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!