Trinity 18 2015

I grew up watching Johnny Carson, first in black and white on a television whose size would be considered microscopic by today’s standards, and that took about 3-4 minutes to “warm-up.” One of Carson’s enduring routines was that he would say something about the heat, or the rain, or the cold, and the audience would invariably shout out, “HOW HOT WAS IT?” And Johnny would deliver his answer with his unparalleled pizzazz. Rodney Dangerfield did the same when he started his stand-up routines: he’d begin by telling you what a horrible day or week he had, all the while mopping his brow, and telling us how little respect he gets. Continue reading Trinity 18 2015

Trinity 17 ’15: Dropsy

GOP Presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush said this, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinal or my pope,” though given his current poll numbers perhaps he ought to consider some “holy” advice. He went on to say this, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”[1] My guess is that most American Christians, regardless of denomination, would agree with Jeb Bush: that are things or issues or problems or policies that are simply outside the scope of the Church and beyond the reach of Christ-which in itself is odd, for as Lutherans we often like to point to the wideness of Christ’s arms extended on the cross as enveloping the entirety of creation, except, that is, those “things that end up getting in the political realm.” Continue reading Trinity 17 ’15: Dropsy

Guys and Dolls

You know what’s missing amongst all the Christian keyboard martyrs when the topic turns to Planned Parenthood and/or abortion?

Answer: the guy.

Unless women are becoming pregnant a la the Blessed Virgin Mary, pregnancy still requires both male and female partners, and yet, the focus-and perhaps even the blame-always falls to the woman.

We know stereotypes of women; in fact I live in a neighborhood where those stereotypes embody flesh and blood. Even women disparage other women.

Women “allow” themselves to become pregnant; she’s easy, she’s a “slut,” she drops her pants for anyone—and the result is the continued disparagement: she’s got six kids by four different men and now she’s shacked up with another guy, she’s got welfare babies, she lives off the state, it’s people like her who are ruining our country.

All of you Planned Parenthood protestors: how many times have you seen a guy with the woman? None of your chants or your prayers, your taunts or your bible verse placards is ever seen by a guy, only the woman. It isn’t a guy who runs the gauntlet, it’s a woman.

All of you social media posters, bloggers and “journalists”: when was the last time you even considered that reproduction takes both penis and vagina? The woman may indeed carry the child, but she didn’t self-reproduce, and yet the guy, the dude, the hook-up, merely zips up his fly and moves on to the next pair of spread legs, unscathed, unnoticed, neither remarked upon nor called to account for anything. Serial satisfaction is the game he plays, but because he can wipe, zip, and slip, he’s never, ever mentioned.

But we’ve managed to make women into post-modern Hester Prynnes, and the only talk of penises is when the conversation among us turns to homosexuality.

If there’s going to be an honest discussion of human sexuality within the context of family, and not simply the glossy pictures of a happy couple with their two children (as appears inside the back cover of the current Lutheran Witness), then such a discussion has to involve men, who are the fathers. I would wager that in most urban neighborhoods, you won’t find the type of couple portrayed inside the cover the Witness, instead, you’ll find the types that move up down my alley-and perhaps yours-in what appears to be a never ending walk down to Sheetz, kids from different fathers in tow, and the current boy-friend, tattooed up       and pants dragging the ground, pushing a stroller (his family contribution inside) with one hand while he smokes a Newport with the other.

That’s family reality alley-style.

Now how long will this guy stay? That’s always a gamble, the constant is the woman, but the guys don’t often hang around long. So there’ll be a period of time when she walks just with the kids down to Sheetz, pushing the stroller herself, and then another guy….and on the cycle goes.

From his perspective, a woman is simply a commodity with which he can satisfy his own sexual desires, yet he rarely bears any of the responsibility for the children he has fathered, and never any of the blame.

And each time the attention is drawn strictly to the woman, we give the guy a pass. Look across social media, look across denominational media, and you can count the number of times on one hand that a guy-the “father”-is ever mentioned.

