowing they’ve been of value and have earned their bread. Sitting on the sofa watching Maury Povich—even if you’re getting an unemployment check—has to make you feel pretty lousy. We’ve all heard of guys who’ve worked all their lives, finally retired, and then dropped dead of boredom within six months. Having no purpose really stinks, and it’s pretty darn easy in such a state of limbo to get depressed and lose faith.

 The restoration of purpose and identity might be the link which hooks the Gospel lesson to the First Reading (Isaiah 40:21-31) for Epiphany 5. (I always wonder what the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary were smoking when they put these readings together!) Isaiah 40 is part of the Exile story. For some reason, we never seem to dwell too much on this narrative even though it takes up a huge chunk of the Bible. All the same, I think this story can resonate with us in our current circumstances. Just to review: Judah got herself whooped by the Babylonians around 598 BC. The conquerors destroyed Jerusalem, tore down the Temple, and kidnapped the Brain Trust. The kings of Judah should’ve seen this coming. The prophets warned them, after all. Nevertheless, they arrogantly weakened their country by ignoring the poor folks while believing God would protect them from the consequences of their own stupidity. The Jews not only lost their country and their center of worship, but they were pretty sure their Most Favored Nation status with God was also in the dumper.

 50 years later, at the time in which Isaiah 40 was composed, things started to look up. The mighty Babylonians were getting their butts kicked by the Persian Empire, and it would only be a matter of time before there was a new sheriff in town who would let the exiles (by this time the kids of the original exiles) go back to Judah and rebuild their nation. The prophet writes this beautiful poem which essentially says, “Don’t you guys know we have a really, REALLY big God—a God so vast and wonderful and creative and powerful we can’t even wrap our brains around who this God is. But this awesome, mind-blowing I AM—this God of the enormity of the universe and the infinitesimal nature of matter, time, and space—knows who you are. This God sees you, and has never forgotten you. If you trust in this God, you will be restored.”

 When I read this lesson and Psalm 147 appointed for this Sabbath observance, I want to challenge everyone to contemplate their idea of God. I have to wonder if some of us still hang on to Sunday School notions of God—some old man up in the clouds who is separate from us. A cosmic Santa Claus dispensing pain or blessing. I’m much more compelled by Isaiah 40:28. God’s ”understanding”—that is, the knowledge we can have of God—is unsearchable. The I AMness of God remains a wonderful mystery, but a mystery worth contemplating. How is God both unimaginably vast and yet intimately close to us? In truth, we can never have a mature discussion of theology until we can come to an agreed-upon definition of the word “God.”

 The message in both of these lessons, I think, is that God is a healer and a restorer. It is God’s purpose to bring us back to ourselves—our best selves. It’s important that we know our exile or our fever are only temporary moments in God’s eternity. We are always seen, we are always known, we are always loved, and we are always called.

 Peace be with you, my friend.

[i] There’s a really good depiction of this first century Middle Eastern compound structure in Sue Monk Kidd’s wonderful novel, The Book of Longings. It’s a pretty good read if you’re interested in the time in which Jesus lived.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Church Interrupted (Reflections on Epiphany 4, Year B)

 


“Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.’” (Mark 1:23-24) 

Don’t you just hate it when this kind of thing happens? 

You go to your house of worship for a nice Sabbath observance, you’re listening to the rabbi give a really unique and interesting talk, and then the whole thing gets disrupted by some guy with an unclean spirit. Man! That sucks. Why can’t people with unclean spirits just stay home?

 But sometime disruptions might not be such bad things, as in our Gospel lesson for Epiphany 4, Year B (Mark 1:21-28). Liturgical junkie that I am, I really love it when a mass is ritually perfect, when no one drops an offering plate or a hymnal or has a sneezing fit in the middle of my homily. I like to get through worship without anything catching on fire or any other unwelcome interruption. All the same, sometimes the interruptions are as important—or more important—than the ritual itself.

 In our Gospel lesson Jesus is wowing the crowds by his own authoritative interpretation of scripture, something this congregation wasn’t all used to hearing. Then this guy with the unclean spirit starts yelling at him. My natural wonky curiosity made me look up this passage in my Greek Bible to see what exactly was meant by “Unclean.” It turns out that the word used is akatharto (akaqartw for you Greek folks!) which comes from a root which actually means “dirty.” In fact, it can mean “filthy,” (like covered in poop) “rotten,” “impure,” or “defiling.” Any way you look at it, this spirit has nothing to do with God or holiness. It’s just plain icky.

