We're the sent ones

Our son Miles graduated from Hillsboro High School on May 13; I had the privilege of giving the Baccalaureate address the night before. These are my notes.


Ladies and Gentlemen of the Class of 2016, parents and families, teachers, friends:

Take a moment, just a moment, to let it sink in. Tomorrow is your graduation day. It’ll be a big day, a long-awaited day, and everybody will be excited, and you’ll be at the arena and you’ll line up, and you’ll file in, and you’ll be looking around at your friends, and you’ll be scanning the stands for the faces of the people you love and who love you, and you’ll be waiting for the next thing to happen, and you’ll feel a rush of emotions, and you’ll ride those waves with the poise of a surfer, and you’ll cross the stage with confidence because you have done it - you’ve really done it - and you’ll come down those steps with a diploma in your hand and a smile on your face, and the people who love you will laugh and cry and cheer, and everybody will be taking pictures, and you won’t have a moment to let it sink in: You’re done with high school. The next time you go back there, if you ever go back there, they’ll make you get a visitor’s pass.

You’ve learned a bunch of stuff you’re quite certain you’ll never look at again in your life, but you’ve also learned to wear some of your certainties lightly, because there’s so much to explore and discover and learn. Perhaps you’re a little worried about what’s next; perhaps you’re wondering how to explain that you’re thinking about changing your major when you haven’t even been to freshman orientation at college - don’t worry about it, it’s your mind’s way of celebrating all the possibilities you have unlocked with your hard work. You are smart, you are skilled, you have pushed hard against all kinds of challenges since your freshman year as a Burro, and you have accomplished this: four years of endless assignments, early mornings, trips to the office, notes home, tapping into every reserve of energy and imagination, tests, exams, and class presentations, forgotten homework, late night studying, and then up again in the morning to do it all over again. You’ve done it and no one can take this away from you; you can build on this with confidence.

As one of the dads in this room, I can tell you, we’re very proud of you. But why should I tell you. Parents, families, friends and teachers of the Class of 2016, will you please stand? When I say, “Hillsboro Class of 2016,” I want you to say “we’re proud of you” and add the name of the student or students you’re celebrating. Hillsboro Class of 2016 - We’re proud of you.

Please be seated. Yes, you have accomplished much, ladies and gentlemen. I invite you to take a moment and remember the people who helped you get here; your parents, your teachers, that one teacher or coach who got through to you when nobody else did, you know who I’m talking about. Class of 2016, will you please stand? I want you to think of the people whose love and support you could count on, and when I raise my arms, I invite you to say, “Thank you.”

Please be seated. I think we’ve said what is most important to say on a day like today. We’re proud of you. Thank you. Saying these words helps us remember that we are who we are because of the people who love us, and what a magical thing it is to love somebody and to watch them flourish. It’s the ancient rhythm of receiving the gift of life and discovering our own, personal ways to share that gift with others through our love and our work.

The rabbis tell the story of a young woman who saw the suffering in the world about her and pleaded with heaven. “Creator of the Universe, there is so much pain in the world. War, famine, cruelty, ignorance, fear. Why don’t you send someone to change it?” And a voice from heaven replied, “I did send someone. I sent you.”

That’s us, the sent ones. Each and every one of us and all of us together. Not all of us will use religious language to speak of our sense of being sent - but don’t we all know that feeling of life calling us, of the world calling us, the feeling ofhaving been sent to help the world become a home where all of life flourishes, through our love and our work?

Let me close with a story. The Buddhist monk Tetsugen wanted to translate the teachings of the Buddha into Japanese. He spent ten years begging for the money it would take to have them printed. Just as he was about to begin the first printing, a great flood came and left thousands homeless. So Tetsugen took the money he had raised to publish the scriptures and built houses for the homeless.

Then he began again to beg the money he needed to publish the scriptures. Ten years later, just as he finished collecting the funds he needed for the task, a great famine came. This time, Tetsugen took the money for the translation work and spent it to buy food for the hungry. Then he began another decade’s work of collecting the money for the third time.

When the scriptures were finally printed in Japanese, they were enshrined for all to see. Parents take their children and teachers their students to view the books, and they tell them that the first two editions of those scriptures - houses for the homeless and the people who got to eat - were even more beautiful than the third, the printed edition.

We’re the sent ones. Sent to find the teachings worth printing. Sent to translate them into lives of love and work. Congratulations, Class of 2016.

From Bystanders to Upstanders

An evening of learning with Dr. Rachel Korazim

Tuesday, May 3, 6:30 p.m.

Vine Street Christian Church | 4101 Harding Pike | Nashville, TN 37205

Download event flyer

Facebook event

When reflecting on the Holocaust as well as other events of genocide, we tend to focus on the perpetrators and the victims. Yet there is another group of people who play an important role in allowing crimes of such magnitude to happen: the bystanders. The reasons why people choose to look away and not get involved are many, but among the bystanders are also the very few who summon the courage to stand up and resist the regime of death. Our speaker, Dr. Rachel Korazim, will focus on German, French and Polish literary works that explore the unique moments of revelation that turn ordinary men and women into heroes. What can we learn from them? Will they inspire us to stand up when it’s up to us?

Rachel Korazim

Dr. Rachel Korazim

Rachel is a freelance Jewish education consultant specializing in curriculum development for Israel and Holocaust education.

Until 2008 she had been the Academic Director of Distance Learning programs at the JAFI (Jewish Agency for Israel) Department of Education.

Born in Israel, she is a graduate of Haifa University with a Ph.D. in Jewish education. Rachel has been involved with Jewish education worldwide, creating and implementing in-service training programs for educators, writing educational materials, counseling and teaching.

This event is free and open to the public. It has been planned by West End Synagogue and Vine Street Christian Church in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Nashville.

Smells like heaven

Alice works for a big bank, but she feels most fully alive when she is involved in what she calls her other job. She works with a local non-profit whose mission is to feed the hungry by collecting and preparing perfectly good food from restaurants and stores, food that would otherwise be discarded. So it was not unusual for her to stop by a doughnut shop the other day, early in the morning, before she had to be at the office. She picked up three large boxes of doughnuts that hadn’t been sold the previous day; two boxes of sweet deliciousness on the backseat of her Honda, and another one on the passenger seat. The chef would transform this portion of the harvest into a fluffy, crusty baked dessert with a vanilla custard, and in just a few hours, volunteers would serve it as part of a nutritious, tasty and beautifully presented lunch to folks in the city who often go hungry. Alice was happy she could contribute to that daily feast. She was humming on her way to the bank, and circling down into the garage she had a smile on her face, and she was still smiling when she stepped on the elevator that would take her to the twelfth floor. Three more people got in the car when it stopped at the lobby, and one of them, briefcase in one hand, phone in the other, eyes on the screen, suddenly looked up, looked around with big, happy eyes, and said, “It smells like doughnuts in here. I LOVE doughnuts.” Yes, Alice blushed a little, but only for a fraction of a second. Then she told everybody on the way up about the joy and fulfilment she and others from across the city found by contributing to the daily feast for the city’s poor. When she got off on the twelfth floor, she had recruited the doughnut lover to come along on her next food-gleaning round, and she didn’t even try. Perhaps it’s not a silly thing to say that joy has a particular scent; that fulfilling work gives off an inviting aroma, and that there’s a fragrance that comes with loving your neighbor well.

Do you have a happy smell? I love the way the air smells after a thunder storm in the summer. Do you love waking up to the aroma of coffee and bacon coming from the kitchen? Do you remember when you buried your face in your child’s clothes at the end of the day and it smelled like laughter and life and love? I’m so glad nobody’s been able to bottle that scent and sell it, and I hope it’ll stay that way; I hope it’ll stay that way until the day when the kingdom of God has come in fullness and all of creation smells like life without end.

Bottled smells are big business. The smell industry generates billions of dollars a year globally, developing and selling the fragrances that go into laundry products, soaps and shampoos, perfumes and candles, cleaners and a host of other products.

You’ve heard about people with perfect pitch, haven’t you? They’re people who hear a note, sung or played on an instrument, and they can tell you exactly what it is. An A or a D or something just a shy of a C on the flat side. It’s amazing. Luca Turin is a man with a nose like that. He can detect and name even the subtlest nuances in a bouquet of fragrances, and, not surprisingly, his passion are perfumes. He doesn’t just love to smell them, he writes about them as few others can. He wrote the first-ever perfume guide, and continues to write perfume reviews. Now of course you’d expect words like citrus, leather, flowery, bergamot or musk in a perfume reviewer’s dictionary, but Luca is a master. You can tell when he loves a fragrance, because he’ll say things like, “Thanks to Rive Gauche, mortals can at last know the scent of the goddess Diana’s bath soap.” It’s equally obvious when he hates a scent: “57 for Her is a sad little thing, an incongruous dried-prunes note with a metallic edge that manages the rare feat of being at once cloying and harsh.” Rush by Gucci, he wrote, “smells like an infant’s breath mixed with his mother’s hair spray,” – and he leaves it to the reader to decide whether that is something she might want to wear or rather not.[1]

It is difficult to describe with words an aroma or an odor, but it is not difficult at all to evoke memories of a scent. All I have to do is say, freshly ironed shirt. Rain falling on hot pavement. Haystack. Doughnuts.

In the gospel of John there’s this scene where Jesus appears to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. They had been out fishing, and coming ashore, they saw a charcoal fire, with fish on it, and bread. And Jesus said to them, “Come, and have breakfast” (John 21:9-12). It’s easy to catch a whiff of the aroma surrounding that breakfast on the beach, that blend of grilled fish, warm bread, and a cool breeze from the lake.

In today’s passage John draws our attention to the fragrance that filled the house. The house belonged to Jesus’ friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, and Jesus stayed with them for dinner the day before he entered Jerusalem for the last time. Just a little while ago Jesus had brought life to their house. The sisters had sent him a message to let him know that Lazarus was very ill, and when he arrived, he found that his friend had already been in the tomb for days. Martha told him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

In the gospel of John, there are only two scenes where our attention is drawn to the scent surrounding the scene; both times it’s in Bethany, in and around the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There is the stench of death and then there is the fragrance of love, and John wants us to remember which smell fills the house in the end.

Jesus came to Bethany, just two miles outside of Jerusalem, knowing full well that his opponents in the city were making plans to put him to death. He knew that this might well be his last meal with his good friends. Martha served the food, Lazarus was one of those at table with him, and no one had noticed that Mary had gone until she came back, holding a small jar in her hands. Without saying a word she knelt and poured the content of the jar on Jesus’ feet, a pound of perfume made of pure nard, and she wiped his feet with her hair. She didn’t say a word. Judas, it appears, did all the talking. He objected, pointing out that for the cost of a pound of ointment a worker’s family could have been fed for almost a year. It sounded like the voice of moral protest, it sounded like advocacy for the poor – but it smelled rotten, because it didn’t have love in it. It was just ugly noise.

Mary knew Jesus’ hour had come, she knew that death was closing in. She could have poured the fragrant oil on Jesus’ head, anointing him king of Israel, preparing him for a triumphal entry into the city, but she knew where he was going. And so she dropped on her knees and poured the precious balm on his feet, preparing his body for burial. “Leave her alone,” Jesus said to those who would have prevented her. “Leave her alone.” Mary knew what lay ahead for him, she knew that he would hold nothing back, and with lavish extravagance, pouring out her love and gratitude, she honored the man whose whole life was a revelation of the extravagant love of God.

Just a few days later, Jesus would spend the last evening with his disciples in the city. During supper, in a sequence of actions reminiscent of what Mary had done, Jesus would get up, take off his robe, tie a towel around himself, pour water into a basin, and begin to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel. And he would say to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Mary of Bethany lived that new commandment, even before it was given. Her house, just outside the city where deathly plans were being plotted, had become a house of prophetic action and instruction. The stench of death was still a vivid memory there, but what lingered, what infused every room and corner of the house was the sweet scent of love’s extravagance. On the day the kingdom of God has come in fullness, the scent that will fill all of creation is God’s love poured out freely as it has been since the beginning, and poured out again, finally poured out again, with fearless generosity, by the creatures made in the image and likeness of God.