Only the woman.

Now maybe the father can’t be found, maybe he was never told, maybe he knows and doesn’t give a damn-whatever the reason may be, we do a disservice to women and to creation when the father is not even a part of the discussion.


Trinity 12 2015

Medical science has all but become the post-modern equivalent of Ephphatha.

To date medical science hasn’t been able to regenerate limbs or organs, but what it has been able to do, is to make life easier for those who have disabilities or illnesses. People, for whom a particular disability/illness may have been a death sentence even twenty years ago, now are able to lead a relatively “normal” life.

The Ephphatha of medical science has also done something else that would seem to be miraculous to a member of Mark’s audience, or even to a person from the early twentieth century, and that is its ability to prolong the life of people with chronic illnesses.

People with heart failure, chronic emphysema, Crohn’s Disease, and even some forms of cancer-to name but a few illnesses-now find themselves almost like the ten lepers from Luke’s Gospel, if not cured-as in the complete elimination of symptoms, at least healed-as in the restoration of a wholeness that is new.

But such advances have come at a cost: those with chronic illnesses who now live longer, also live with an illness that will not go away, and may in fact be relentless in its pursuit. The question that the Church and the Christian community face is not how to pray for miracles, nor is it to give anyone false hope; rather it is to attempt to understand the crisis of the ever-recurring cycles of aggravation and torment that those with chronic illnesses endure, to understand that it is no longer “a” body in pain, but rather “NAME’s” body in pain, and that pain is no longer abstract, but incredibly real and incredibly personal.

The task then of the Church is to heal, and to understand that to heal is not the same as to cure.

Healing begins with the task of keeping the chronically ill, bodily integrated within the parish community. You see it’s too easy to get caught up in the biblical event of the miracle itself-the man who could now hear and talk, the lepers, blind Batrimaeus, or the possessed-and forget that the cure also allowed people to enter back into society and to escape from the stigma of disease or disability as a mark of God’s disfavor.

It’s the entry back into society that’s often overlooked; Jesus isn’t just curing physical ailments, he showing the Church that a person’s disability or chronic illness should not become a barrier between those who are “healthy” and those who are not, let alone within the Church.

Illness has a tendency to isolate people; the lepers in the Gospel are a great example. I’ll never forget the time when I was working at Windber Hospital, and we had a patient admitted who was dying from AIDS. There was no end of warning signs up around the entrance to his room, instructions to visitors to check with the nurse before entry, and while the young man had family, I never, ever saw a single soul in his room. It wasn’t enough the signs around his room served to isolate him, or perhaps better, “cage” him, his own family refused to visit, because of his illness. If he had contracted meningitis or cancer, I suppose the room would have overflowed with flowers, as it was the only card in the room was from me.

People who are chronically ill also have a tendency to isolate themselves. They can’t act as they once did, do the things they used to enjoy, live the way they used to, and even when the illness has gone, they know it will be back, and that it will debilitate just a little more each time it arrives.

These are the people along the road side who have called out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me,” and for all intents and purposes their cries have gone unanswered, which only serves to deepen their isolation, instill or increase their bitterness, and pose serious questions about what they believe the Church teaches. You and I don’t do them any favors either when we say things like “It must be God’s will,” or “you need to pray more,” or we lead them to place all of their hope in passages like “with God anything is possible,” or “ask and you shall receive,” or the passage from James, “Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 The prayer of faith will save the sick…”

Is it impossible to be divinely cured? No, of course not, but I tend to think that if it were as common place or as easy as some religious movements claim it to be, there would, for example, be far fewer veterans at Walter Reed than the current number.

The Christian community is not in the business of curing; we’re not in the business of curing.

We are however in the business of healing.

