Sunday, February 25, 2018

Coming Off the Bench

Acts 1:15-26

In the last several weeks, the world has been watching young athletes from many countries compete in various winter sporting events. The young people have trained hard, and they have worked long hours to earn their place on their countries’ Olympic teams. Each person comes with the expectation of doing well and with the hope of winning a gold medal. Whether it is an individual or a team sport, they have their dreams – and their countrymen and women do too.

In sports, there is always a risk of injury, and injury means a person cannot compete, so that person is usually replaced by an alternate athlete, one who stands in the wings until needed, but always ready, as a song that used to be popular said, "Put me in coach, I'm ready to play." They train hard even as alternate, just in case the coach needs to call on them. I would venture to say any person in a sport, be it Babe Ruth baseball, high school football, college basketball, swimming, or adult soccer, there's always a hope of the coach calling them off the bench, and the alternate has a chance to become a star.

The story today for the commemoration of Matthias involves a bit of history, going back to the fall of Judas Iscariot. Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus to the Romans and, as we usually hear it, went out and hanged himself. Luke, the author of Acts, reported that he went out into a field, fell and burst open, dying as a result. However it happened, the 12 apostles had become 11, and now someone was needed to fill that empty spot, so the total number would be 12, the number Jesus had originally called. The remaining disciples and followers met with Peter, their acknowledged leader to find a replacement for Judas. There were 120 people there that day and of that number, two men were chosen to stand for election to fill the empty chair, to enter the game as a substitute so that the team would be at full strength and the work could go on unabated.

There were qualifications that they had to meet, one of which was that the person chosen had to have been a follower who accompanied the12 from the time of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan until the day of the ascension. The man must be a witness to the resurrection as well. It's a hard set of qualifications, but it was necessary to continue the ministry that Jesus had begun.

They did not just pick anyone. They had two qualified candidates, one of whom was a man named Joseph, who was also known as Barsabbas and also Justus, and another man named Matthias. The company prayed that Jesus would choose the one who would be God's choice to complete their number. The selection was made by casting lots (something like dice, tokens, or even drawing straws) and Matthias was the winner. He then became the 12th apostle.

I doubt seriously that Matthias was standing on the sidelines jumping up and down wildly waving his hand saying “Put me in, coach, I'm ready”; he surely must have realized the position would be difficult. I’m pretty sure also the he felt it was God's will, so he must have been somewhat prepared to be a part of the new ministry to which he was chosen.

So, what are we to make of the selection of Matthias in the aftermath of the crucifixion, ascension, and subsequent shortage of apostles? The apostles did not rush into choosing someone to replace Judas. Undoubtedly, it was probably very difficult for them, because Judas had been a part of them throughout Jesus's ministry. He was part of the brotherhood, so to speak, and the ties would have made him part of the family. It seems to me that the apostles did not rush because there might have been a sense of grief that Judas had chosen the path that he had, and that Jesus had died because of him. But Jesus rose from the dead and Judas did not. Still there might be some grief because of Judas’ faithlessness and a feeling of his betrayal not only of Jesus but of all of them by his actions.

This week, I think I will look at where substitution can be a benefit or a stumbling block. I feel that for being a substitute, one needs to be a shadow like an understudy for an actor in a play. Someone must be ready to jump in and take over almost seamlessly to make the production successful. If a member of a team on a project must drop out, someone must move in to take their place. Other people have to double up so that they have time to find replacement without slowing down the completion of the assignment.

I'm going to contemplate where I can be an understudy where I can watch and learn in case something happens and I am able move into a role or position and continue the progress forward. The building of God’s kingdom here on earth cannot be allowed to falter because the bench is lacking people ready to step into vacancies.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, February 24, 2018.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Janani Luwum -- Archbishop and Martyr

O God, whose Son the Good Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep: We give you thanks for your faithful shepherd, Janani Luwum, who after his Savior’s example gave up his life for the people of Uganda. Grant us to be so inspired by his witness that we make no peace with oppression, but live as those who are seated with the cross of Christ, who died and rose again, and now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. *

It seems that every so often when I'm reading the office for the day, I find myself reading about people who existed within my life span. It kind of amazes me, but then, the call of God and the responses to that call are not that uncommon even in the in this age.