“Just as I have loved you,” Jesus said, “you also should love one another.” I don’t know if Alice knows she’s doing the work of the kingdom. She’s finding joy and fulfilment in contributing to the daily feast of life. Smells like heaven.

 


[1] Quotes from Susan Adams, The Scent of Money http://www.forbes.com/global/2003/0203/054.html

Rewriting the story of the first brothers

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the story begins, except that it is a story within a story that begins with grumbling voices, muttering, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Yes, indeed, he does. It all begins with how Jesus embodies the reconciling love of God.

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable begins, inviting us to find ourselves in it, inviting us to identify with the younger or the older sibling, with the father or with one of the party guests, or with the mother who is conspicuously absent throughout, and we don’t know if it’s for reasons of narrative economy or because of a cultural bias that sees little reason to tell stories of a woman who had two sons or a man who had two daughters. Garrison Keillor, I read somewhere, once opened, “There was a man who had two sons … and a daughter-in-law,” and then he told the whole story from her perspective. I’ll have to look it up sometime, if only to find out which of the two sons she was married to.

I grew up being both the younger of two sons and the older brother of a younger sister; so I know the feeling of being second in line, I’ve worn my share of hand-me-downs. I also know the feeling of seeing the younger one get away with stuff for which I had to pay dearly while listening to my brother telling me I didn’t know how easy I’d had it compared to him who singlehandedly cleared so many trails through the thickets of parental insecurity, always three years ahead of me. I know, I know, it’s hard to be the firstborn, the crown prince.

One of the first stories in the Bible is about two brothers, Cain and Abel, and we know how that one ended for the younger of the two. The book of Genesis contains the story of our deepest roots and our oldest wounds, and in every generation of Abraham’s children, we encounter the pattern of the two brothers – Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, the sons of Jacob who act like one and their little brother Joseph – and in each case, it’s the little brother whose story we remember and follow. It’s almost like there is a desire at work to rewrite the story of the first brothers, a story of rivalry and death.

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable in Luke opens. At some point in the past, Bible publishers started adding section headings to the text. Stories were given titles, and titles direct attention. Titles suggest what to hear or how to read. “The parable of the prodigal son” it was called and that’s how we’ve read it, leaving the older brother standing in the field as though he wasn’t really part of the story anyway. No one thought of calling it “the parable of the prodigal father” until just a few years ago, or “the parable of the brothers and their prodigal father.” What would you call it?

You take a look at the two sons, and you notice that neither is a particularly attractive character. The younger is disrespectful, self-absorbed, and reckless, perhaps manipulative. The older comes across as heartless, resentful, and jealous. But whether we like it or not, we can identify with either, at least to a degree, men and women alike, I presume. We wonder what it might be like to be so brave and just leave home to go and see the world. Sure, he is reckless, but he is young and we admire his adventurous spirit. Perhaps you were once just like him, or perhaps you wish you had been like him, just a little. Or do you find it easier to relate to the firstborn, the responsible one, the one who does what he says and shows up on time and takes care of the family farm? “Doesn’t he have a point?” you say to yourself, and perhaps you know all too well what it’s like to make sacrifices every day and no one seems to care, let alone appreciate or celebrate what you do. Is it too much to ask to be treated fairly? The property had been divided, and each one had been given a fair share, and the younger chose to cash it all in and squander it. It may be good and right to give somebody a second chance, sure, give him work to do and food to eat, give him a roof over his head—but a party? And this wasn’t a fried chicken and potato salad party. They killed the fatted calf, expecting the whole town to celebrate.

And then there’s the father who apparently doesn’t believe that children who are old enough to go away should also be ready to live with the consequences of their choices. When his son comes home – broke, humiliated, and hungry – dad is beside himself, acting like a fool. Forgetting just about everything that is proper for a patriarch in his culture and what most of us today would consider reasonable or wise, he runs down the road and throws his arms around the young man, shouting orders over his shoulder between hugs, “The robe—the best one—quickly. The ring—bring it—put in on his finger. And sandals, bring sandals!—Kill the calf! Invite the whole town! Let us eat. Let us celebrate! This is my son; he was dead and is alive again!”

Only Jesus could come up with a story like this. In our version of the story, the younger son would have some explaining to do. In our story, the father would be waiting in the house, sitting in his chair, arms folded, with a stern look on his face. He would listen to what the young man had to say for himself, and then, perhaps, he would look at him and say, “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to see the error of your ways; I hope you learned your lesson. Now go and help your brother in the field.”

In our story, there wouldn’t be a party. But it’s not our story. It’s Jesus’ story for us. Sinners felt at home in the company of Jesus; even notorious sinners who were shunned by everybody in town came near to listen to him, or just to be around him. He did not avoid them. He didn’t turn them away. He didn’t mind being seen with them, and he even broke bread with them, openly. Some people were wondering why Jesus didn’t at least wait until those sinners had changed their ways. His actions were confusing to them, and their hearts were pulled back and forth between a genuine desire to understand and loudly demanding an explanation.

In response, Jesus told stories about the joy of heaven, God stories of a shepherd who searched the hills for one lost sheep until he found it and of a woman who swept the house from the attic to the basement, searching diligently for one coin she had lost until she had found it. Every human being is a precious child of God first and foremost, Jesus taught, and he lived to make that reality tangible, and he would die embodying the deep truth of God’s love for us, regardless of how sinful or righteous we take others or ourselves to be. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. God’s love, he taught us with his life, is not a reward for the good boys and girls. God’s love is the ultimate reality. Out of God’s love all things have been created; God’s love holds all things so nothing and no one can fall deeper than into the arms of God; and when all things come to an end, God’s love will abide and God’s beloved in it. It is because of God’s love that we come to ourselves in that distant country where we squander our inheritance until we remember that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. The younger son in the parable did everything he could not to think of himself as a child of his father and a brother to his brother. But the father never stopped thinking of him as a beloved child. Never.

We are at the end of the parable. The elder brother is standing outside the house; light, laughter and music are pouring through the windows, but he can’t move. Or is it that he doesn’t want to move? No one has asked him whether he wants to be reconciled with this good-for-nothing wastrel. No one has asked him how he feels about wearing the second best robe, since the best one apparently has been given to this wandering squanderer. He is standing outside, arms crossed, fists clenched, his jaw tight. He refuses to go inside. It feels good to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and he knows which one he is. But the father comes outside and pleads with him to come in. He doesn’t want this to end with one brother chosen and the other rejected. He wants this to end with a feast which fairness cannot host, but which love never tires to prepare. He wants this to end in reconciliation and rejoicing.

We all get lost, whether it’s by wandering off to a distant country of loveless self-absorption or by never leaving at all – it doesn’t matter how we forgot that we are not strangers or each other’s keepers, but beloved sons and daughters of God and each other’s brothers and sisters. What does matter is that God rejoices when we begin to remember.

The parable remains open at the end. We don’t know if the elder son will enter the house of reconciliation. We don’t know if in the end being a son and a brother will have more weight than being right and being hurt. We can be confident, however, because of the one who told the story and lived it, that the father will not stop searching for the brothers, pleading with them and embracing them until they are reconciled. The feast will not be complete until every son and daughter of God remembers that we are made for communion with God and with each other.

Rewriting the story of the first brothers

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the story begins, except that it is a story within a story that begins with grumbling voices, muttering, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Yes, indeed, he does. It all begins with how Jesus embodies the reconciling love of God.

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable begins, inviting us to find ourselves in it, inviting us to identify with the younger or the older sibling, with the father or with one of the party guests, or with the mother who is conspicuously absent throughout, and we don’t know if it’s for reasons of narrative economy or because of a cultural bias that sees little reason to tell stories of a woman who had two sons or a man who had two daughters. Garrison Keillor, I read somewhere, once opened, “There was a man who had two sons … and a daughter-in-law,” and then he told the whole story from her perspective. I’ll have to look it up sometime, if only to find out which of the two sons she was married to.

I grew up being both the younger of two sons and the older brother of a younger sister; so I know the feeling of being second in line, I’ve worn my share of hand-me-downs. I also know the feeling of seeing the younger one get away with stuff for which I had to pay dearly while listening to my brother telling me I didn’t know how easy I’d had it compared to him who singlehandedly cleared so many trails through the thickets of parental insecurity, always three years ahead of me. I know, I know, it’s hard to be the firstborn, the crown prince.

One of the first stories in the Bible is about two brothers, Cain and Abel, and we know how that one ended for the younger of the two. The book of Genesis contains the story of our deepest roots and our oldest wounds, and in every generation of Abraham’s children, we encounter the pattern of the two brothers – Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, the sons of Jacob who act like one and their little brother Joseph – and in each case, it’s the little brother whose story we remember and follow. It’s almost like there is a desire at work to rewrite the story of the first brothers, a story of rivalry and death.

“There was a man who had two sons…,” the parable in Luke opens. At some point in the past, Bible publishers started adding section headings to the text. Stories were given titles, and titles direct attention. Titles suggest what to hear or how to read. “The parable of the prodigal son” it was called and that’s how we’ve read it, leaving the older brother standing in the field as though he wasn’t really part of the story anyway. No one thought of calling it “the parable of the prodigal father” until just a few years ago, or “the parable of the brothers and their prodigal father.” What would you call it?

You take a look at the two sons, and you notice that neither is a particularly attractive character. The younger is disrespectful, self-absorbed, and reckless, perhaps manipulative. The older comes across as heartless, resentful, and jealous. But whether we like it or not, we can identify with either, at least to a degree, men and women alike, I presume. We wonder what it might be like to be so brave and just leave home to go and see the world. Sure, he is reckless, but he is young and we admire his adventurous spirit. Perhaps you were once just like him, or perhaps you wish you had been like him, just a little. Or do you find it easier to relate to the firstborn, the responsible one, the one who does what he says and shows up on time and takes care of the family farm? “Doesn’t he have a point?” you say to yourself, and perhaps you know all too well what it’s like to make sacrifices every day and no one seems to care, let alone appreciate or celebrate what you do. Is it too much to ask to be treated fairly? The property had been divided, and each one had been given a fair share, and the younger chose to cash it all in and squander it. It may be good and right to give somebody a second chance, sure, give him work to do and food to eat, give him a roof over his head—but a party? And this wasn’t a fried chicken and potato salad party. They killed the fatted calf, expecting the whole town to celebrate.

And then there’s the father who apparently doesn’t believe that children who are old enough to go away should also be ready to live with the consequences of their choices. When his son comes home – broke, humiliated, and hungry – dad is beside himself, acting like a fool. Forgetting just about everything that is proper for a patriarch in his culture and what most of us today would consider reasonable or wise, he runs down the road and throws his arms around the young man, shouting orders over his shoulder between hugs, “The robe—the best one—quickly. The ring—bring it—put in on his finger. And sandals, bring sandals!—Kill the calf! Invite the whole town! Let us eat. Let us celebrate! This is my son; he was dead and is alive again!”

Only Jesus could come up with a story like this. In our version of the story, the younger son would have some explaining to do. In our story, the father would be waiting in the house, sitting in his chair, arms folded, with a stern look on his face. He would listen to what the young man had to say for himself, and then, perhaps, he would look at him and say, “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to see the error of your ways; I hope you learned your lesson. Now go and help your brother in the field.”

In our story, there wouldn’t be a party. But it’s not our story. It’s Jesus’ story for us. Sinners felt at home in the company of Jesus; even notorious sinners who were shunned by everybody in town came near to listen to him, or just to be around him. He did not avoid them. He didn’t turn them away. He didn’t mind being seen with them, and he even broke bread with them, openly. Some people were wondering why Jesus didn’t at least wait until those sinners had changed their ways. His actions were confusing to them, and their hearts were pulled back and forth between a genuine desire to understand and loudly demanding an explanation.

