Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Larry's Celebrity Roast

The Word:
Psalm 112:5 (Blessed is the man who is gracious and lends to those in need)

(Here's a synopsis for a potential Veggie Tales episode. Unfortunately, I don't think it will ever be used. Due to the nature of the true story on which this is based, while the overall ending is happy, and the intended lesson is taught, part of the storyline would most likely be deemed too intense for young or sensitive viewers.)

This is a story about riches, service, and one man's juggling of priorities to do, as is often said on VT, what is right.

Our story centers around Larry (played by Larry the Cucumber), who works for a business in Rome. He is an executive assistant to "Mr. Six." (who, after much discernment over casting, is played by Bob the Tomato. Or possibly Archibald, the Asparagus with the British accent who wears a monocle. I'm still not sure who would be a better fit.)

Over two hundred years have passed since the time of Jesus. Remember the story in the Book of Acts? From the time the first seven great assistants were appointed, their job was to keep track of the wealth of the Church, with a priority on spending that wealth on those who needed it - the poor, the sick, the orphaned, and the elderly - people who had nobody to care for or pray for them. As the church grew, so did its potential wealth - and also the people who needed it.

The Emperors of Rome (all played by Mr. Nezzer) never quite understood how some people were able to get rich. The Emperors amassed their wealth by taxing the people for nearly everything under the sun. And if you were not a native Roman citizen (meaning you lived in one of the territories or colonies claimed by the Empire), you tended to pay a lot more taxes. But that's really another story. The Emperors tended to spend their wealth on personal luxury; and when they needed more stuff, they would finance wars to extend their empire and collect more taxes.

By the time Larry and Mr. Six were around, the Empire was in financial straits. Things that had been built to support the Empire were in need of repair, and the Emperor was not about to give up his personal lifestyle or wealth to fix things. He wanted more money. And here was Mr. Six and his business, thought to have enough excess wealth to be able to feed the hungry, clothe the needy, and shelter the homeless. Mr. Six set aside any profit from his business to use in this way. Further, he set such a good example doing this that most of his employees chipped in extra, so they could rightfully claim they also helped.

Well, one day the Emperor sent out his prefect (played ubiquitously by Mr. Lunt) to Mr. Six, demanding that the assets of the company be turned over to the Emperor. In the Emperor's mind, this was just like any other organization within the Empire, of which he was top banana (or zucchini, or cucumber, or whatever) and whatever he wanted, he got; and if he didn't get it, he would take it by force.

As you might guess, the meeting between the prefect and Mr. Six didn't go well. Mr. Six knew that God wanted him to use the wealth he was holding - which wasn't his, after all, but God's - on those who really needed it. So he flatly refused - and was led away to jail, where he was sentenced to be executed (not made executive - there could be some dark humor there).

While all this was happening, Larry was out doing what was right - what God wanted him to do. He had spent the night at the home of a poor widow, fixing her the best meal she'd had in some time - as Larry was an expert in cooking on the grill. He also gave her house a good cleaning, getting help from some of the young boys in the neighborhood, whom Larry also fed. All the while, Larry would tell all manner of stories and jokes, as this helped to pass the time and lighten an otherwise heavy work load. Nobody seemed to mind. People had come to know that a visit from Larry meant at least a few hours of a really good time.

The following morning, Larry headed back to his office to do all the paperwork; but on his way there, he encountered the prefect and some soldiers, 'escorting' Mr. Six to a place from which Larry knew he wasn't returning. Larry, in shock, asked Mr. Six, "Where are you going, and especially without me? I have gone with you everywhere you wanted or needed to go." And Mr. Six, knowing that this was their last meeting in this life, had a message from God for Larry, told him to go to work and get all the paperwork in order, and that after three days had passed, the two would meet again.

Larry went about his work diligently, as he had been told. I don't really know if he knew what fate had come to Mr. Six, but I suspect he was aware of the possibility. Two days had passed and Mr. Six had not come into the office. And on the third day, Prefect Lunt shows up to see Larry. You guessed it - he was demanding that the riches of Mr. Six's company be turned over to the Emperor. Larry, in the meantime, had put in overtime paying out more bills, buying extra food and supplies and getting these distributed. He didn't want to have any assets on the books that the Emperor could claim. On the contrary, he wanted to demonstrate to the prefect and the Emperor what the company's assets really were.