Janani Luwum born in 1922 and was a schoolteacher just prior to his conversion in 1948. He rose through the ranks of the church from lay reader to becoming a priest in 1956. In 1969, after study in Britain, he was named archbishop of Northern Uganda.

It was a precarious time in Uganda. Not only were ordinary Christians in danger from 1971 on, when a dictator and Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Uganda, staged a coup against his predecessor, Milton Obote, the Prime minister. The usurper was Idi Amin, and his name and reputation are still known today as one of the most lethal and cruel of dictators. He distrusted anyone who did not support him, and frequently those people disappeared without a trace. Soldiers were shot in their barracks because Amin feared they too might try a coup against him as he had done to his predecessor. Foreigners were forced to leave, and Christians were killed for little or no reason. It was a perilous time, a time full of fear and a time to keep your head down and try not to attract attention. James Kiefer gives an inspiring biography of Janani Luwum that speaks of his life and struggles.

The name of Idi Amin was very familiar in the 1970s for his cruelty, treachery, and brutality. It was hard not to see him in somewhat the same frame as a Hitler. In his 8-year rule, over 300,000 Ugandans were massacred, among them was Archbishop Janani Luwum in 1977. After his kidnapping, he was said to have continued preaching and calling the Amin regime to repentance for the crimes and injustices they had perpetrated. His death came through beatings, torture, and finally, a gunshot.

When the casket containing his body was opened in his home village, the level of atrocity committed upon him was undeniable. His courage in speaking out against a corrupt and evil regime and his faith encouraged his people and his faithfulness in the face of death had a powerful impact on the people of Uganda, and many who had forsaken Christianity returned to the faith, encouraged by the memory of Archbishop Luwum and others who had been martyred for their own faith.  
I remember hearing about the atrocities Amin had called down on his own people. It was almost too sickening to read and hear about, but it was in the news with great regularity during those days of repression and oppression with a dictator who caused mass murder and genocide without compunction, without regard or even remorse. There were several in the world at that time, and now even now reading about the times when these atrocities were happening is still stomach churning and nauseating. But then there are those who like Luwum who stood up against all odds and in total danger of losing their lives for their cause. That is a reason for celebration. These were people who took the words of Jesus seriously, the words about caring for one another and loving their brothers and sisters even until death. He died a martyr's death, and is considered a martyr for the faith today, especially in his home country of Uganda but now also recognized around the world.

We often run up against things that overwhelm us. This past week yet another school shooting took place, in Florida this time, and young people, the fruits of our generation and our children's generation, the future leaders of our country, were mowed down for some almost inexplicable reason. This time, it was by of a young man of 18 years of age who believed a hate group that sought to create an all-white society. It's sick. There have been a number of school shootings just since the first of the year and many young people have died because of people who wanted, like Amin, to rule their way and without any opposition. It is sad, and more than sad, it's tragic. We haven't seen another Amin yet, but that is not to say there is not one rising somewhere, and we cannot say where that somewhere is.

It's not easy to be a martyr. By martyr, I mean people facing real danger, real life and death situations, not just people whose opinions and beliefs other people don't accept. Martyrs pay with the price of blood that has been shed by the hands of evil. Luwum knew this and yet he continued, just like others have done. He trusted that God would care for him and would give him the strength and the ability to face whatever had to be faced so that others could be free and safe.

Every time I read of a new martyr that I have heard very little about, I wonder if I would ever have to face a similar situation or if I would have the courage of Luwum if I found myself in a similar situation. It is hard to know how any of us would react to facing evil and maintaining our faith as we face any instrument of death. Jesus showed us, and Luwum followed that example. His death gave us a new example of faith in action. I wonder, with all that's going on in the world, all the turmoil, the deaths of innocents, and the wannabe rulers of the world growing in strength and cunning, if we will have to make that choice and face that evil.

I will try to keep Archbishop Janani Luwum in my mind as a person of faith, character, strength, and most of all faith. I think if I (and we) could look to examples of Christians like him, I (and we) might find the strength to try and overcome the problems that we face today in a world of violence, oppression, and fear.