In response, Jesus told stories about the joy of heaven, God stories of a shepherd who searched the hills for one lost sheep until he found it and of a woman who swept the house from the attic to the basement, searching diligently for one coin she had lost until she had found it. Every human being is a precious child of God first and foremost, Jesus taught, and he lived to make that reality tangible, and he would die embodying the deep truth of God’s love for us, regardless of how sinful or righteous we take others or ourselves to be. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. God’s love, he taught us with his life, is not a reward for the good boys and girls. God’s love is the ultimate reality. Out of God’s love all things have been created; God’s love holds all things so nothing and no one can fall deeper than into the arms of God; and when all things come to an end, God’s love will abide and God’s beloved in it. It is because of God’s love that we come to ourselves in that distant country where we squander our inheritance until we remember that we are beloved sons and daughters of God. The younger son in the parable did everything he could not to think of himself as a child of his father and a brother to his brother. But the father never stopped thinking of him as a beloved child. Never.

We are at the end of the parable. The elder brother is standing outside the house; light, laughter and music are pouring through the windows, but he can’t move. Or is it that he doesn’t want to move? No one has asked him whether he wants to be reconciled with this good-for-nothing wastrel. No one has asked him how he feels about wearing the second best robe, since the best one apparently has been given to this wandering squanderer. He is standing outside, arms crossed, fists clenched, his jaw tight. He refuses to go inside. It feels good to know who’s right and who’s wrong, and he knows which one he is. But the father comes outside and pleads with him to come in. He doesn’t want this to end with one brother chosen and the other rejected. He wants this to end with a feast which fairness cannot host, but which love never tires to prepare. He wants this to end in reconciliation and rejoicing.

We all get lost, whether it’s by wandering off to a distant country of loveless self-absorption or by never leaving at all – it doesn’t matter how we forgot that we are not strangers or each other’s keepers, but beloved sons and daughters of God and each other’s brothers and sisters. What does matter is that God rejoices when we begin to remember.

The parable remains open at the end. We don’t know if the elder son will enter the house of reconciliation. We don’t know if in the end being a son and a brother will have more weight than being right and being hurt. We can be confident, however, because of the one who told the story and lived it, that the father will not stop searching for the brothers, pleading with them and embracing them until they are reconciled. The feast will not be complete until every son and daughter of God remembers that we are made for communion with God and with each other.

The transfiguration of the everyday

In the middle of Luke’s gospel there is this mountain; it simply appears, without name or introduction:

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.

Not a mountain, but the mountain. Luke is not talking about the landscape or about hiking, but rather about the topography of faith and prayer. I read the story as a metaphorical illustration of our walk with Jesus and the way he brings us into communion with God, and the effort that is involved in that, and how God opens our eyes to see who Jesus is, and how little if anything that gift has to do with our effort.

Jesus went up and the three went with him; their feet were sore, and their legs, weary. They had been working long hours bringing the good news to villages in Galilee and curing diseases, setting food before thousands and gathering baskets full of leftovers. They were tired. And while Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes were shining like the sun was rising inside of him. Everything was bathed in that dazzling light. They were tired, very tired, but they saw Jesus, their master and friend, talking with two of God’s great servants of the past, Moses and Elijah – it was as though time had ceased or all the fullness of time had been crammed into that one moment. Moses, Elijah and Jesus were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. They were talking about his death on that hill outside of Jerusalem, at the end of the way he was on, but they did not use the word death. And they did not speak of it as something that would happen to him, but something he would accomplish. The word translated as departure is the Greek exodos, and with Moses right there, no other hint is needed. Jesus would go to Jerusalem to lead God’s people from bondage to freedom. This time the great opponent wouldn’t be Pharaoh; the struggle was against all the powers that keep God’s children in captivity, against all that prevents God’s people from entering the joy of God’s reign and finding the peace of God. It would be the completion of the exodus from the house of slavery, with Jesus laying down his own body to part the waters and rising on the other side, the firstborn from the dead.

Elijah was the prophet whose coming meant that redemption was near, that the Messiah was due, and there was Elijah talking to Jesus – everything was coming together beautifully for them on the top of the mountain. They saw the glory of God illuminating the body of Jesus. They heard the voices of the great prophets affirming the way of the cross as the way of redemption. The moment was awesome and holy, and they wanted it to last; everything was beautiful and clear, bathed in heavenly light, and all they could think of was, abide. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Don’t let this end; abide, and let us behold this beauty for good.

Prayer can bring us into God’s presence, and the glory of God can erupt anytime and anywhere. When it does we can mark the spot with a rock like Jacob who saw a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. “How awesome is this place!” he said. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I, I did not know it,” and he called it Beth-El, house of God.[1] We can mark the spot with a cairn, a rock, or a temple, with three dwellings or a sanctuary, but God’s glory will not stay on our map. On the mountain, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified. In that darkness nothing dazzled, nothing shone, all they could see was the absence of all things visible. Whereas before everything had been exceedingly clear and together, now they were completely in the dark without any sense of place or direction. They had fallen from the heights of holy awe to the depths of utter disorientation. And in the darkness they heard the voice:

This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.

They were given just one commandment for the journey across the plains of life: Listen to him.

The three didn’t say a word about what they had seen. They followed Jesus down from the mountain, down to the lowlands of life, down to where a great crowd was waiting. And there, at the foot of the mountain, the silence was broken by a father who cried out, “Teacher, I beg you, look at my son; he is my only child.” This father’s cry was like the echo of the voice they had heard on the mountain top, only here it was filled with pain and helplessness. This is where we long to see transfiguration, down here in the valleys and plains where the unholy, life-mauling spirits we cannot cast out snatch our children. This is where we long to see transfiguration, down here where we work and watch and pray for the light of heaven to illumine all the earth. And down here is where we encounter God’s Chosen One among the people who are hurting, in the places where despair threatens to smother all hope. Down here is where we listen to the One who embodies God’s grace and compassion, calling us to repentance and challenging us to follow him all the way to the cross.

Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of spiritual splendor, but deeper into the world. The long journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. It begins with following Jesus on the way, and it continues with seeing the glory of God in the face of Jesus, not only on the mountain, but also on the cross, and then it continues with recognizing Jesus in the faces of every man, woman, or child. The light of God shines in our hearts, and this light, the complete and unending love of God, opens our eyes to see what is there, what is really there, in every human face and in every creature great and small, in everything God has made.

Seeing what is really there is of course no simple matter. I have looked, but I still haven’t found a lovelier set of lines that capture with candor and wit the difficulty of “seeing what is there” than Elizabeth Barret Browning’s four lines from her impossibly long poem, Aurora Leigh.[2]

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

I love the elegant rhythm of the third line, and how it all quickly collapses in the fourth. No, nothing’s wrong with noticing the sweet, shiny blackberries amid the prickly branches, nothing’s wrong with sitting round and plucking sweet fruit – but what is it that keeps us from seeing the fire in the bush and in each berry? Browning’s lines speak of heaven as a reality that crams the everyday and shines through everything. We have microscopes and scanners that allow us to look deep into things, and we have built powerful telescopes that give us glimpses of cosmic events that happened millions of years ago, but we also sense that even the most advanced technology will not open our eyes to see what is there: a universe crammed with heaven, the love and light of God in all things.

John Ames, in Marilynne Robinson’s very beautiful book, Gilead, wrote in a letter to his son,

It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of creation and it turns to radiance for a moment or a year or the span of a life and then it sinks back into itself again and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire or light. (…) But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.[3]

On Wednesday, we enter the forty days of Lent with ashes on our foreheads, and we each have our own ways of nurturing that little willingness to see how constant and extravagant the Lord is. Perhaps you get up a few minutes earlier than usual each day, and for those few minutes, you just look at the tree in your backyard, and you do nothing else. Perhaps you follow Jesus up the mountain by walking away from facebook for a while, and instead of scrolling through newsfeeds, you feed on the good news of the glory of God in the face of Jesus. The journey ahead will take us from the mountain of light to the hill outside the city where Jesus was crucified, and the journey prepares us to see the love and light of God even there, especially there, in all its extravagance.

 


[1] Genesis 28:10ff.

[2] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (New York: C. S. Francis & Co, 1857)  p. 275-276 http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/barrett/aurora/aurora.html#7

[3] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), p. 245

The prophet goes home

“Prophecy,” wrote Abraham Heschel, “is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor. God is raging in the prophet’s words. In speaking, the prophet reveals God. This is the marvel of a prophet’s work: in his words, the invisible God becomes audible. Divine power bursts in his words. The authority of the prophet is in the Presence his words reveal.”[1]

The prophets, all of them, it seems, hesitate to take the call. “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” we hear Jeremiah protest, no doubt with trembling in his voice. “Do not be afraid of them,” the Lord replies, “I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:6, 8). The calling is inescapable. The prophet groans, “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:9). Silence becomes fire in the bones and speaking means giving voice to what many don’t want to hear and what some do not want said. The God who becomes audible outside the safety of the liturgy and in the voices of the anointed but non-ordained does not often find receptive hearts.

Jesus returned from the wilderness to Galilee, filled with the Holy Spirit, and he began to teach. He was praised by everyone, we read in Luke. His were words people wanted to hear. His were words people ate up like bread, good bread. His were words in which the invisible God became audible; his proclamation, some soon would say, made the invisible God visible and tangible. His authority was the Presence he revealed.

Jesus came to Nazareth. This is where we get to hear for the very first time what he was teaching. He read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, beautiful words of being anointed and sent to bring good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and the year of the Lord’s favor – and he let the Lord’s favor be the last word: he didn’t read the conclusion of the sentence that announced the day of God’s vengeance. For those with ears to hear the teaching had already begun with what he didn’t announce.

He rolled up the scroll and gave it to the attendant and sat down to teach. “Today,” he said, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And that was all he could say for a while, because the people in the synagogue started talking with each other about the gracious words that came from his mouth. “Today,” he said, “fulfilled.” The good people of Nazareth loved Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor because they were poor, and they had waited so long for redemption and release – and there he sat, Joseph’s boy, a son of Nazareth, speaking of fulfilment – an end to their captivity and oppression. What a happy Sabbath day it was!

Until Jesus continued to teach, that is, antagonizing them, it seems, with every additional word that came from his mouth, further elaborating what kind of fulfilment he was declaring. We don’t know if he put words in their mouths or if he had overheard bits and pieces of conversation when he said, “Doubtless you will quote to me…” He talked about the proverbial doctor and their expectation that he do in his hometown the things they had heard he did in Capernaum. Those things, healings presumably, and perhaps even greater things since this was home after all, they were his people, weren’t they? But he was no doctor, he was the prophet who proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor, and he would find little favor in his hometown. He merely hinted at a couple of stories they knew and loved, stories about two of the great prophets of old.

There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

That was all he said, but his examples of God’s boundless mercy didn’t bring more joy to the congregation, but rather something that stung, something like envy or wounded pride, something that felt like an indictment: Jesus reminded them that God’s promise to bring about righteousness and restore life to wholeness didn’t stop at the border. The prophets of God, he reminded them, had brought healing to Israel’s enemy, a general of the Syrian army, and they had brought hope and salvation to a Gentile widow and her son north of the border. Jesus’ fulfilment wouldn’t stop at the border either, not at any border. The good people of Nazareth thought that “today” would finally mean “their day” had come, and they couldn’t bear the thought that on this day of fulfilment for all, their hometown wasn’t God’s hometown any more than the rest of the world.

Will Willimon wrote about a friend of his who returned from an audience with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “When his Holiness speaks,” his friend said, “everyone in the room becomes quiet, serene and peaceful.”[2] There are moments when Jesus speaks and everyone becomes quiet, serene and peaceful, but this wasn’t it. Filled with amazement when he began his sermon, the people were filled with rage when they ended his proclamation violently, driving him out of the town, ready to kill him. But he passed throught the midst of them and went on his way.