Several years ago, when we were still one, big, happy dual parish family, a man you all know, [**** ******] developed cancer, and it spread rapidly. One Sunday out in Central City we held a “Rite of Healing,” where ****, as well as a woman who also had cancer, were invited up to the rail where both oil and sacrament were administered, and the parish rose up behind them and prayed over them. I’m not a person given to emotion, but that liturgy that day was incredibly emotional, yet every person there knew that we were not trying to cure **** or **** of their cancer, but rather, although rare, the curing of disease by the Holy Spirit does indeed take place, and we needed to provide the occasion for it.

It is indeed the Spirit, not us, who will do any curing, but without our prayers and sacraments the channels of the Spirit’s grace may be wanting. We weren’t trying to raise false hopes, but at the same time we did not want to quench the Spirit, for after all, when right relations with God are established through confession of sin, who can say if the Spirit will not cure a disease?

It was important that they knew, through the Rite, that no matter what the outcome of their illness was, no matter how many days or weeks, months or years they had, they were still a member of the body of Christ, and that their body mattered a great to us and to Christ.

No matter what ultimately happened to their bodies, Christ had cured the illness of their sin and that any coffin or hole or vault they might end up in was not the end, or their “destiny”; theirs was a far greater and far more glorious one.

It was also important that their families knew, lest we forget that any kind of chronic illness also effects family.

Everyone who becomes ill suddenly finds that they have a “new” normal, a new point of view or a different perspective. In 1915 Franz Kafka wrote a short novel that would end up being studied in universities across the world, the title was The Metamorphosis. In it, a traveling salesman, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning in his bed, only to discover that he has been transformed into a giant insect. When his family finds out, his mother faints, and his father beats him back into his room with his cane.

Samsa finds that someone has left milk and bread outside his door for him-a favorite food of his-but he now discovers he has no taste for it, and instead prefers to eat rotting table scraps for food.

As he grows more comfortable with his body, he begins to climb the walls and ceilings of the house, finding it to be very enjoyable. His mother comes into the room while he is on the ceiling and faints, Greta, his sister, calls out to him-the first time anyone has used his name since his change, and Samsa runs into the kitchen, and when his father sees him begins throwing apples at him. Samsa is hit hard and paralyzed for a month.

While perhaps not transforming into an insect, the transformation that illness can and does cause can be equally devastating for both patient and family; a “new” normal. And perhaps no illness carries a greater stigma for family than that of mental illness.

Nothing hurries that transformation faster than these words spoken by the doctor: “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more I can do.”

Nothing challenges the Church community more than a member in their midst who has just received such news. The dynamic within the parish changes as we tip-toe around the person ill, we ask “Are you tired?” or “Shouldn’t you sit down?” or “You shouldn’t be on your feet,” rather than helping them to continue to live their life within this new reality that they have. We want to treat them like glass, when all they want is to be treated like the person they always were.

None of us can stop death; medical science can hold it at bay, but ultimately it comes for all of us: the chronically ill and those who have run 100 miles a week. Miracles do happen, but perhaps the greatest miracle of all is the resurrection of our Lord and because of God’s great love for mankind, it is a miracle that we all will share in.

Those standing around the man in today’s Gospel heard Jesus utter the word Ephphatha. It’s important to remember that word, for its one that all the faithful will hear-no matter their illness or disease-as the heavens open at the resurrection of the dead, and that really is the Christian hope isn’t it? To see the heaven’s open and to hear our Lord say to us Well done good and faithful servant. [1]




[1] Research works used in this include: “When Illness Doesn’t Go Away: The pastoral Challenge of Chronic Illness,” John T. VanderZee; “Spiritual Healing in the Light of History,” Cyril C. Richardson; “The Ministry of Healing.” Henry Gustafson; “Some Misunderstandings of Spiritual Healing,” Charles R. Feilding; “The Recovery of Healing Gifts,” Jeff Kirby; “The New Testament and Healing,” A. Graham Ikin; “The False Expectation,” Dana English; “Healing as the Invasion of God’s Reign: Setting Captives Free,” Robert R. Howard; “Christ the Healer: Modern Healing Movements and the Imperative of Praxis for the Poor,” Martyn Percy; “preaching the Miracle Healing Narratives,” Karen Black.