 So here’s a guy in a house of worship who has a spirit that has crawled out of a toilet. What does Jesus do? He tells the spirit to shut the freak up and he orders it to come out of the man. Three things stand out here. 

First, the slimy spirit knows who Jesus is. At some level, sin always knows it’s sin and always fears the judgment of Christ’s righteousness. Folks say to me, “Pastor, I know I shouldn’t say this but...” and then they go on to say something rather uncharitable. I want to tell them, “If you know you shouldn’t say it, don’t say it!” At some level, I think we always recognize our dirty spirits and we always try to justify them. We don’t really want Jesus to destroy them because we’ve gotten so comfortable with our resentments or prejudices, or some other selfish desire.

 Second, Jesus orders the spirit to be silent. Some may consider this rather rude on the Savior’s part, but, in light of recent events, I’m not sure every point of view has a right to be expressed. Our news media bends over backwards to convince us that it’s fair and unbiased. The result is, it gives coverage to individuals whose speech may actually be defiling. You don’t have to listen to someone’s racism, homophobia, misogyny, anti-immigrant bias, or religious intolerance. When we hear defiling speech we have a right and a duty to rebuke the speaker. If we actually know the facts, we should silence the gossip, the innuendo, and the suppositions.

 Third, Jesus rebukes and silences the spirit, but not the man. Our battle is with falsehood and hatred, but we won’t win it with hatred of those with whom we disagree. Jesus rebukes with love and healing. The disruption doesn’t have to mean the end of community. It should lead to a strengthening of relationships.

 There’s another examples of disruption in the Epistle lesson for Epiphany 4 (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). The Corinthian church is the Bible’s most dysfunctional family since the patriarchs of Genesis. These guys are always bickering with each other, and they always want St. Paul to settle things. In the case of 1 Corinthians 8, it’s the question of whether or not you can eat food sacrificed to an idol. Some Corinthian Christians thought, “What the heck? This is a false god, but a good steak. I’d hate to see it go to waste.” Others were afraid that by eating such food they were participating in idolatrous ritual and they’d go to Hell for it. Paul gives a wise, but not a straight, answer.

 He’s not going to end this disruption by an up or down vote on eating idol food. He basically agrees with the folks who don’t see the harm to their souls in eating this stuff, but he also recognizes that some other Christians are really upset by this. He advises that the church err on the side of protecting the weak in faith. That is, don’t serve that rack of lamb sacrificed to Dionysius to a new Christian who feels it’s sinful. Ruin your own lungs if you want to, but don’t blow smoke in your neighbor’s face. Suck down that Pabst Blue Ribbon, but not in front of the guy who just started going to AA meetings. Wear your face covering and don’t hold indoor worship during a pandemic. The only rule is that we love and look out for each other, even if it means we have to give something up ourselves.

 Yes, we’re experiencing disruption, but let’s learn from it and keep looking out for each other, okay?

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Time to Move a Sluggish Luddite (Reflections on Epiphany 3, Year B)

 

“The time is fulfilled…” (Mark 1:15a) 

I often joke that I’m a Luddite. The term refers to a secret society of—basically—domestic terrorists in 19th England who destroyed machinery in textile mills because they feared that the new weaving technology would put old-fashioned weavers such as themselves out of work. Today, it’s used for anyone who, alas, like my own dear self, is resistant to new technology[i]. 

Okay. I guess I’m not so much resistant to the technology as I am afraid I can’t figure out how to use it. I have to ask my daughter how I’m supposed to sinc devices or do stuff on the computer. There’ stuff a fifth-grader could do in his or her sleep that it takes me an hour to figure out. I mean, I’m still using a version of the flip phone because the raised numbers make it easier for me to text than if I use a smart screen. How do you turn off that word prediction thingamajig anyway?