Jesus didn’t go on his way because the people of Nazareth rejected him – it was rather the other way round: they rejected him because he insisted on going on his way; they rejected him because his hometown wasn’t theirs but the city of God where all are at home; they rejected him because he refused to be domesticated in familiarity.

In a way the scene foreshadows the entirety of Jesus’ Spirit-filled and Spirit-driven proclamation of God’s gracious reign. One moment we are amazed at the gracious words he speaks, and then we’re ready to silence him, whatever it may take, because we can’t handle the complete freedom of his sovereign grace and boundless mercy. We’re no less tempted than the good people of Nazareth to think of ourselves as God’s own hometown. Many churches in the United States in the second half of the 20th century got accustomed to viewing the world from a perspective of privilege; it was a comfortable perspective, an influential perspective. But our privileged position has also held us captive to ways of being God’s people in the world that no longer serve God’s purposes. We are only beginning to learn to look at things from a less privileged angle, and I believe this can be a liberating experience. It can teach us to trust the Spirit’s guidance, the living voice of Christ, rather than cling to forms that no longer serve God’s mission. It can lead us into fresh understandings of who God is for us, how we perceive God at work in the world, and how we can participate today in that proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.

We have a deep-seated desire for Christ to come to our hometown and do here the things we heard he has done elsewhere, but he comes to us, again and again, to call us to his hometown, the city of God’s reign.

“Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor,” wrote Abraham Heschel. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” cried Moses on the long journey to the promised land (Num 11:29). And God declared, according to the prophet Joel, “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. Even on the male and female slaves, in those days, I will pour out my spirit” (Joel 2:28-29). Jesus’ Spirit-filled and Spirit-driven proclamation of God’s gracious reign continues with us on whom God has poured out the power from on high; it continues with this curious gathering of men and women, young and old, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. Inspired to dream dreams and given visions of the world where God is at home, the church is called to be on the way with Christ, humbly, obediently, and courageously. We are called to give voice to those holy dreams and visions in the midst of a world still filled with silent agony, still plundering the poor, still awaiting the fulfilment of its redemption in Christ.

 


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings; quote from a review by John Dear at http://ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/abraham-heschels-prophetic-judaism

[2] William H. Willimon, The Christian Century, January 27, 2004, 20.

 

Hephzibah?

I will not keep silent. I will not hush. I will not be shushed. I will speak up and not stop speaking, preach and not stop preaching, shout and not stop shouting. For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest. I will keep this up until the nations and all the kings see the city’s vindication shining out like the dawn and her glory like a flaming torch. Somebody refuses to quietly put up with the status quo. Who is speaking in this passage from Isaiah? Who is saying, “I will not keep silent” so emphatically? Is it the prophet reciting what God has spoken, reminding his audience of God’s determination to speak and act on behalf of the beloved city? Or is it the prophet standing before God and the people vowing to intercede for Jerusalem, night and day, until God does what God has promised to do: restore the city and the land?

The people of the city had heard God’s promises for Jerusalem when they were still in exile in Babylon, far from home:

“O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted, I am about to lay your foundations with sapphires. I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of jewels, the whole encircling wall of precious stones. All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and the prosperity of your children shall be great. In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you.”[1]

They could see it in their dreams, the glowing, the gleaming, the glorious city of God. And as God had promised, they did come home. Around the year 539 Cyrus, king of Persia, proclaimed an end to the exile. He allowed the people of Judah to return home to their native land. He returned to them the sacred vessels and other treasures the Babylonian army had taken from the temple in Jerusalem before they destroyed both temple and city. And, wonder of wonders, Cyrus even encouraged them to rebuild the temple with funds from the royal treasury of Persia.They could see it in their dreams: the battlements of rubies, the gates of jewels, the wall of precious stones encircling the city of gold.

But the reality to which they returned was far from their dreams. Much of the land was a wasteland. Much of the city was in ruins. One prophet who observed the situation commented,

“Consider how you have fared; you have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.”[2]

The dream had holes in it. They let themselves be convinced to rebuild the temple as an assurance in stone of God’s presence, but it was so obvious that its glory could not match the glory of former days, let alone the splendor they had imagined. The city seemed forsaken, the land desolate. God seemed absent, detached, and indifferent. Why, they wondered. Was God giving them the silent treatment? Hadn’t they suffered enough? How long was the shadow of God’s judgment?

Their hope and confidence had holes in it. The echo of God’s life-giving word was growing faint in their hearts, they could barely hear it anymore. The prophet remembered the beautiful words, but the people had a hard time reconciling their current reality with the promises that once had given them such comfort, such hope:

For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you … For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.[3]

The nations and their kings had witnessed Jerusalem’s humiliation and they called her names, “Forsaken, Desolate,” and those names stuck. The God-forsaken city, the abandoned land, from this time on and forevermore. The names stuck and the people lived under them as though they were their proper names; forsaken; desolate; hopeless.

But Isaiah refused to let the circumstances silence him. Stubbornly he held on to the promises of God and resolved not to keep silent until they would be fulfilled. He would stand before the people and before God, reminding them both of the word given, refusing to rest until all of life reflected the glory of God. He would not keep silent, and he still speaks to us. Isaiah speaks to us in all the circumstances where we experience our communities as forsaken and desolate. He speaks to us when the deadly impact of drugs on our families and communities weighs us down. He speaks to us when we can’t seem to find a way out of the exile where the curse of racism is holding us captive. He speaks to us when people in our communities can’t find a home they can afford and are driven from the camps where they seek shelter. He speaks to us when fear rather than compassion defines our response to refugees at our borders. Isaiah speaks so that we might know and remember that God’s city shall no more be termed Forsaken and God’s land shall no more be termed Desolate. The city’s name in Hebrew is Hephzibah, My Delight Is in Her, and the land is called Beulah, Married, both names declaring the intimate and deep connection between God and the city and the land.

Isaiah speaks so that we might know and remember that God delights in us who have entered the covenant of peace through Christ. Last Sunday we were reminded that in baptism God names us each as Christ was named, “You are my beloved child; I delight in you.” Today we are reminded that together we are called Hephzibah, the community of God’s delight.

Isaiah speaks and Christ speaks through him to help us remember our name, but also to call us to stand with them and not keep silent. Nothing is more devastating for human beings than to feel abandoned and forsaken by God. Wherever people feel cast off by God and hopeless, Isaiah is whispering, hoping that we will lend our voice to proclaim the promises of God. Whenever people feel cut off from the love of God, Christ is waiting for us to let our words and actions make God’s compassion tangible. The steadfast love of God draws us in to save us and it makes of us messengers of peace, ambassadors of reconciliation, servants of God’s reign on earth. In the embrace of God’s unconditional and everlasting love we become just as stubborn as Isaiah in our refusal to allow hopelessness have the last word in people’s lives.

Tomorrow our nation honors one who did not keep silent. Dr. King, in his book Where Do We Go from Here, published in 1967, described “the great new problem of [humankind].”

We have inherited a large house, a great “world house” in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu—a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace. (…) All inhabitants of the globe are now neighbors.[4]

The great new problem has only become more urgent over the five decades since Dr. King compared the world to a house and noted that his “call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all [human beings].”[5] We know he wasn’t talking about mushy Coca Cola commercial love, I’d love to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. We know he was talking about difficult, disciplined, vulnerable love patterned on the life of Christ, and he gave his life for it.

Dr. King envisioned, in continuity with Israel’s prophets and the apostolic witnesses of the New Testament, the beloved community. It is a global vision of life in which love patterned on the life of Christ heals and deepens all relationships. He believed that conflicts between individuals or groups could be resolved peacefully and that adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual commitment to non-violent cooperation. He believed in the power of love and trust. He didn’t call it Hephzibah, but he could have. In December 1956, just after the Supreme Court had declared the Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregated buses to be unconstitutional, Dr. King spoke in Montgomery at the First Annual Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change, and he said,

It is true that as we struggle for freedom in America we will have to boycott at times. But we must remember as we boycott that a boycott is not an end in itself; it is merely a means to awaken a sense of shame within the oppressor and challenge his false sense of superiority. But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. It is this type of understanding good will that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [human beings].”[6]

The end is the creation of the beloved community. The end is the city called Hephzibah, My Delight Is in Her.

 


[1] Isaiah 54:11-14

[2] Haggai 1:5-6

[3] Isaiah 54:7-10

[4] A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. by James M. Washington (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), 617.

[5] Ibid., 632.

[6] Ibid., 140.

Early morning book group

Finding time to do the things I want to do is a challenge for me, and I'm one of the fortunate ones who have significant control over their schedule. Others are not so lucky. During Lent, I want to offer a small group to look at some of the basics of our faith, and finding the day and time that will work for most who would like to do this sort of thing is the most difficult part of the planning. I invite you to be part of small group that will meet at 7:30 a.m. on four Tuesdays during Lent (February 23, March 1, 8, 15) to read Being Christian by Rowan Williams and talk about some of the basics of being Christian - baptism, the Bible, the meal of thanksgiving at Christ's table, and prayer. Each of these topics is also the focus of a chapter in Williams's book - long enough to go a little deeper, but short enough to read the night before and sleep on it.

Follow this link to the registration form.

I have called you by name

There was a time when you were only known as the baby. Your parents and their families and anyone who knew about you spoke of you solely as the baby. They spoke with joy, certainly, and with anticipation and hope, but you were still just the baby. Depending on the year of your birth or how much confidence your parents had in blurry ultrasound images, they may not even have known if you were a boy or a girl, or if there were more than one of you in your mother’s belly. At some point during the pregnancy, your parents started compiling lists of possible names for the baby; two columns, one if it’s a girl, the other if it’s a boy. They listed names of moms and dads, aunts and uncles, best friends and movie stars, names that wouldn’t attract cruel teasing in the school yard one day, names that would go well with the family name, names that start with the same letter as your siblings’ first names, names that capture kindness, strength, or some other characteristic your parents wanted to see in you. And as the due date drew closer, the list got shorter. And eventually the moment came when they looked at you and they just knew what your name was going to be, and they whispered it with a smile, hoping you would like it. For the very first time, you were called by your name. You were no longer just the baby, you were somebody.

There is power in a name. It affirms us in our individuality and our sacred personhood.

My mother was born in a village where most families had been around for generations. Her parents and her siblings still lived there when I was little, and we would go to visit them just about every Sunday afternoon. They had a peculiar custom in that village, perhaps in surrounding villages as well, I don’t know, I was little. I noticed that when a grown-up saw a child on the street or at a store, and the child wasn’t in the company of an adult, they would sometimes inquire who that child was, only they didn’t ask, “What’s your name?” but, “To whom do you belong?” They had another curious custom. Grown-ups would refer to each other by their last name first. My grandmother’s name was Elisabeth Simon, and everybody called her Lisa, but when her name came up in conversation, people referred to her as Simone Lisa; my grandfather was Simone Georg, my uncle, Simone Hans, my mother, Simone Anneliese. Last names came first, I imagine, because it was very important to know to which family one belonged.

I must have been born with a strong independent streak. I was maybe four years old, when someone asked me, in my mom’s hometown, somewhere on the sidewalk between the butcher’s shop and the bakery, “To whom do you belong?” I didn’t like the question. I remember putting my foot down, declaring, “I belong to nobody. I am Thomas.” I remember that moment vividly, and how strongly I felt about being recognized as a person and not just as a member of a family, or worse, as somebody’s property. There is power in a name.

When I was a teenager, I went to catechism class. I had been baptized as an infant, and in preparation for our confirmation, we learned the meaning of our baptism and how to live as followers of Jesus and people of God. One of the catechisms we studied, the Heidelberg Catechism, begins with the question, “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” That’s not the kind of question you’d ask a fourteen-year-old, is it? We weren’t expected to come up with our own answers, though, we were encouraged to know the church’s answer to that question and to grow into it.

Q: What is your only comfort, in life and in death?