The Love Song of Genesis 4: Trinity 11 2015

The Book of Genesis, in spite of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and even the events leading up to the Flood, really is a love story. Yet it isn’t a sentimental kind of love like you might see in a movie, but rather an active and unconditional love, a love that will stop at nothing, or allow anything to get between it and the object of such love. Continue reading The Love Song of Genesis 4: Trinity 11 2015

Trinity Ten 2015

cleansingtemple1-263x350I was watching some science experiments on-line this; you may remember such experiments from your chemistry or science classes. The teacher would mix a couple of compounds together, maybe add some heat, and often times there would be a small explosion as the reaction burst into flames. Then there are those mistakes people made in chemistry classes, when they inadvertently mixed together chemicals, that taken alone, are perfectly safe, but when mixed, proved to be explosive. Continue reading Trinity Ten 2015

Trinity 9 2015

Parables are the perfect text for those lazy, hazy, days of summer. Parishioners like them because they already know the story and can snooze during the sermon; pastors like them because they are so easy to preach, and any pastor worth his homiletical salt can preach on a parable in his sleep. All you have to do is to sort of re-tell the story, toss in a little Law, add a little Jesus, and voila, you’re done. And Luke’s a treasure trove of parables: prodigal sons, lost sheep, lost coin, the sower, and the good Samaritan—just to name a few.
But there’s always an exception to the rule though isn’t there? There’s always that person (or parable) willing to throw a wrench into the works of simplicity to complicate things, and that’s exactly what Luke 16 does: a trap door opens and a “jack-in-the-box springs up in the plot to unsettle” the preacher and “to complicate the” task.
The trouble isn’t the parable itself, in fact it’s a pretty good story, almost on the order of Robin Hood; the problem comes in verse 8: And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly, and we can’t have a Jesus who seems to uphold what it is that this “unjust” steward did. In fact if it wasn’t for that single portion of a verse, this parable would be smooth sailing, but now, now, we preachers have to somehow explain-or explain away-how it is that Jesus could commend the action of the steward. And the master, let’s not forget about the master, who is not outraged, who does not order the steward jailed, but seems to be delighted with the manner in which he had been duped.
Luke 16 has the very real potential to become one hot, homiletical mess.
From my perspective though, the best way to deal with a parable like this is make the assumption that Jesus knew what he was talking about-that is, no one came later and added verse 8, and to simply deal with the parable as its written-and not how I might wish it had been written.
To begin with, well, let’s start with There was a rich man, and while that seems a harmless enough start, almost like “Once upon a time,” but to be called “rich” in Luke’s gospel by Jesus is never a good thing; for Luke, “rich” is never a neutral term. Those called “rich” by Jesus are those who are always blind to what it is he’s teaching.
It’s the poor Mary sings of in the Magnificat who will be exalted by Christ; Jesus is said to be the One who will bring good news to the poor, and it is Jesus who says, But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
And we know how the rich fare in Luke’s gospel: there’s the rich young ruler, the rich fool who wanted to build more barns, and then there’s the rich man in purple who ignored Lazarus.
So we can’t ignore the economics that are at play in this parable; nor can we allegorize them away in those comfortingly abstract categories of “sin,” or “debt,” which are nowhere to be found in the parable.
This then is the “rich” man who is the landowner, and if you happened to be in the crowd listening to this tale being told, you would already be predisposed to dislike the rich man, and perhaps we are too.
What happens? That’s perhaps the simplest part of the parable and can be summed up as follows: “You abuse it, you lose it…period.”
Now that’s a statement that would make a Pharisee’s heart leap for joy: a crime has been committed, and instead of mercy or clemency, this steward is going to be removed, and from the sound of things, be forced to beg for a living. There’s no begging for mercy, there’s no confession or forgiveness, there’s not a “Go and sin no more,” what there is, is a scheme. The plan as hatched is to give all of the creditors a monetary break, gain their favor, and then when the steward is out on his ear, hopefully the people he helped with remember such aid, and welcome him into their homes.