Prefect Lunt ordered Larry to appear before the Emperor the next day, and at that time to surrender the wealth of the company. At the appointed time, Larry appeared, not with gold or jewels or the keys to his office or the deed to the property on which the business stood. Instead, with Larry were many of the people he had helped through the generosity of Mr. Six's employees. He defiantly told Lunt and the Emperor, "This is my master's wealth - and as such the company has greater riches than you!"

Well, as you might guess, the Emperor thought this was some kind of joke; and it could have been taken as one, as Larry was quite the teller of funny stories. (It had helped him immensely when he worked with others, and his sense of humor was keen. It was known that Larry did stand-up comedy at times to help raise money, and never took anything for himself.) However, as it became clear that Larry wasn't kidding about this, the Emperor decided to give Larry a roasting; immediately, and he was to be the guest of honor.

Larry, true to God and to his character, went to meet his Master and his boss in good spirits. While enduring his fate, he would quip that he needed to be turned because he wasn't quite done yet; and dared his tormentors to take a bite. (Roasted cucumber happens to taste quite good.)

As usual, the show would take it's turn at summarizing its main point ("God has a lot to say in his book"). So when Bob asks Querty for a Bible verse, I would use Psalm 112:5, above; or John 12:26, or 2 Corinthians 9:6-10. All of these speak of spreading God's wealth where it is most needed.

After what I've written in the last few days regarding pain and suffering as a Christian, and recognizing that this is an incomplete theology, Deacon St. Lawrence reminds us that many people died for their beliefs when the Church was in its early years. What percentage of the population went the way of martyrdom is not truly known; it's even possible that a similar percentage is destined to that end still today. It's generally not martyrdom alone that ushers these souls into God's presence; but the acts of charity worked in an environment opposed to such works.

So remember, God loves you - and everyone - very much!
Deacon Saint Lawrence, pray for us.

Monday, August 9, 2010


The Word:
Acts 15:1-33 (The First Council of Jerusalem)

After completing my previous post on Saturday, reflecting on the Keys to the Kingdom, I went off to Mass to sing, as it was my turn on the schedule. Little did I know that my prayers and reflection on the discovery of those keys would be answered.

My new Catholic pastor Fr. Bill chose to preach not directly on the selected Scripture readings for the weekend. He touched off briefly on the second reading, Hebrews 11:1-2 & 8-12, on Abraham as the Church's 'Father in Faith'; and then took off on the reason the Council of Jerusalem was gathered in about the year 50 CE.

The question before the council: How Jewish was the Christian Church going to be?
The issue: Peter and the other Apostles were of the Jewish faith, as was Jesus. While Jesus had often questioned the intent of the Jewish leadership of his time, he was nonetheless devout and maintained the required practices of the faith. The Apostles' preaching had developed a modest following in and around Jerusalem, though naturally kept in check by the political climate around the place. Progress was slow, and generally kept from overwhelming fanfare.

On the other hand, Paul of Tarsus had begun to spread the Good News, in areas apart from Judea. Paul, whose original intent had been to snuff out the Light of Christ, had instead become a most steadfast light-bearer. His message was not taken too well in Jerusalem (he was seen as a turncoat), so the Apostles sent him out to reach people elsewhere. And indeed, there were many people of the Jewish faith to be reached. But Paul welcomed all within earshot to hear the message he was sent to preach, and there were just as many, if not more, enlightened by the message of a resurrected Savior who brought life and hope to a troubled world. The question was the Jewish practice of circumcision. It was required of all Jewish men - they went through this painful surgical procedure a week after birth. Those who would convert to the community of The Way, it was thought, should be required to undergo this process as an adult.

(Okay, guys, this is about us, as we have the equipment. Ladies, please skip to the next paragraph. Guys, would you be willing to shed a portion of your flesh anywhere on your body - let alone one of the most sensitive spots??)

Pain and suffering. Isn't that what Jesus endured in bitter agony, anguish, and torment - so that the rest of us would not? (A very important point with multiple implications, that will be addressed further.)

