We sing of the gardener

There was a time when children in Sunday school were given homework. In those days, the memory verse was as common as video clips are today. In those days, little Sally knew that on Sunday morning Ms Beulah might look at her over the rim of her reading glasses, and say, with a rare combination of warmth and authority, “Sally, would you share with us the verse you learned this week?” Little Sally would be forever grateful to her friend Charlie who had shared with her, just as they were walking down the steps to Sunday school, the secret that had been passed down through generations of young Bible scholars: “John 11:35 – Jesus wept.” The shortest verse in all of Scripture – short enough to memorize on Sunday morning in the hallway on your way to class. Ms Beulah was a kind and wise teacher, and she praised those young disciples every time one of them, usually with great relief in his or her voice, recited the verse. She praised them because she wanted the children to remember when they were sad that Jesus knew their sadness and wept with them. There were days when Ms Beulah’s heart was heavy with sorrow and all she could do was cry – and she was grateful that God not only knew the burden weighing on her heart, but cried with her. But Ms Beulah also made sure to tell her young charges a little known secret of Bible scholarship. “Children, the shortest verse in all of Scripture is not John 11:35, short as it is.” She certainly had Charlie’s attention. “Repeat after me,” she said. “First Thessalonians – 5:16 – Rejoice always.” And then Ms Beulah told them stories about the Apostle Paul:

“The Apostle loved the Lord, and he wanted the whole world to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. The Apostle was a serious man; he thought long and hard before he spoke or wrote – and he spoke and wrote a lot! But he was also a man whose heart was full of joy. Many times he was thrown in jail because some people didn’t like what he said about God’s love for all people. But he would sit in his cell and sing, and every time the guards opened the door to look what was going on, he smiled at them. God had given him a joy that was bigger than anything else in the world. One time, on his way to another country far away, he was in a shipwreck. He barely made it to shore, he had lost all his luggage, he was alone, he had no idea where he was, but when the locals found him, he was walking down the beach, singing and praising God. Paul was a man of great joy because he knew God. He knew that God loved the world, and that God would bring to a glorious end all that Jesus had done. Paul knew and remembered that nothing in the whole universe would ever be greater or stronger than God’s love. That’s why he taught us, ‘Rejoice always’ – 1 Thessalonians 5:16.”

Ms Beulah was a good Sunday school teacher. Generations of young disciples learned from her how faith in Jesus Christ nurtures a joy that resides deep in our lives, deep enough to sustain us in days when the world gives us little reason to smile.

Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances.

Paul was not just good at avoiding the bad news. He was not one of these annoyingly happy Christians who wear their faith on their t-shirts, but want to have little to do with the world God loves. He listened attentively to visitors who told him about conflicts within the young mission churches and about hostilities believers had to face from neighbors and local authorities, and yet he taught,

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.

Paul’s joy didn’t depend on circumstances. Earlier in his letter to the Thessalonians, he wrote,

“We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? Yes, you are our glory and joy! How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?”[1]

Paul sang because in cities stretching from Jerusalem and Antioch to Ephesus, all the way to Macedonia and into Achaia, men and women heard the good news of Jesus Christ and responded with the work of faith, the labor of love, and steadfastness of hope in God’s saving purposes. Paul rejoiced and taught the churches to rejoice because every faint spirit refreshed by the gospel is a life renewed by grace and reclaimed for the kingdom of God. His joy was rooted in the promise and the coming of God’s reign. He rejoiced because in his soul he knew that the One who calls us is faithful.

I asked Ms Beulah why it is so difficult for so many of us to tap into that deep current of joy that runs through the life of faith. She looked at me over the rim of her reading glasses and said, “I don’t really know, but I think it’s because we are afraid to trust God. We are prisoners of our own fear.” I thought about that a lot these past few weeks. We are afraid to trust God. We are prisoners of our own fear.

I’ve been reading about addiction these past few weeks. Hard to read stories about families passing on abuse, generation to generation, helplessly, trapped in prisons of pain and fear. And I read deeply moving stories about the miracle of hope and the journey toward healing that begins when a survivor discovers, “I am not alone.”