 But the time has been fulfilled. I can’t hold it back. Because of the pandemic and the Bishop’s recommendation to cease all in-person activities at my parish, I broke down (at my wife’s urging, I should add) and asked the church council to spring for the purchase of a laptop computer so I could livestream worship services on facebook. Personally, I’m not a big fan of facebook because I think it keeps us all perpetually in high school. I don’t feel a need to show off my accomplishments, my vacations, or the meals I’m eating. I don’t have to prove I’m one of the cool kids, and I think lots of stuff is better kept private. Nevertheless, the time has come to use the modern technology. If COVID-19 hadn’t driven me to virtual worship, the 21st Century would’ve done so eventually. Bob Dylan keeps crooning in my ear, “The Times They Are A-changin’.”

 Matt Skinner, the Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN wrote a great article on the Working Preacher website about the Gospel lesson for Epiphany 3, Year B (Mark 1:14-20). Professor Skinner opines that, Galilee being so small a place, just about everyone there had probably heard or seen or known about Jesus by the time John the Baptist was arrested. The fishermen might not have had such a sudden blazing epiphany that they left their nets like a dog chasing a squirrel. Rather, they’d been thinking about Jesus and his message for some time. The difference on this particular day was Jesus telling them the hour of decision was upon them[ii]. “If you’re going to come with me, boys, this is the time to do it.” Timing is everything.

 I’m pretty darn convinced that right now is the time for a change. Even if there were no pandemic, the Church needs to find radical new ways to do ministry because the old ways are becoming obsolete. I’ve noted in previous posts that American society has basically killed the Sabbath. Youth sports, once upon a time the extra-curricular activities of public schools, are now a weekend burden for parents. Part-time, gig, and service economy jobs make planning a schedule impossible for many families. No one knows when or even if there will be a Sunday morning left open for worship. Cultural ties which once linked families to their worshiping communities have, for worse or better, fallen away in this day and age. More and more of us find ourselves (again, even before the pandemic) spending more of our lives in front of a video screen.

 Yet, as sluggish as I have been to get on the techno-train, many of my parishioners are older than I and refuse even to consider buying a ticket or standing on the platform. For those who are not plugged-in, I write out the Sunday message and Cindie on our church council sends it the old, old fashioned way—through the US Mail.[iii] 

But it’s not the lack of technology that has me concerned. It’s simply the age of these members. Good, loving, faithful, charitable saints of the Lord that they are, I can see a day coming when they will be worshiping before the Throne of Grace and not from the pews of Faith. The clock is ticking in my ear like Poe’s tell-tale heart. If the rest of us don’t start fishing for people now, there may be no congregation here in about ten years’ time. I see the internet as one fishnet by which we can proclaim the Kingdom. Social media allows us to spread the Word, and I’m hoping that by posting or re-posting or “sharing" or whatever you call it the online worship experiences of our congregation, we can spread a word of mercy and love to those who otherwise might never enter the doors of a church building to hear it.

 The time has come. Throw out your net and see who swims into it!


[i] The Luddites took their name from Ned Ludd, supposedly an 18th century weaver and the first to smash machinery. Actually, Ludd never existed. He was a fictional character.

[ii] The word Mark uses here for “time” is Kairos (kairos in Greek). It doesn’t just mean the hour of the day, but implies a momentous occasion. It could translate “The season is upon us.”

[iii] I used to work as a tour guide at Universal Studios. Carl Lemmle, the studios founder, continued to produce silent movies well after talkies had been invented for his distributors in small towns who did not have the funds to convert their movie houses to the new sound technology. It’s important to push forward, but compassion dictates that we sometimes have to consider those who haven’t caught up!

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Listen Up, Folks! (Reflections on Epiphany 2, Year B)

 

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening…” (1 Samuel 3:9) 

Pastor Mary sat back in her office chair and listened patiently as I whined on about my job woes as a special ed teacher in the Los Angeles public schools. I felt it was time for me to get out of the stress of teaching discontented, gang affiliated youths and try my hand at something different. But what?

 “I really wish you’d consider the seminary,” she said.

 Thanks but no thanks, I thought. Yes, it was true that, for as long as I could remember, I had felt an annoying voice in my subconscious urging me to take whatever rhetorical skills I might possess and use them in the service of God’s holy church. I, however, was wearing a mental set of noise cancelling headphones, still hoping I could have a career on stage and screen and become America’s greatest classical actor since Jack Barrymore. It took my pastor and some well-meaning others a long time to convince me I’d be better off—and more useful to the world—by listening to the voice which was pushing me towards becoming a pastor. I can tell you my eventual surrender did not happen overnight.