After much debate (whittled down to a handful of verses by Luke), it was determined that the significance of the symbolism of circumcision not understood by the Gentiles paled in comparison to their potential lost support. Conversion meant lots of good things, not only to the people; not the least of which was mutual care and concern for each other. The Apostles were doing the math, as it were; calculating the potential as well as the risk. Guided by the Holy Spirit, the Church chose to take on the risk. After all, those who had walked in Jesus' company knew through direct experience that Jesus looked at the world differently. They saw his priorites as more important.

Fr. Bill then took us to the present. It is no secret that the Catholic liturgy is undergoing revision again. It has been commanded by the Powers That Be that vernacular translations of the Mass more closely match the Latin text of the Roman Missal, Latin being the official language of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet it seems that neither Jesus, nor his disciples, nor the evangelists and writers of the New Testament, spoke or wrote in Latin. They spoke Aramaic or Hebrew or Greek. These texts were formally translated to Latin beginning in roughly the 4th Century.

Consider for a moment the humor found when one goes through several languages to arrive at a literal translation to important instruction. There are examples of it all over the Internet. Now consider that for Catholics, the 'new' translation of the Missal is not really new at all, but resurrects texts not used in nearly half a century. "The Lord be with you." But no longer "also with you," but rather "with your spirit." Wanna run that by me again? The body isn't good enough anymore?

The most contested of these texts is in the transliteration of the Nicene Creed. In Latin, the phrase Consubstantialem Patri; in our current English use, "one in being with the Father" becomes "con-substantive with the Father." As Fr. Bill quipped, when is the last time you used or heard the word "con-substantive" used in a sentence? (Reminiscent of watching the National Spelling Bee.) Then he continued to suggest that just maybe, considering the state of the Church and her priesthood, and the general state of the world, that priorities might not quite be in order.

That was the answer to my prayer. Compassion and mercy were still on top of the list where God was concerned. Yes, there would still be all these other things, and like Peter, our most well-intended thoughts and actions may get in the way of what we're called to do and to be. This reaffirmed what I had tersely written at the conclusion of my last post. I must first be open to receiving God's compassion and mercy, understand I have already received it, and spread it in every possible way. The lines in the sand that humanity insists must be drawn will always be there. Jesus showed us that these lines must not become too solid, lest we forget our own ultimate destiny on life's pilgrimage.

And then Fr. Bill finishes his homily, and invites the congregation to "profess our faith...before we change our minds." This causes one of the loudest outbursts of laughter I've heard in a Catholic Church in a long time...which makes me wonder if I can possibly sing the remainder of the service and keep a dignified face. God provided the grace, as always.

On Sunday, it was out to Cornerstone, the Methodist congregation I have come to consider a second spiritual home.

On the plan for the day - the sermon from a missionary to, of all places, Lithuania. I was intrigued for several reasons. One, the missionary is from the Cornerstone congregation; two, Lithuania's demography is 95% Christian (and likely 90% Catholic); and third, the music director at my Catholic church is a Lithuanian immigrant. There are fewer than 700 registered Methodists in the entire country, and only six pastors; yet, people there refer to the Methodist Church as "the little Church that cares."

Given the demographics, the preacher wondered why he was being sent to Lithuania. Then he began to research the country's history of struggles and occupation. Territorial ownership changed many times over the last 700 years; the last, as one of the Soviet Russian republics, was thrown out nearly twenty years ago. Under Soviet and Communist rule, Catholicism was left barely intact as the state religion. Even so, many churches were ordered converted for secular use, including one cathedral which became an atheist museum and cultural center.

A popular shrine in Lithuania is the (English name) "Hill of Crosses." Wikipedia states that as of 2006 there are an estimated 100,000 crosses of various sizes and styles that have been left there for just as many needs and intentions. Looking at the pictures provided by Wikipedia, and one other provided by the missionary during his sermon, it is clear that a majority of these crosses bear the body of the crucified Jesus, something particular but not necessarily limited to Catholicism. Given their history, Lithuanian Christians have been immersed in the aspect of Jesus as the Suffering Servant; and with it, the theology that one can expect to live this life in misery in anticipation of a glorious life in heaven.

Catholics in America should also recognize this theology. Until about fifty years ago, pain and suffering was as standard fare in preaching as is daily Holy Communion. Even today, Catholics confront that part of their identity during Lent. Many of us have an understanding now that this theology, while indeed accurate, is incomplete.