A: That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.[1]

I was fourteen years old. I believed that I belonged to nobody but myself – and the church taught me to find comfort in the thought that I did indeed not belong to myself, but to Christ. The church encouraged me to question my most sacred assumptions: my independence, my autonomy, and my self-centeredness. I learned to repeat the answer, that I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. I learned to repeat the answer, but I didn’t believe it. I wanted to be myself and belong to myself.

At a youth retreat, I was introduced to the passage from Isaiah where the prophet says,

Now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

That I liked. I liked the promise of God’s presence. I liked it, because life could be overwhelming at times and frightening, and I liked the thought that my name was written in the palm of God’s hand. What I didn’t hear, not really, was the part where God says, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Today I know that my adolescent rejection of any authority but my own wasn’t the whole story. I was a child of the times, and it took me years to see how much my thoughts and actions had been shaped by my need to fit in and conform to all sorts of stories. I wasn’t nearly as free as I thought. Today I know no greater comfort than that Christ Jesus has made me his own, and I know no greater freedom.[2] All I want is to live as a child of God.

When Jesus was about thirty years old, he came to the Jordan river, and he heard John’s proclamation of God’s coming judgment and a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And when all the people were baptized, Jesus was washed in the river along with all of them, or perhaps I should say, along with all of us. The river of repentance is where we need to be, and Jesus gets in the water with us. He doesn’t need to be baptized, he wants to be baptized with us. We step into the river praying that our sins and regrets, our guilt and shame and fear would be washed away, and he steps in to collect all the nasty flotsam that keeps life from flourishing and to take care of it for good. He steps into the river in deep solidarity with us to redeem us, to forgive and to heal, to restore and to make whole.

Jesus was praying when the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him, and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” That is all the heavenly voice declared. No second sentence opening a whole new paragraph, “Now listen, Son, this is what I need you to do.” No parental reminder, “Now don’t you forget that, Son, or I won’t be pleased.” Only these words: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

In Luke’s gospel, this scene by the river is followed by a long genealogy, name after name, generation after generation, layer upon layer of family history that define who Jesus is – except that Jesus’ true identity, his true name was spoken by a heavenly voice by the river. Perhaps Luke is suggesting that the defining power in this family tree works the other way round. The long list of names going back all the way to Adam doesn’t just tell us Jesus’ family background; it helps us recognize that Jesus represents all of humanity, all the children of Adam and Eve.

The river of repentance and forgiveness is where we need to be washed, and he joins us so we each might know who and whose we truly are: God’s beloved children, God’s delight. This relationship defines us more deeply than layers and layers of ancestry and history; and it does so because we’re not the ones who establish it. Christ comes to us with profound solidarity and compassion. God’s love for us is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up. We can deny it, sure, we can ignore it, neglect it, forget it, and run away from it, but we cannot destroy it. Nothing we do or refuse to do will change who we are, God’s own and God’s beloved. Sometimes we forget. We forget because we’re busy making a name for ourselves. We forget because life has convinced us that we are not worthy of love or too insignificant to even be noticed. We forget because pain and fear and shame bury our sense of self as God’s own. What are we to do about that forgetfulness?

Martin Luther often struggled with a deep sense of unworthiness, and when he became discouraged he would say, “But I have been baptized.” He even wrote it on a slip of paper he pinned to the wall above his desk, “I have been baptized.” When the waves of conflict surged high, around him and within, the tempter would say to him, “Martin, you’re a hopeless, stubborn, prideful, ignorant, arrogant, no-good sinner.” And Luther would reply, “True enough, devil, but I have been baptized.”

I like to imagine that many a morning, perhaps every morning when he washed his face Luther paused and whispered, water dripping from his nose and brow, “I am baptized. Christ has made me his own. I belong to God.” How about that holy habit to help you remember who you are? In the morning, when you step into the shower, and the water runs over your head and shoulders, pause for a moment to remember your true name and say it, “I am God’s beloved child and God delights in me.” Baptized into Christ, we know and remember who we are.

Do not fear, for I am with you, says the Lord. I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give them up, and to the south, Do not withhold. Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.


[1] http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/heidelberg-catechism.html

[2] Philippians 3:12

Better songs

We are shaped by the stories we tell. The stories of our childhood, the stories of our families, the stories of our nation. The stories we tell are like river beds in which our lives flow; they give our lives definition and direction.

When I mention Luke, some of you will remember a friend from school or an uncle, others will think of the gospel, and for a good number of us these days, any mention of Luke will make us think of Skywalker. Our lives shape the stories we tell, and the stories in turn shape our lives. I was reminded of that when Nancy, Miles and I went to see the new Star Wars movie. No, I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t seen it yet by commenting on the plot line or my favorite scenes. It’s not the movie I want to talk about. We went to the theater early to make sure we would get good seats, and that meant we got to see every movie preview and game commercial. Sitting in the dark, surrounded by larger than life sound, I noticed that each of the previews portrayed life on earth as under threat by some alien power, and in each case the very survival of the planet and of humanity depended on heroes who were smarter in their use of violence than the respective enemy. I love it when, against all odds, overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles with courage and creativity, in the end the good guys win. I love it when the good guys win and the bad guys run or, better yet, when they fall into their own hellish traps and perish. It’s a very satisfying experience. But I can’t watch those trailers without wondering what those myths of power do to us, why we tell them when we tell them, how they shape us, and what an overwhelming counter narrative they represent to the story the church is called to embody and proclaim, the story of God’s faithfulness revealed in Christ.

The gospel does not overwhelm us, manipulate us, or coerce us. God speaks and patiently awaits our yes, our “let it be with me according to your word,” our consent to let our lives be part of God’s story of life and its consummation. It’s what Mary said to the angel who had told her she would have a child and she would name him Jesus.She didn’t know how this could be, but the angel told her about Elizabeth who in her old age had conceived a son and was now in her sixth month. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said; “let it be with me according to your word,” and then she set out and went to the Judean hill country to see Elizabeth. Perhaps she wanted to see for herself what she had heard. Perhaps she needed to be with somebody who had her own experience with God’s wondrous ways. Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life for a child. “Years of trying to have a child of our own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well month after month,” wrote a man who wanted to be a father, reflecting on the experience of infertility.

“Nothing could break the sinister hold of barrenness on our lives, not strict adherence to whatever expert advice we could get, not prayer, not the latest fertility techniques, not fasting, nothing. One hundred months’ worth of hopes, all dashed against the stubborn realities of bodies that just wouldn’t produce offspring. … Every time we would go to worship, the laughter and boisterous-ness of the little ones milling around … would remind me of unfulfilled dreams. The season of Advent was the worst. ‘For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,’ I would hear read or sung in hundreds of different variations. But from me a child was withheld. The miracle of Mary’s conception, the rejoicing of the heavens at her newborn child, the exultation of Elizabeth, all became signs of God’s painful absence, not God’s advent.”[1]

Elizabeth had been waiting her whole life for a child, like Sarah, Rachel, and Hannah, the great mothers of old, and like them, she was surprised by God who makes a way where there is no way. Mary, on the other hand, was a young teenager just entering her childbearing years, engaged but not yet married, and her pregnancy also came as a surprise, difficult to explain to her family and her future husband. She had not auditioned for her part. God entered her experience with a promise that was not even on the horizon of her hopes; she responded with the yes of faith, and the river of her life turned in ways she couldn’t have dreamed of.

Entering the house, Mary greeted Elizabeth and the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped. It was John’s first prophetic act, a little dance of joy, a somersault perhaps, the prophet of the Most High greeting the Son of the Most High. And he was not the only prophet. Filled with the Holy Spirit, his mother blessed Mary and the new life she carried and called her “the mother of my Lord.” And then Mary began to sing her song of praise. It was the first Advent congregation welcoming the Son of God with blessing, joy and praise. It was a marvelous moment of long-held hope and fresh fulfillment embracing each other – no media, no press releases, only exuberant, joyful praise from somewhere in the southern hill country, nowhere really on anyone’s map among the movers and shakers of the day.

“The Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,” Mary began to sing. “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given,” the church began to sing. What about the couple for whom “years of trying to have a child of [their] own was like having to drink bitter waters from a poisoned well month after month”? After nine long years of waiting, Miroslav and Judy adopted two children, and he was surprised by how the river of their life turned.

“During those nine years of infertility, I wasn’t waiting for a child who stubbornly refused to come, though that’s what I thought at the time. In fact, I was waiting for the two boys I now have, Nathanael and Aaron. I love them, and I want them in their unsubstitutable particularity, not children in general of which they happened to be exemplars. Then it dawned on me: Fertility would have robbed me of my boys… Infertility was the condition for the possibility of these two indescribable gifts. And understanding that changed my attitude toward infertility. Since it gave me what I now can’t imagine living without, poison was transmuted into a gift, God’s strange gift. The pain of it remains, of course. But the poison is gone. Nine years of desperate trying were like one long painful childbirth, the purpose of which was to give us Nathanael and Aaron… It’s them that I love. It’s them that I want. And it’s they who redeem the arduous path that led to having them.”

Our lives shape the stories we tell, and the stories in turn shape our lives. We tell the story of God’s faithfulness and of the wondrous ways in which God moves creation toward its consummation with redeeming mercy. We tell the story and we sing it. We sing justice. We sing redemption. We sing the end of hunger and war. We sing with Mary of the One who has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. We sing the resurrection. We sing the triumph of God’s kingdom over the empires of the world. We sing the peace of Christ.

In Guatemala in the 1980’s, the public reading of Mary’s song was forbidden as subversive activity. It wasn’t the first time. When Martin Luther first translated the Bible into German at the beginning of the 16th century, he left Mary’s song in Latin. The German princes who gladly supported Luther in his struggles with Rome, were nervous about the peasants singing too lustily with mother Mary of the One who has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. But the princes’ maneuvering did not then nor will it ever prevent God’s merciful gaze from lifting up the lowly.

In the late 80’s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christians in Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings in and around St. Nikolai church to pray for peace and to sing. They lit candles, week after week, and they sang songs of hope and protest and justice, and their numbers grew from a few dozen to more than a thousand and eventually to more than three hundred thousand men, women, and children. After the fall of the Wall, a reporter asked an officer of the Stasi, the dreaded secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others. The officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”[2]

In every generation, the servants of death may have the bigger guns, but we have the better songs. The old woman, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out blessings and wonder, and the young woman began to sing of God’s ancient promise of salvation being fulfilled. Soon, very soon, we will set out once again and go with haste to Bethlehem to see what God has done for us. We will kneel next to the manger and all that is proud and powerful in us will be brought down and scattered. But all that is lowly and poor, humble and hungry in us will be lifted up and strengthened and filled. Soon, very soon, we will hear and tell and sing the story of Jesus’ birth, the good news of great joy for all the people, and with gratitude we will continue to live into God’s story.

 


[1] Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge, 31-32.

[2] David Lose http://www.davidlose.net/2015/12/advent-4-c-singing-as-an-act-of-resistance/

A letter to our Muslim neighbors

Dear Nashville neighbors,

We wish to send you words of friendship on the day that you gather for Friday prayers in the mosques of our city. We pray that the Holy One may bless you, and that together and in our own respective ways, our communities of faith may be a blessing for our city.

We are deeply disturbed by the foolish and hateful words spoken in recent days by prominent members of the American public, particularly with regard to refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and to Muslims in general. We will not allow this dangerous rhetoric to divide us. We stand with you for a better vision of our country and our city, and ultimately for a better vision of our world, a vision of peace.

As men and women who follow Jesus and seek to honor him as our brother and Lord, we are called to love God with our whole being and our neighbor as ourselves. We are not free to choose who is or is not our neighbor, but rather must seek to be and act like a neighbor toward every human being.

We are grateful that we live with you, work with you, and worship with you in this city, and we believe that our different ways of honoring the divine with lives of holiness and righteousness make our city better and stronger. We are committed to continuing to pursue peace, promote better understanding among our communities, and pursue justice in all that we do.