 I’m not sure that any course correction or radical turn we make in our lives’ journeys ever is simple or immediate. It might take a little prodding and pondering for us to discern our proper path. The lessons in the Revised Common Lectionary for Epiphany 2, Year B speak to me of God’s patience with his recalcitrant and children. In our First Lesson (1 Samuel 3:1-20), the boy Samuel actually hears God calling him by name. Unfortunately, the poor kid has no idea this is the voice of the Lord. I find this rather disconcerting as young Sammy was basically “donated” as a child by his mom to be a helper in the Temple. You’d think the kid would’ve learned something about God being around a bunch of priests, but I guess his religious education was like modern Confirmation students—he went through the motions to please his mom, but all the theology spilled out his opposite ear while he was daydreaming about sports and girls.

God has to call Samuel three times and get him to disturb Eli the priest’s sleep before Eli figures out God is at work. I think this is pretty typical. It’s not that God is so subtle, it’s that we are often so dense.

 You have to feel sorry for Eli in this story. Not only does he lose a good night’s sleep, but the prophetic mission to which his young assistant is called spells rotten news for the old priest. Eli has been an indulgent and neglectful parent, and his two sons, who will take over the family priest business, are a couple of lecherous, covetous, selfish dirtbags. God feels that, had Eli been a better dad, the boys would’ve grown up more respectful. God is pretty peeved about this situation, and plans to smite Eli and his creepy progeny. The job of telling Eli the bad news falls to Samuel—as will the job of taking over the priestly role when Eli dies. God’s people have a need for a good priest, and God knows Samuel has what it takes for the job, even if Samuel doesn’t know it himself yet. The writer and clergyman Frederick Buechner famously said, “Your vocation in life is where your greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.” God won’t call you to a job and not give you the skills to perform it.

 We have another example of God’s call in our Gospel (John 1: 43-51). There’s some reluctance here too as Nathaniel isn’t sure a prophet can come from a hick burg like Nazareth. Nevertheless, his pal Philip—not with any persuasive speech or by bludgeoning the poor guy with scripture—gently invites Nate to check out Jesus and see if his objections hold water. When Jesus makes a little joke about Israelites being deceitful,[i] Nate fires back that Jesus doesn’t know him. Jesus counters by saying he has seen Nathaniel under the fig tree. Like a lot of stuff in John’s Gospel, we have no idea what the freak he’s talking about. All the same, this seems to change Nathaniel’s mind about the guy from Nazareth. 

It’s been suggested that the take-away we can have from this is that Jesus tells Nate he’s seen him. You know that pharmaceutical commercial on TV for the stuff that’s supposed to cure psoriasis or some other dermatological ailment? The one with Cyndi Lauper and the bald Driver’s Ed guy who says, “See me?” The point of the ad being that folks only saw the gross skin ailment and not the human being who was afflicted with it until this miracle drug healed them of the modern equivalent of leprosy. We all want someone to see us the way we really are, to take notice, to appreciate us and have a real relationship with the real us. Jesus does that. He truly knows us. He sees us for who we are and loves us for it. Maybe that’s what Nathaniel experienced when his friend brought him to the Lord. Nathaniel needed some coaxing, but when he met Jesus, his life was changed.

 Not all of us are being called to Holy Orders, but all of us are called to be servants of the Lord. Perhaps you are being called to some kind of decision. God may be speaking to you by persistently nagging at your conscience, or God may be using a trusted friend to quietly goad you into the way you should be going. I’d encourage you to answer as Samuel is told to answer: Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

 May God be with you.

[i] The patriarch Jacob, who was known to run a few cons in his time, was renamed “Israel” by God in Genesis 32:28.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Reboot! (Reflections on the Baptism of Our Lord, 2021)

 



You have to love New Year’s, right? I mean, it always seems like a new beginning no matter how crappy the previous year has been. You make a toast, kiss your honey, look at the clock and say, “It’s twelve-o-two and nothing terrible has happened yet. So far, it’s been a pretty good year!” 

