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.