May God bless Janani Luwum with peace that he did not have on earth and with a place with the angels surrounding the throne of God whom he trusted and never denied.

God bless.

*Church Publishing Incorporated, 2016, A Great Cloud of Witnesses.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, February 17, 2018.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

One PBJ at a Time...

Mark 8:1-10

There's an interesting story in our gospel lesson for the Eucharistic lessons for today. We are used to hearing about the feeding of the 5000 which occurs elsewhere in the Gospels. This reading deals with a slightly smaller crowd, and using provisions provided by the disciples who had been carrying them on their own journey. Jesus and his followers were followed by a great crowd for the previous three days. This being the desert, there were not any drive-thrus, coffee shops, of amenities of any type, and I am sure most of them had run out of food and were really hungry. Jesus noticed this and asked his disciples how much food they had. They came up with seven loaves which Jesus blessed before the disciples distributed to all. There were a few small fish, probably something like sardines, and those too were blessed and passed out among the crowd. Everybody ate and were filled up.

When the leftovers were gathered up, there were seven baskets full, much more than the amount of bread and fish they had begun with.  Everyone got to eat and each of them was full at the end of the meal. The total number of people was said to be 4000. It was only after they finished their meal that Jesus sent them back to their homes so that he and his disciples could continue on their journey in the opposite direction.

We are used to the stories of the feeding of crowds of people and we think nothing like that could ever happen today. Very probably not, but it could, maybe not by the miraculous means that Jesus had at his command, but it could be done. All it would take would be for each person to bring a sandwich for themselves and another for someone else. There would be many people who would not have the ability to bring a sandwich for themselves, much less bring an extra one, but if half the people were able to bring two sandwiches, there would be enough for everyone to have one sandwich all of their own. That sounds like a pretty good miracle to me. It certainly would be a blessing to those who have shown up because they were hungry and needed to be fed.

There is an old story about stone soup where hungry people would boil water and put stones in. They would tell the children that it was stone soup and encourage them to drink it to fill their stomachs. Not extremely nutritious, and certainly not very tasty.

Many of our homeless people would probably be grateful for stone soup on a cold night. Most of them live without fires or a pot to heat water in, even if there were any clean water around. The stones would probably be covered with who knows what, and it would probably be more disastrous for them to use that than it would for them to go hungry.

For me it's hard to pass street corner beggars who hold up “Please help me” signs. I never carry cash, so I don't have any currency to give them, and even then I couldn't be sure it would go for food and not for something destructive instead. I was just thinking, I could always take a sandwich, and if I saw someone on the street corner, I could give them a sandwich. It wouldn't be a fancy sandwich, because I do not have a lot of fancy stuff in the house, but I do have peanut butter and I do have jelly. I could make up a butter sandwich next time I go out and have it ready in case I run across someone who's looking for food in the middle of the desert. Even if they are sitting in front of McDonald's, I can still give them my peanut butter sandwich. I cannot go into McDonald's right now myself, but I can share what I do have, and I think that might please Jesus more than buying someone a happy meal or a number one on the lunch and dinner menu. It may not be much, but it would be something.

Like the little boy in the feeding of the 5000 and the disciples in the feeding of the 4000, they took what they had and gave it to Jesus made it work. Okay, I am not saying that my one peanut butter sandwich is going to change the world, but it might change something for someone else. I think this coming week, instead of worrying about sending Valentine cards and candy or even trying to be extremely penitential with remembrance of all my sins, I will go with a fulcrum-type action. Maybe a peanut butter sandwich would be the idea for that day. It would not involve something someone gave up for Lent most likely (like chocolate), and it wouldn't be like eating a steak on Ash Wednesday. It would still be an active giving and a very small sacrifice that I could make in Jesus’ name.

I think I will do it. What to try it yourself? I really hope you will.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café,  Saturday, February 10, 2018.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Just The Facts, Ma'am....

Next week we seem to have a double blessing, as it were, of having two holidays or holy days on the same day. There has not been an Ash Wednesday/Valentine's Day concurrence in the last 73 years, the last one being 1945. Being a curious type, I researched and found that the next time it is going to happen this way with both being on the same day. Easter and April Fools' Day occurring this year on the same day will occur again in 2024. After that, will have to wait until sometime after 2100 before it happens again. 