You may feel the same way when you start a new job or move to a new home or begin a new relationship. The newness always offers promise. It’s kind of like when a baby is born. You hold that little person in your arms and say, “She hasn’t trash-talked me or disobeyed me yet.” Or, “He hasn’t dropped out of school to join a metal band yet.” Or, “She hasn’t hooked up with a creepy dude with a neck tattoo yet.” Or, “I haven’t had to put him in rehab yet.”

 No. When that child is born, that child is perfect. Everything about the child is good and promising and joyful and pure.

 I think this is how God feels in our First Lesson for the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord (Genesis1:1-5). God spoke light and all creation into existence and decided it was pretty darn good. Later, in our Gospel text (Mark 1:4-11), as Jesus is baptized, God again declares this is good. In fact, God calls his baptized child “beloved” and the one with whom God is “well pleased.”

 You see, God really loves what God has made, and there is nothing God has made which didn’t start out as good in God’s eyes. Our faith teaches us that when we were baptized, God declared us good. Baptism, according to Martin Luther in the Small Catechism,

 “…signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned through daily sorrow for sin and repentance, and that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

 Isn’t that good news?

 What’s even better is knowing your baptism has an eternal guarantee. As Lutherans, we don’t ask anyone to be re-baptized when they join our congregation after having been baptized elsewhere. You don’t get baptized as a Lutheran or as a Roman Catholic or as any other Christian denomination. You are baptized into the Triune God. Period. Your membership in the fellowship of all Christians never expires or has to be renewed. At any time in your personal cage match with the temptations, irritations, frustrations, and outright tragedies of being a human being on planet Earth you can hit the reset button and know that you were created good and God’s forgiving, loving grace was meant for you. All you need do is believe it. 

May the Holy Spirit bless you in this New Year!

Monday, January 4, 2021

In the Beginning (Reflections on Christmas Two, Year B)

 



“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1: 14) 

The opening of John’s Gospel (John 1:1-18) has a beautiful poetry to it. It’s all about the Word giving us light, grace, and truth. The light is shining in the darkness and the darkness doesn’t “overcome it.” (Verse 5) “Overcome” in Greek has a couple of meanings, and John could be meaning all of them. The term in Greek is ou katelaben (ou katelaben is how it looks in the original language—not that you care, I just like to type in Greek!). It can be translated as “did not apprehend, seize, grasp, overtake, comprehend, or suppress.” So when the “light” comes into the darkness, we in the darkness don’t really understand it, nor can we stop it from shining. 

John’s highlighting two things here: The “God-ness” of God is something we can’t really wrap our puny, human brains around, so we probably don’t really get Jesus either. That’s why he refers to Jesus as “the Word” (Or, in Greek, Logos. Logos for you Greek fans). The term is so vague because we really don’t have a word to describe a concept that is so divine. 

These first verses in the Fourth Gospel are the culmination of the early church’s theology. If you look at one of the earlier writings in the New Testament, Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans (written sometime around the year 50 CE), you’ll see how Paul thought of Jesus: “…descended from David according to the flesh, and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4).” That is, when Jesus rose, Paul figured he must’ve become the Son of God. 

Later, (around 66-70 CE) Saint Mark the evangelist will figure out that Jesus was named Son of God when he was baptized (Mark 1:11). He doesn’t bother giving us a Christmas story in his version of the Gospel, but he sees God present in Jesus as soon as Jesus begins his earthly ministry. Matthew and Luke, however, (writing around 70 or 80 CE respectively) see God’s hand in Jesus as soon as he was conceived in the womb. But it’s John, writing around the last decade of the First Century, who finally puts it all together and declares that God and Jesus were one from the start, and God had always desired to be with us, even before the creation of the world. That’s the mystery described so eloquently in the first chapter of John’s Gospel, and the one we repeat when we recite the Nicaean Creed: 

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

        The only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

True God from true God,

Begotten, not made,

Of one being with the Father;

Through him all things were made.

 

Isn’t that wonderful? Before we even knew we would need him, God had planned to be with us so we could see him, know him, and love him as we see, know, and love each other. We may never understand the mystery of God, and our human vocabulary is inadequate to describe it. Nevertheless, all we need to know is that God is with us, always has been, and always will be—evermore and evermore!