Straddling the fence as I do, I know that this is preached even today. Still, I also take this with an understanding that this is how many people have come to cope with life; and that a majority of Christians will resonate with it at least once in their lifetime. That there is a "little church that cares" is by God's design. Not that big churches don't care; I can confidently say they do. What holds things back are the things of our flawed humanity, and the weaknesses permeate everything of this world, just as do our strengths and triumphs.

In 1991 Lithuania broke away as a Russian territory and reestablished itself as an independent state. It was a courageous move. More courageous still will be the day when we're all aware that it takes joy and triumph as well as pain and suffering to exalt every valley and straddle the mountaintops, to make the crooked roads straight, and the rough places plain. How we will do it will depend on the priorities we set; but the greatest of these -for me- will be in the tender compassion of God, as the dawn of a new day breaks upon us. May it shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and may it guide all of our footsteps in the way of everlasting peace.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Keys to the Kingdom

The Word (Matthew 16:18-19, NIV):

"I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

I was helping my dear wife the other day. Our dining room table has a compartment below its surface, and it has to be cleaned out periodically as table crumbs from our meals get down in there and accumulate. It was my intention to get this out of the way and not procrastinate in this tedious but necessary task.

While going about cleaning there were the usual discoveries: a few instruction booklets and warranty cards from small appliances we no longer owned, the stray pen or two that no longer worked, and a few other things that we were ready to discard. Likewise, there were other things that needed to be kept and if possible relocated to other storage places.

We were nearing the end of the job when I discovered a set of keys on a fob my wife had made. Because this was her handiwork, I thought the keys were hers - to someplace like her parents' house, a place we don't normally need keys to get to but should have should there be an emergency. But no, these weren't hers, she said.

I took another look at them. A couple of them were stamped as having been duplicated by the locksmith in town. And then it hit me. These were the keys to the church building where I had served as a deacon until eleven years ago, that part of my life I wrote about in this blog and behind me; at least that's what I thought.

But keys are generally carried on a man's person, and carry all the energy - good and bad - that accumulate over time by the person bearing them. Flood gates were released, a wound was reopened, and with it, the haunting notion behind Jesus' words, quoted by the apostle Matthew.

Most traditional Christians and especially Catholics are aware of the symbolism behind Peter's receiving the keys to the Pearly Gates. By these words he becomes the gatekeeper. He also becomes the rock, the foundation, the leader, of the early Church. No matter how many times he would do something of questionable or dubious thought througout  the Gospels, here it is made clear that Peter is to inherit the mantle of leadership.

But there's more. In undertaking this role, Peter is given carte blanche authority in making decisions. Whatever you declare lawful on earth is lawful in heaven, and whatever you declare unlawful on earth is automatically unlawful in heaven. Phenomenal and absolute power! Many times, of course, Peter demonstrated in both strength and weakness that Jesus had chosen from the beginning of time the right person for this arduous task. Then you consider the concept of apostolic succession, meaning all Peter's successors as popes of the Church assumed the same authority and power - and to an extent, every bishop as well.

I thought of these verses and the implications therein as I stared at the keys in my hand, with a sense of near burning heat to them. I was reminded that I was far from perfect, and I will one day have to account for my imperfections and lack of full discernment. Much that has transpired over the last eleven years from a faith perspective could be questionable according to whose rules I am judged.

I've lost track of how many times I've holed myself up privately to throw my life at Jesus' feet and beg for mercy and compassion - because I indeed believe and surely trust in those attributes above just about everything else I've been taught along these lines. But is that all lost in the final analysis due to what Jesus said to Peter? That judgment is already determined?

I cannot, I must not read too much into this. I still trust in God's love and mercy. And to assure that it is there, I must act as if I have already received it, which indeed I have. I must show others as best I can the depths to which that mercy and compassion can reach. Here, in this life, this is not a simple thing. The keys remind me of that. In our existence, there are impenetrable fortresses, deep chasms, and all manner of locks and blockades and red tape and policies and procedures and code that would make one think that any attempt to break through is useless.

But one candle's light penetrates the darkness, and one simple act of kindness has the potential of unlocking so many doors that will otherwise remain closed. The evidence in these times prove it out.