In solidarity and friendship,

Thomas Kleinert

Senior Minister           

Lise Matthews

Co-Chair of the Board

Jeff Miller

Co-Chair of the Board   

Stephen Moseley

Chair Elect of the Board

 

This letter from Vine Street Christian Church was sent today to mosques in our city.

The old man's song

When you were little, did you count the years from birthday to birthday or from Christmas to Christmas? When you were a little older, did you count from school year to school year or from summer to summer? Farmers and accountants count the years in different ways, as do teachers or sports fans. As members of the church, we live into yet another annual rhythm, one not determined by program or budget cycles, but by needs, convictions, and desires that are foundational for everything else. The church counts time from Advent to Advent.

One could argue that the church year should begin on Christmas, with the birth of Christ, or on Easter, with his resurrection from the dead, or on Pentecost, when God began to pour out the Holy Spirit on a small band of disciples; but there is great wisdom in beginning with Advent. We begin with expectant hope. We let ourselves be shaped by the future God has promised and prepared for us. We remember that we live into a future not bound by the past, but always, always open to genuine newness brought forth by our God who is making all things new. And so we live toward Christmas remembering the birth of Christ and expecting God’s consummation of creation, all in praise of God’s faithfulness, of the love that will not let us go.

I was reading Isaiah on Wednesday when the news broke of yet another mass shooting. I was reading Isaiah 59 on Wednesday, shaken by disbelief, drained by sadness, gripped by anger, and utterly helpless. The words of the prophet poet were a gift from one mourner to another.

The way of peace they do not know,
and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
no one who walks in them knows peace.
Therefore justice is far from us,
and righteousness does not reach us;
we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness;
and for brightness, but we walk in gloom.
We grope like the blind along a wall,
groping like those who have no eyes. [1]

Groping like the blind along a wall, adding “active shooter” to our children’s everyday vocabulary, we wait for light. Groping like those who have no eyes we wait for light – and as though in response to our sense of living inside a nightmare, old man Zechariah sings Advent hope into our fear and grief, saying,

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Who would have thought old man Zechariah could sing like that? He hadn’t said a word in months. An angel had appeared to him, telling him that he and Elizabeth would have a boy, and that he would name him John, and what a joy it would be, and all he could say was, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” All the years of waiting in vain for a child had slowly eroded Zechariah’s belief in the possibilities of God. The angel told him, “You will be mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” Months passed, and true to Gabriel’s word, when the baby was born, old man Zechariah’s mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.

His song celebrates the faithfulness of God in Israel’s history and proclaims God’s continuing work of deliverance. It’s an old song of covenant promises, of Exodus liberation, of prophets and kings. But it’s also a new song announcing the dawning of a new day:

By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.

It’s Advent when an old man who thought that he knew the full range of possibilities for his life is surprised by God’s future. His life transformed, his faith renewed, he sings of the impossible possibilities that await God’s people and the world. He sings of light to guide our feet into the way of peace. He sings so we have the courage to lean into the dawn and begin to live toward the fullness promised by its light. He sings the tune that helps us lean into the dawn so the light can illumine the darkness within us and around us. He sings us an Advent song so we become brave enough to stop groping like the blind along the same old walls of fear and hate.

We live in Advent time, gratefully singing of the light that has come and awaiting with eager expectation the dawn to become day without end. I say eager expectation because in the vocabulary of Advent, waiting is not turning on the radio every morning, hoping to one day hear the good news that changes the world. Living in Advent time is about leaning into the dawn and figuring out creative ways to reflect that light into the everyday dark places; it’s about becoming part of the good news that changes the world.

I could begin to name the statistics for gun violence, I could read the list of reasonable gun control proposals law enforcement officials across the nation have endorsed, I could mention that it’s easier to purchase a semi-automatic weapon than to get a driver’s license, and I could again lament the corrosive influence of NRA money on our politics. But that’s not really the point. There’s just so much fear in it all, so much fear and so little hope.

Animal Dreams is a novel by Barbara Kingsolver. One of the characters, a young woman named Hallie, has gone off to Nicaragua to support the revolutionary Sandinista government by helping to improve crop yields. Hallie is a horticulturist who knows her way around plants and soil and bugs, but life in Nicaragua is very dangerous since the war with the Contras is in full swing. In a letter to her sister Codi back home in the States, Hallie tries to explain her choices:

I chose sides. And I know that we could lose. I’ve never seen people suffer so much for an ideal. They’re sick to death of the embargo and the war. They could say Uncle, vote for something else, just to stop the bludgeoning. And you know what? I don’t even consider that, it’s not the point.

You’re thinking of revolution as a great all-or-nothing. I think of it as one more morning in a muggy cotton field, checking the undersides of leaves to see what’s been there, figuring out what to do that won’t clear a path for worse problems next week. Right now that’s what I do. You ask why I’m not afraid of loving and losing, and that’s my answer. Wars and elections are both too big and too small to matter in the long run. The daily work—that goes on, it adds up. It goes into the ground, into crops, into children’s bellies and their bright eyes. Good things don’t get lost.

Codi, here’s what I’ve decided: the very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. What I want is so simple I almost can’t say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed. That’s about it. Right now I’m living in that hope, running down its hallway and touching the walls on both sides.

I cannot tell you how good it feels. I wish you knew. (...) I wish you knew how to squander yourself.[2]

“The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed” is no small thing. It’s Hallie’s hope. It’s Zechariah’s song. It’s the promise of God. It’s why we count the years from Advent to Advent. We begin, again and again, with expectant hope that’s big enough to live in and close enough to the ground so we remember that the daily work adds up and good things don’t get lost.

Such hope is not something we simply have or produce at will. It is a gift given by the God who is committed to the flourishing of creation and its consummation in peace. It is a gift nourished in the community drawn together by the gentle power of God’s Holy Spirit who inspires old man Zechariah and young mother Mary and all of us to sing of God’s faithfulness. It is the gift of the One born among us who squandered himself for love’s sake and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 


[1] Isaiah 59:8-10

[2] Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams (New York: HarperCollins, 1990) 299; my italics.

Tenacious hope

Advent begins when night falls early in the afternoon and the days are getting shorter still. At Cheekwood, they started putting lights on the trees back in August, but we try to keep the slower pace of liturgical time in our hurried world, and each Sunday of Advent we light just one more candle. We let a single, small flame draw our attention in the grey hours of morning and the fading light of day; we allow our expectation to build slowly, week upon week, until we proclaim with angels and shepherds the birth of Christ, the Light of the world.

Prepare ye the way of the Lord the cantor sings, and again we seek to do just that, prepare the Lord’s way amid the sweet nostalgia and the joys and worries of these days. In Advent, we practice living expectantly, with hearts wide open to the future God has promised and prepared. During Advent, we week to live more intentionally in the fabric of memory and hope, of promise and fulfillment. We go back in time to cherished family traditions, to customs lovingly preserved year after year, to worn tree ornaments that each hold a story – we go back to the days when we first heard how God became little like us in order to save us. We go back in time, way back to the days when God’s prophets first spoke of judgment and mercy, and God’s people first affirmed that all the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 25:10). Advent doesn’t begin with an angel’s visit, or with Mary weaving a blanket for the baby and Joseph building a cradle – it begins with the promises of God and the people who seek to live in the light of these promises.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days (…) I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.[1]

Tom Wright writes about waking up one early morning from a powerful dream. He had a flash of it as he woke up, enough to make him think how extraordinary and meaningful it was, but then it was gone. He couldn’t remember what it was about.

Wright invites us to wonder with him if our dreams of justice and righteousness are like that. We have a flash of a world at one, a world where things work out, not just for some, but for all; a world where all of us not only know what we ought to do but actually do it. And then we wake up in the world as it is, and we can’t get back into the dream. Where might that kind of dream come from?

“What are we hearing when we’re dreaming that dream? It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all.”[2]

For some, this echo of a voice is only a fantasy, a wishful projection that has nothing to do with the way things really are. They say that we need to learn to grab what we can, because the meek will inherit nothing. “Stop dreaming and toughen up,” they say, “the world’s not going to change.”

Others say that the voice of justice and well-being comes from another world, a world into which we can escape in our dreams, and hope to escape one day for good. For them, this world is run by bullies and that’s that; they urge us to seek consolation in the thought that there’s another world where things are better, but not to hope that this world will change.

There is a third possibility, and it is the one people of faith have embraced for generations. “The reason we think we have heard a voice is because we have.” The reason we have these dreams of justice and righteousness, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us; one who cares very much about this world and all who live in it; one who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, and wholeness, and life in fullness.[3]

Advent begins with the ancient echoes of a voice in our soul, promising to heal the wounds of creation, promising to make right all that has gone wrong. Advent begins with the promises of God and the voices of witnesses who speak and sing of the God who keeps promises.

Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah during dangerous times. As a young man, he was called to speak the word of the Lord, and for nearly fifty years, in the face of unimaginable hardships and pain, he proclaimed the word of the Lord. He proclaimed judgment against the city, the kings, and the priests; he accused them of abandoning the covenant of God. They were ignoring the cause of the widow and the orphan; they had chosen to follow other gods, gods that were more agreeable to their ways of ruling. Jeremiah proclaimed God’s judgment against them: the land would be taken, the temple razed, the city destroyed, and the people deported. The prophet didn’t make many friends; he was threatened, verbally and physically abused, and thrown in prison.

In 587 B.C.E., the armies of Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, starved the inhabitants, and captured the fleeing Zedekiah, last king of Judah, near Jericho. Nebuchadrezzar first murdered the king’s sons and then blinded the king, so his dead children would be the last thing he saw for the rest of his life.[4] The land was taken, the temple razed, the city burned, the walls demolished, and the people deported.

Imagine a prophet in prison, overlooking a ruined city, desolate streets without inhabitants. Imagine a prophet in tears. What do you expect his parting words to be, words heard and recorded by the homeless of the city and the poor the Babylonians had left behind? Not, ‘I told you so.’

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”

In the midst of catastrophe, the prophet speaks God’s words of promise. For nearly four hundred years, descendants of David had occupied the throne of Judah, and God had promised that it would always be so.[5] Few of them had ruled in justice and righteousness like they were supposed to – but didn’t the end of city and temple, this physical and spiritual wasteland, mean that the promises of God had come to an end?

No, said the prophet of tears, there would be one to execute justice and righteousness in the land, a proper ruler, a righteous branch, and not because the dynasty still had potential, but because God is faithful. The prophet spoke a word of tenacious hope into the darkness of despair.

This fall, I’ve participated in a study group with several men at the Riverbend prison. We’re reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates is an African-American writer, and the book is a letter he wrote last year to his 15-year-old son about growing up in this country. In one of our sessions back in October, we had a very emotional debate in our group over a single scene in that book:

That was the week you learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street like some awesome declaration of their inviolable power would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished. But you were young and still believed. You stayed up till 11 p.m. that night, waiting for the announcement of an indictment, and when instead it was announced that there was none you said, “I’ve got to go,” and you went into your room, and I heard you crying. I came in five minutes after, and I didn’t hug you, and I didn’t comfort you, because I thought it would be wrong to comfort you. I did not tell you that it would be okay, because I have never believed it would be okay. What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body; and you must find some way to live within the all of it.[6]

We got into a passionate debate in our study group, because I said I couldn’t imagine not hugging my son in that situation and not telling him “that it would be okay.” One of the guys said telling my son “that it would be okay” was a promise I couldn’t keep; I’d be telling him a lie.

That was a hard moment, a hard way to realize that we had grown up in different worlds: I grew up with the privilege of hope. I tried to explain that the promise wasn’t mine to make, but to trust. I believe God has promised that justice and righteousness will prevail, and I want my son to trust this God and this promise, especially when the world continues to disappoint that expectation.

Days are coming, when I will fulfill the promise, says the Lord. Days are coming, when the city will be called, The Lord is our righteousness.