So far so good, but now two things happen: the first is that the master is not angry with the steward, but stands in admiration of him, and the second is what Jesus says of this, For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light, and with that statement, the parable leaves the world economics and enters into the world of the kingdom of Christ, and the point is, that those of us who do belong to world to come, those of us who do realize that this life is transitory, are to imitate-yes, imitate-this steward, who is very much a child of this generation.
Well OK, now how? Once again Jesus answers, And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. We’re not to be “shrewd” for the sake of being shrewd, but rather-like the steward-to use “dishonest wealth,” or “unrighteousness wealth,” or the “mammon of unrighteousness” if you like, to make kingdom friends.
Once again, how? In Luke 14, Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee, and at the dinner he tells those assembled Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. This saying of Jesus takes the normal rules of invitation and social status and stands them on their head, so too the steward, for he did not use the money to make money and increase his wealth, but rather to make friends. “The result in both cases is a new community: for the steward open homes in this world, and for the children of light, the banquet table filled in the house of God and the resurrection of the righteous in the world to come.”
What is inescapable in this parable (and in Luke generally) is a view of money that makes Christians uneasy, in fact, many a Christian (or church, or synod) has so artfully explained away all the warnings Jesus gives of wealth, that were the effort an Olympic sport, they would be Gold Medalists. Realistically, show me person who does not love their money?
Does anyone here today hate their “wealth”?
The problem with money isn’t theological, rather it is, quite simply, that you can’t take it with you, for as powerful as money may be, it is still very much a product of this “generation,” and this world; as such, it is subject to decay and rot. This is precisely why anyone who loves money is a fool, for while it may seem potent and powerful, it will become-all too rapidly-o-b-o-s-o-l-e-t-e.
Are we to avoid it?
No…at least not according to this parable!
We are to spend it with riotous abandon to make new kingdom friends. There’s no sense of economic asceticism here, nor is there the old percentage to charity and the rest for me formula; rather there is a new opportunity for us to act within a very narrow window of time, to use money-which will ultimately fail-in the establishment of gospel friendships that will not fail.
Decisions about money are urgent, and they are indeed a spiritual test, Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. Such a crisis forces a choice: You cannot serve God and wealth.
But there’s more to this parable than a simple Go and do likewise, there’s still the curious commendation of the master who recognizes the prudence and shrewdness of the steward’s actions. He certainly doesn’t seem to be like the Pharisees, who were “lovers of money “and who ridiculed Jesus and his parable. He wasn’t like the rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
This master caught a glimpse of something more; the wisdom of another world and another way of life, and in this way begins to resemble another “rich” man we meet later in Luke’s gospel, Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a man who “has used friends to make money” and by the end of his encounter with Jesus, “is using money to make friends”: Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.
And the response of Jesus? Today salvation has come to this house.
So what’s the take-away?
You’re going to hate this.
You’re going to think it came from a fortune cookie.
You’re going to think it’s a cliché…and your right, but it’s still true.
What seems to be permanent and powerful…is not. Go up to Grandview, and under that dirt, inside a vault, and locked away in a casket, find me a “rich” man or woman. Ultimately, money is the coin of a doomed world. So it should be used by us as fast as possible to build relationships that will last into eternity.
Finally there’s one more take-away and that’s the “divine possibility of impossible salvation,” that is, the chance that the camel can indeed go through the eye of the needle. It’s about the very rich and powerful so often condemned in the pages of scripture being given a taste of grace, maybe just a glimpse, and responding. Zacchaeus the tax collector who now wants to share his wealth with the poor, and more to the point, it’s about the rejoicing in heaven over the one who was lost-Zacchaeus and all like him-who have now been found.
It is to be as St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6.10: Having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
From Acts 2:
3 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45 they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
They were “being saved,” and that’s for eternity.