And that's a fact.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Dorchester Chaplains, Models of Faith in Action

If I heard someone start off a sentence with "A priest, a rabbi, and two Protestant ministers met at a ...", I would probably expect a funny story to ensue. After all, many such jokes have them walking into a bar where something funny happens. Today's commemoration, however, is of a very different sort. Even though it involves a priest, a rabbi, a Methodist minister, and a Dutch reformed clergyman, there's no funny story, just one of courage, and a sense of duty, honor, and obedience to the lessons of Jesus.

On the night of February 2, 1943, the four ministers were on board a naval ship, the USS Dorchester, as part of a small convoy heading through the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic from Newfoundland to Greenland. It was a dangerous route, one known for its deadly qualities, caused by Nazi submarines which had already accounted for many ships being sunk in that area. Even though they were close to their destination, only about 150 miles away, the danger was still very high. During the night, a Nazi sub surfaced and fired a fan volley of three torpedoes. The other ships were missed, but the Dorchester took one below the waterline and amidships, a fatal wound for the ship, which soon began to fill with water.

The crew scrambled to get to the main deck and escape the fast-filling water inside the hull. Some jumped overboard and swam to lifeboats, sometimes overcrowding them almost to the point of capsizing. It was a night of confusion and quite often panic, although fortunately two ships managed to pick up many survivors from the waters. Still on board the Dorchester were many sailors, including four clergymen, who encouraged their shipmates to be calm, and who went about comforting and assuring the frightened and freezing sailors still on board. They found a locker that still contained some life preservers, so they handed them out until there were no more. At that time, the brave four took off their own lifejackets and gave them to the sailors.

People in lifeboats looked back at the ship and saw the four standing on the deck, speaking the word of God and praying together as the waters rose quickly to submerge them. It was an unbelievable moment, and one that stuck in the minds of many of the survivors who witnessed what was happening.

Jesus taught that "greater love hath no man than that he give up his life for his friends (John 15:13)." There been many examples through history, both Christian and non-Christian, and those people have been honored for their sacrifice of themselves for a greater purpose, to save the lives of others. Martyrs are those who give up their lives for their faith, but there are also those who give up their lives for their fellow man regardless of religion. The chaplains gave up their life vests, recognizing that this meant certain death for themselves, without asking what religion or faith the recipients followed. They simply handed over the lifejackets with the devout hope that it would save the lives of at least four people. It must have been hard to face their own mortality in a moment like that and yet they did it, seemingly without reservation or consideration. They simply remembered what they believed that God expected, and they followed those beliefs unto death.

They were not given a Medal of Honor for their gallantry to the death because technically they were not under enemy fire, although the sinking was the result of enemy fire. Instead, they were posthumously given an award created especially for the four of them, an award that would never be duplicated but which would be equal in respect to the Medal of Honor. It was called the Special Medal for Heroism and was awarded in 1961 nearly 20 years after their deaths. Yet they are not remembered for their medals, however. Instead it is for their faith, compassion, and example that they are honored today.

I should remember, the next time I hear a story that starts out with “Four men walked …,” that there is not always a joke that comes afterwards, especially when the four men are members of different religious groups or clergy of different denominations or even faiths. These four men walked out onto a deck that was sinking. They stood their ground, they did what they could do to help others, and they exhibited a desire to show the love of God to all under dire circumstances. Their bravery was incredible, and their courage and faith deserved and continues to deserve remembrance.

This week I think I will be remembering the Dorchester chaplains in my reflections. I may not be the one who goes down with the ship after having helped others to escape certain death, but I can learn to man the metaphoric life preserver locker and pass out words of life, words that would help others who are struggling and afraid. The faith of all four was in the same God, and so it is a reminder how important faith is and how obedience to God can make such a big difference.

God bless the memories of Lt. George L. Fox (Methodist), Lt. Alexander D Goode (Rabbi), Lt. John P. Washington (Roman Catholic priest), and Lt. Clark V. Polling (Dutch Reformed). May they rest in peace and rise in glory and be seated at the right hand of the Father in glory.

God bless.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, February 3, 2018.