 


[1] Jeremiah 33:14-15.

[2] N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 3.

[3] Ibid., 9-10.

[4] Jeremiah 39:5-7.

[5] See 2 Samuel 7:16 as well as 1 Kings 8:25; 9:4-8.

[6] Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 11-12; my italics.

Between Terror and Thanksgiving

Sometimes I wish the world had a pause button. Especially when debates flare up and there’s so much heat and so little light. What a gift it would be to have a few hours to think about what happened, to talk about it with your family or your best friends, to pray about what to say and do in response, before clicking play and letting the world flood in again.

Here we are on the Sunday between terror and thanksgiving, observing the last Sunday of the church year. We pause, for a moment at least, to let the light of Christ’s sovereign reign illumine our thoughts and imaginations, hoping that it might also illumine our words and actions in the days and weeks ahead. We pause to let ourselves be reminded that the world is God’s and that our calling in life is to serve God’s reign on earth.

Marilynne Robinson is a writer and one of America’s finest theologians. A few weeks ago I read one of her essays, titled Fear, and I read it again this past week, after 26 governors, including Governor Haslam, had sent a letter to the President, urging him to suspend all plans to resettle additional Syrian refugees. In the essay, Robinson writes,

America is a Christian country. This is true in a number of senses. Most people, if asked, will identify themselves as Christian, which may mean only that they aren’t something else. Non-Christians will say America is Christian, meaning that they feel somewhat apart from the majority culture. There are a large number of demographic Christians in North America because of our history of immigration from countries that are or were also Christian. We are identified in the world at large with this religion because some of us espouse it not only publicly but also vociferously. As a consequence, we carry a considerable responsibility for its good name in the world, though we seem not much inclined to consider the implications of this fact. If we did, some of us might think a little longer about associating the precious Lord with ignorance, intolerance, and belligerent nationalism. These few simple precautions would also make it more attractive to the growing numbers among our people who have begun to reject it as ignorant, intolerant, and belligerently nationalistic, as they might reasonably conclude that it is, if they hear only the loudest voices.

Robinson continues,

There is something I have felt the need to say, that I have spoken about in various settings, extemporaneously, because my thoughts on the subject have not been entirely formed, and because it is painful to me to have to express them. However, my thesis is always the same, and it is very simply stated, though it has two parts: first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved. (…) we are taught that Christ “was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made….The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” The present tense here is to be noted. (…) There are always real dangers in the world, sufficient to their day. Fearfulness obscures the distinction between real threat on one hand and on the other the terrors that beset those who see threat everywhere. (…) Granting the perils of the world, it is potentially a very costly indulgence to fear indiscriminately, and to try to stimulate fear in others, just for the excitement of it, or because to do so channels anxiety or loneliness or prejudice or resentment into an emotion that can seem to those who indulge it like shrewdness or courage or patriotism. But no one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days, un-Christian as it surely is.[1]

I’ve been worried this past week about the politics of fear. It worries me when governors, more than 30 now, I believe, in the aftermath of a series of horrifying terrorist attacks, identify as prime safety risks that need to be addressed immediately the refugee families from Syria who are fleeing that very terror. It worries me when a public leader like the Mayor of Roanoke talks about internment camps. I believe the Mayor’s and the Governors’ concern is to protect people from harm, and that they are not just trying to score political points by playing to our fears; but their words and actions shifted the debate in an ugly and dangerous direction.

Here we are on the Sunday between terror and thanksgiving, hoping that the light that shines in the darkness will not only illumine us but shine through us. Jesus said to the disciples, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one and have contempt for the other. (…) Therefore, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” Jesus is addressing all of us who pray for the coming of God’s kingdom and for God’s will to be done on earth as it is heaven. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat,” he says, “is not life more than food?” Yes, but life certainly is food. And water. And clothing. And shelter. And safety from harm. And medical care. And education. And college savings. And retirement plans. And student loans. And a good economy. And the madness in Syria and why can’t somebody please just stop it? And … You start with food and water, and before you know it, all you can do is try to stay afloat while waves of anxiety wash over you. It doesn’t take much to slip into worry mode, and in worry mode, fear is master. Jesus talks about well-fed birds and beautifully clothed lilies to remind us that God is caring for all living things and to encourage us to serve God rather than our fear.

The trouble with worries is that they take over our whole being: they shape how we perceive the world, they invade our thoughts, even our dreams, and determine our actions. The trouble with worries is that they create a whirlpool that has nothing but our needs at the center. The word translated worry in the passage from Matthew means to be anxious, to be divided, to be distracted – but it also means to care, to be concerned about something. That other flavor comes through when you shift the emphasis in the sentence just a little. First you hear, ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.’ Then you shift the emphasis by just a beat or two and you hear, ‘Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink. These are the things that occupy the minds of the nations, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his righteousnes before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well.’ Let God’s sovereign reign over heaven and earth shape your perception of the world, let the kingdom invade your thoughts and dreams, let it shape your words and actions.

We are to be concerned about life and food and drink, but in the particular way of the king who, in another teaching of Jesus, will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:34-35).

Our governor will receive a letter tomorrow, signed by many Tennessee churches and congregations, including ours.

Dear Governor Haslam:

We, the undersigned organizations and individuals, urge you to rescind your request to the federal government to suspend the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Tennessee. In the wake of recent global tragedies, we are called to act with compassion and leadership, not fear and misplaced blame. We are committed to the values of our state and our nation and stand ready to work with your administration to ensure that all refugees are welcomed, supported, and fully integrated into our community.

After your request to suspend Syrian refugee resettlement, the rhetoric in our state took a vitriolic and troubling turn. We applaud your recent statement that “we must not lose ourselves,” nor “abandon our values” or “mistreat our neighbors who made it here after enduring unimaginable hardships.” We ask for your ongoing moral and courageous leadership as our state responds to the current political moment.

Tennessee and the United States have a critical and historic role to play in our current global refugee crisis, the largest displacement of people since World War II. Specifically, we must do our part to provide safe refuge to the 4 million Syrian refugees fleeing violence and terror. As the Department of State reminds us, “the U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity and leadership.”

Historically, the U.S. has been a leader in resettlement, offering protection to refugees from across the world and Tennessee has benefitted from these previous waves of resettlement. The courageous men, women, and children who have been resettled in Tennessee over the years are now our neighbors and friends, small business owners, and pillars of our community. In this moment, it is more important than ever that we honor this commitment and tradition with courageous leadership and compassion.  Our communities stand ready and willing to welcome more refugees—from Syria and across the world—because we know that through offering resettlement and protection we can save lives and strengthen our communities.

In the wake of the tragedies in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad we will not allow fear to override our better instincts. We know that refugee resettlement will not make our communities any less safe. We know that refugees must wait months and often years to pass the rigorous screening process and are the most scrutinized of any migrants to the United States.

We believe it is morally reprehensible to turn our backs on Syrian refugees fleeing terror and violence. These men, women, and children are themselves victims of ISIS and must not be blamed for the very terror they are fleeing.

We urge you to immediately rescind your request to the federal government to suspend Syrian resettlement and to commit to working with the federal government to uphold our highest American values by continuing to provide protection to refugees and investing in a generous and robust refugee resettlement program.

Sincerely,

[signatures]

We will gather this week around tables of bounty to give thanks for all that has been given to us. Let’s make sure there’s always room for one more guest at the table.

 


[1] Marilynne Robinson, The Givenness of Things: Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015): 124-126.

The joy of reading

We are looking for readers for two of our services, Hanging of the Greens at the beginning of Advent and Christmas Eve, just an hour before Advent ends at midnight and Christmas begins. We like having readers of all ages, male and female, various native tongues, etc. You may have never done anything like this, or it may be something you are looking forward to every year. If you would like to be one of the readers, just let me know with a couple of clicks on the form below. Thank you!

You and I and how we care | part 2

On Thursday I posted the first set of results of the very unscientific survey. The total number of respondents is 80. The graphs below show how particular caring actions relate to the whole set of situations:

  • When I'm sick for more than a couple of days...
  • When somebody close to me has died...
  • When a baby has been born...
  • When I've lost my job...
  • After my youngest has gone to college...

I have not reported unique statements like (When my youngest has gone to college...), “Pray for my youngest. I will be enjoying the peace and quiet.”

Unscientific as this survey has been, it has been a wonderful experience, and there's a lot to be learned from the results. Thank you for all the ways in which you care for friends and neighbors in need!

Beware

They say it was a magnificent building, the Temple in Jerusalem. Newly reconstructed by Herod the Great, and still under construction in Jesus’ day, it was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It occupied a platform of more than 900 by 1,500 feet—twice as large as the Roman Forum with its many temples and four times as large as the Acropolis in Athens with the famous Parthenon. The massive retaining walls that supported the temple, including the now well-known Western wall, were composed of enormous blocks of white stone, some of them 40 feet long. The front of the temple itself was a square of 150 feet by 150 feet of sculpted rock, much of it decorated with silver and gold. First-century Jewish historian, Josephus  wrote that the gold “effected so fierce a blaze of fire that those who tried to look at it were forced to turn away. Jerusalem and the temple seemed in the distance like a mountain covered in snow, for any part not covered in gold was dazzling white.” The combination of the temple mount, the platform of huge retaining stones, and the large building of the temple itself raised the temple complex to a height that could be seen from miles away by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem to worship there, and in bright sunlight, the luminous city nearly blinded them.

This was the dwelling place of God at the center of the world; this was the promise become rock of God’s presence with God’s people Israel. It was holy ground where God’s people, even when they failed to lead holy lives, could approach their holy God in worship. Rituals of atonement and purification along with festivals of liberation and thanksgiving sustained a community striving to live faithfully with their God. The temple was beautiful and it was an essential institution of Jewish life.

Jesus and the disciples had come to the Temple every day since they first came to Jerusalem. Tensions between him and the Temple leadership had been growing. Now they were leaving, and one of the disciples, his eyes wide with awe, his hands perhaps touching one of the colossal blocks, said to him, “Look, teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” It was one of those moments when you want to take a photo to convey to the folks at home just how spectacular the place was and how overwhelming the feeling of being immersed in its beauty and power.

“Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus replied. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” The words sound very matter-of-fact, don’t they? Jesus stated the almost unimaginable, but his words were no threat, just a simple announcement. The beauty, the majesty, the power would crumble and collapse, and the magnificent temple, center of Jewish life and identity, would be a pile of rubble. Curiously, the inner circle of disciples who were with him when he was sitting on the Mount of Olives with its spectacular view of the Temple Mount, didn’t ask him why or how, they wanted to know when and what the sign would be – as though the why and how were a given, and everything was just a matter of time. When will this be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?

The Gospel of Mark was written in a time of war. The weight of Roman occupation had become too much to bear for the Jewish population. In the years 62-66, increasing mob violence was disrupting life in Jerusalem. A band of assassins, called sicarii, attacked and murdered people, even a high priest, in broad daylight and kidnapped Jewish officials. Gangs of roaming brigands burned and looted villages. Apocalyptic prophets delivered oracles of doom, and the daily news seemed to confirm their words. Jerusalem was a tinderbox in those tumultuous years, with revolutionary sentiments mounting and finally catapulting Judea into open rebellion against Rome.

“Deceivers and impostors, under the pretense of divine inspiration, fostering revolutionary changes,” wrote Josephus, “they persuaded the masses to act like madmen and led them out into the desert in the belief that God would give them signs of deliverance.” Insurgents took control of the city, but the years 67-69 unfolded under the headline, “The Empire Strikes Back.” Rome’s legions under Titus laid siege to Jerusalem, and in August of the year 70, the Temple was destroyed and the city fell.

The Gospel of Mark was written in a time of wars and rumors of wars, and at least some believers in the Markan community must have thought that these catastrophic events meant that the return of Jesus in power and glory was imminent. The author made sure his people and all who would read his testimony would hear Jesus’ words to the disciples loud and clear: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” There will be wars and rumors of wars, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes and famines and unspeakable acts of violence, but you – beware that no one leads you astray. Beware that no one leads you off the path I followed. Follow me.

There is a constant, churning undercurrent in the history of the church that seeks to take contemporary events and turn them into sure signs for the end of time. The fighting in Syria, the crash of a Russian airplane over Sinai, murderous attacks in Beirut and Paris – we are afraid, we are worried and angry, we are sad, we are furious – and you know that the doomsday machine of the Christian psychics online and on TV has once again shifted into high gear. They’re busy drawing lines from the evening news to verses in the book of Revelation and in Daniel, and they can’t wait to give us all the details and plot lines of history at the end of time. Lamar Williamson calls them “date fixers” who “besides pretending to know more than the Son [of God] does, often have little sense of responsibility for the world, whose destruction they await with fascinated detachment. In contrast to these, Jesus speaks of responsibilities imposed by the master who left us in charge here” (Williamson, Mark, 241).

When the disciples ask, “When?” and “What will be the sign?” Jesus responds, “Beware.” Beware that no one leads you astray from following me. Beware of following your fear. Beware of abandoning your call to love God and neighbor. Wars and rumors of wars, terror and oppression are the reality of a world far from the world God desires, and they must end for God’s creation to be whole and complete. “This must take place, but the end is still to come,” says Jesus, and, “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

Birth pangs, he says. These things that make us cry and tremble and doubt and lie awake at night – they are not a meaningless pile of suffering, the tragic rubble of history, destined to be forgotten; they are labor pains, he says, telling us that the suffering of creation is to be redeemed by the joy of birth. The world is in labor, Jesus says. Birth pangs, the first pains of childbirth. “How long is this labor?” we want to know, “and when can we expect to behold new life in a redeemed world? How long until we will laugh with tears in our eyes and cry no more?” We don’t know. But we have a word that speaks of birth in the midst of suffering. We have a word that teaches us to hope. We have the promise that with the resurrection of Jesus the whole world has indeed become new – in forgiveness, in the disruption of the endless cycle of violence, in love that heals and renews. We have the promise that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead marks the beginning of redemption that doesn’t fade into the past but abides forever.

The English historian Eric Hobsbawm, born in 1917, grew up in Vienna and, after the death of his parents, with an aunt in Berlin. Berlin was not a good place to live for a Jewish teenager in those years. He was fifteen years old when one day in January 1933, as he was walking his little sister home from school, he saw the headline at a newsstand, “Adolph Hitler Appointed Chancellor of Germany.” Reflecting on those years when democray in Germany was in its death throes, Hobsbawm later wrote, “We were on the Titanic, and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg.” He said, “It is difficult for those who have not experienced the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ of the twentieth century in central Europe to see what it meant to live in a world that was simply not expected to last, in something that could not really even be described as a world, but merely as a provisional waystation between a dead past and a future not yet born.”[1]

In-between times are difficult to understand, let alone navigate, for those who live in them. But we dare to hope that, regardless of the terrors of the past and present, the redemption of the world and the birth of new life has indeed begun with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and our determination to resist the servants of terror and death is grounded in that hope.

Thrones and temples will fall and not one stone will be left upon another, institutions will crumble, but the work of Christ will stand, and the world being born in his wake is the world set right. Jesus is working on a new temple, and it’s made entirely of people whose daily sacrifice are their prayers and their acts of loving service. Jesus is working on a new temple that isn’t covered with gold or silver, but shines brighter than anything made by human hands.

 


 

[1] Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the forgotten twentieth century (New York: Penguin, 2008), 117.

You and I and how we care

On October 29, I launched a very unscientific survey. I was and still am curious about traditions of caring for friends and neighbors in need. I asked individual readers to respond how they wanted to be helped in a particular situation.

The situations, each with suggestions listed and an option to write in additional acts of kindness, included

When I'm sick for more than a couple of days...

When somebody close to me has died...

When a baby has been born...

When I've lost my job...

After my youngest has left for college...

I continue to receive responses, but I thought it would be fun and enlightening to share the results based on 80 submissions.

All age groups were well represented, with a neat generational split between respondents under/over age 45.

An initial count of respondents' preferred ways of being cared for regardless of age or situation showed that prayer and notes still rank at the top.

The responses have been abbreviated:

  • Pray - Pray for me
  • Note - Send me a note (handwritten or email)
  • Sit - Come and sit with me for a while
  • Food - Bring Food
  • Coffee - Come by for a cup of coffee
  • Kids - Take the kids for a couple of hours
  • Chocolate - Send chocolate
  • Groceries - Get my groceries
  • Invite me - Take me out for lunch or dinner or an outing
  • Walk my dog - Walk my dog
  • Laundry - Do my laundry
  • Clean - Clean my bedroom, bathroom, house
  • Mow the yard - Mow the yard
  • Move in - Move in and take care of things for a week
  • Call me - Call, email, or txt me and ask me what I need you to do
  • Borrow your dog - Let me borrow your dog
  • Network - Help me network, know about job openings, find a job
  • Kitten - Send me a kitten

Below I have posted the responses to the five situations, according to the two almost equal age groupings. In a follow up post next week, I will post the results for individual caring actions and how they relate to each of the five situations.

 

The new temple

The poor widow put in everything she had, all she had to live on, and we don’t even know her name. No one suggested that one of the pillars in the women’s court of the temple be named after her. The only reason we know about her is that Jesus was paying attention and called the disciples so we would pay attention to the scene. “She has put in everything she had,” he said, “all she had to live on, her whole life.”

Imagine you’re directing a movie based on the gospel of Mark, and you’re getting ready to shoot this very scene, and the young man who’s playing Jesus asks you, “How do you want me to deliver this line? What emotions are giving energy to these words? Is it surprise? Praise? Does he want the disciples to admire or imitate her? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Or is he sad, perhaps even angry because this poor just dropped her last two pennies in the offering plate? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Tell me, how do you want me to say this line, with a smile or with a broken heart or with righteous anger?”

You’re the director, but you don’t have an answer ready. “I hadn’t thought of that one,” you say, “everybody, take five.” Now, while you’re thinking about what to tell that actor, did you hear the story about the college in upstate New York? Back in July, Joan Weill, the wife of Citigroup billionaire Sandy Weill, announced that they would donate $20 million to Paul Smith’s College, a small, cash-strapped school in the Adirondack Mountains. The big bundle of money came with one string attached: She insisted that the school would have to be renamed in her honor, to be known forever as Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. Weill is a former trustee of the school, which sits miles from the nearest town and specializes in forestry and hospitality programs. She’s given big gifts in the past, and the library and the student center both are already named after her. Mrs. Weill argued that with her name given top billing, more donors around the country would open their wallets.

Paul Smith’s was named for a pioneer of this rugged region just south of the U.S.-Canada border who opened a wilderness lodge in the 1850s that hosted guests such as Teddy Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. Smith’s family donated land for the college in the 1940s. So when alumni learned that his name would now be given second billing, it infuriated many. “It makes me sick, to be honest with you,” said Jason Endries, who graduated 15 years ago. “I don’t consider it to be much of a gift if you require something. Usually a gift is given out of generosity and not requiring something in return.” Well, what Jason calls ‘usually’ is in fact becoming the rare exception. Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University, says asking that entire institutions be rebranded in exchange for a gift reflects a new attitude, a new trend among the megarich. “There are very few anonymous donors anymore, and there are few that are satisfied to give a big donation and not have that object of the donation named after them,” he says. Eisenberg says a lot of institutions now think of naming rights as an asset, something they can offer as an enticement, but he worries that colleges and arts institutions could wind up swapping names the way sports stadiums do. “If somebody gives $20 million and someone else comes up and says, ‘I’m going to give you $50 million,’ does that mean they’re going to change their name again?” he says. “It’s a crazy system.”

In the case of Paul Smith’s College, a state court judge ruled in October that the name change would violate terms of the original will and the original gift that established the school. Facing growing pressure from alumni and fearing a long court fight, the college decided not to appeal. With naming rights no longer on the table, the Weill family withdrew the $20 million gift.[1]

Sitting in the temple, opposite the treasury, Jesus noticed many rich people putting in large sums. Large gifts draw attention, and the givers of large sums enjoy being known for their generosity; some enjoy it so much they don’t wait for somebody to suggest that a bridge, building, school, or chapel be named in their memory and honor – they turn their gift into a purchase of memory and honor.

Both scenes in today’s gospel reading are about attention. “Beware of the scribes,” Jesus taught the crowd that was listening to him with delight. Not the scribes in general, but the ones who like to walk around in long robes. They like to be seen; they like to be noticed. They want to be greeted with respect in the markets. They like having seats of honor in the synagogues and at banquets. They strut about, peacocks of piety spreading their tails, but you know they devour widows’ houses while saying long prayers for the sake of appearance.

Jesus was teaching in the temple, surrounded by magnificent buildings, at the heart of an institution established to the glory and honor of God, but used and abused for the worst of very human ends: vanity, self-promotion, exploitation. Nobody was paying attention to the poor widow who put in two small copper coins, worth less than a penny, which is like nothing compared to the gifts of the rich, but it was everything to her. Nobody was paying attention to her which is why Jesus is pointing her out to us. Not a word of praise comes from his lips, though, and nothing indicates that he is lifting her up as an example. All he does is describe what she is doing.

So much attention for those who gave much, so little for her who gave everything. You’re the director of this movie; what do you tell the actor playing Jesus? His tone of voice is critical in this scene. Do you tell him to tap into the joy that floods the heart when you witness this woman’s act of complete devotion to God? Or do you tell him to give voice to the anger that ties your innards into knots when you observe how an institution that is supposed to glorify God takes a poor woman’s last two pennies?

You can’t decide, and so you sit there a little longer with Jesus, opposite the treasury. Do you remember when he entered the temple the day after they came to Jerusalem? Do you remember how he threw out those who were selling and buying there? How he overturned the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those who sold doves? He didn’t allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He practically shut down the entire operation, at least for a moment. “Is it not written,” he said, and you don’t have any trouble imagining in what tone of voice he was yelling across the courtyard, “‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”[2]

God’s holy temple had become a house of corruption, and Jesus was working on a new way of being God’s holy temple. The new temple would not be run by pompous men in long robes or fine suits, quick to identify the best seats in the house and eager to sit in them. The new temple would not be a place for pride and greed barely concealed behind facades of ostentatious piety. The new temple would be a community of people, gathering in houses of prayer for all the nations, practicing forgiveness, and bearing fruit through love of God and neighbor.[3]

The new temple is both humble and grand. It is humble because it is a community of people who love God with all their heart, and with all their soul, and with all their mind, and with all their strength, and who love their neighbor as themselves, nothing more. And the new temple is grand because it is a community of people who make their whole life a gift to the glory of God in daily acts of faithfulness, no strings attached. The whole structure is raised to honor God’s holy name, and the names of God’s people are written in the book of life and remembered when the community gathers around the Lord’s table.

So, what do you tell the actor who’s waiting for you to tell him how to deliver that line? The poor widow gave everything she had, she gave her whole life, entrusting herself completely in God’s hands, and in Jesus’ eyes her gift became a testimony against the institutional leadership who had turned God’s house into a den of robbers. Do you tell the actor to say the line with both joy and severe judgment? Or do you go to your producer and tell her that it can’t be done; that these words aren’t meant to be the script for a movie; that they are to be pondered so they shape and transform our life?

This is the final scene in the temple, and the poor widow’s gift foreshadows the gift Jesus is about to complete: his own life, given in love, entrusted into God’s hands, but also taken by the sin that corrupts our life together. The gift is both a judgment of our sin and a testimony to God’s power to redeem us. And it is the foundation on which the new temple is being built.

 


[1] http://www.npr.org/2015/11/03/454036482/give-a-donation-ask-for-naming-rights

[2] Mark 11:15-17

[3] See Mark 11:24-25; 12:1-12; 12:28-34