Many of us have been discussing these past few weeks the legacy of slavery and racism in this country, and how it’s like a wound we pass on from generation to generation, a prison that seems designed to keep us each trapped in our own cells of pain, prejudice, and fear. But then hundreds in this city, and thousands across the nation come together to protest against the ways the curse corrupts our criminal justice system, and to state publicly that they are no longer willing to accept the status quo as the best we can do.

On Thursday night I went to Riverbend prison to celebrate with a group of men their graduation from SALT – Schools for Alternative Learning and Transformation. The men gave testimony about the joy of talking with each other about things that matter and being listened to and heard; they talked about the joy of discovery and how their time together had transformed them, individually and as a group, unlike anything they had ever experienced in a class room.

Our prisons are places where the painful histories of family abuse and addiction and the reality of racism intersect and overlap in unique ways, but even there, behind bars and tall fences topped with concertina wire, even there, liberty is being proclaimed to the captives and release to the prisoners. To the degree that community is possible even behind those walls, liberation happens, healing occurs, and life is restored.

We heard again this morning the strong, beautiful words from the prophet Isaiah:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

The prophet spoke these exuberant Advent words of promise and hope when Jerusalem was in ruins; the temple had not been rebuilt; the streets were empty, as were the markets; the towns of Judah were devastated by poverty. The return of the exiles from Babylon had been a powerful experience. They felt like those whom God had brought out of Egypt, to a new beginning in the land of promise. But when they saw the city, their hope and joy gave way to tears of sorrow and despair. And Isaiah sang,

I will rejoice, rejoice, rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Isaiah sang like bridegroom and bride on their wedding day, filled with joy, full of happy expectation and confidence concerning all the newness about to happen. He sang amid the ruins the song of Zion, the exuberant song of salvation, of Jerusalem rebuilt, the ruined cities repaired, and the former devastations raised up – and you know people asked him, “How can this be?” Isaiah’s answer was remarkably similar to Paul’s: The Lord is faithful. The promise is greater than the circumstances.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.

We bear the wounds of abuse, and God cries with us. The legacy of slavery is perpetuated among us and by us in ways we do not fully understand, and God keeps vigil with us. The good word of God’s faithfulness is for us who mourn, whose spirits are faint and whose hearts are broken; and the good word is against the fears that paralyze us and the idols that hold us in thrall, we don’t know how. And so we sing. We sing with Isaiah, with Jesus and Paul and Ms Beulah, we sing of the gardener who has sown the earth with righteousness. We praise the Lord God whose Spirit is upon us, who has anointed us and sent us to bring good news to each other, to bind up each other’s wounded hearts, to proclaim liberty and release, to comfort, build up, raise up, and repair until we are what we really are: the planting of the Lord, to display the glory of God.


[1] 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2:19f.; 3:9


Yet You

We begin the church year, we begin the season of Advent by lighting a candle. Just one candle, one small flickering flame of hope. Hope. On Monday evening we learned that a St. Louis County grand jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown. Whether this was right or wrong, and for what reasons – perspectives and opinions among us cover a wide spectrum, and I hope we all understand what a gift that is. Protests erupted in cities across the U.S. and in Ferguson, Missouri, and media reports soon focused on the violence, looting and arson – tragically confirming for those who were on the streets crying out their pain and anger, that America really was more concerned about property damage than the loss of a black man’s life. “I was disappointed at the outbreak of violence and fires that resulted from the decision not to indict,” wrote the Rev. Dr. Timothy James, one of the leaders of our denomination. “When you think you have no voice, when there apparently is no respect for your life and bewilderment is the companion of your anger, there is very little recourse.”[1] You think you have no voice when you find yourself consistently among the unheard. And without a voice, how can you express your frustration, your pain, your anger, your fear, your lack of trust in the criminal justice system?

Benjamin Watson plays professional football with the New Orleans Saints, and he’s clearly not one who thinks he doesn’t have a voice. He gathered his thoughts on Monday night and Tuesday morning, and on Tuesday night he posted them Facebook:

I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.

I’M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life (…)

I’M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I’m a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a “threat” to those who don’t know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.

I’M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.

I’M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity, hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day. (…)

I’M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.

I’M CONFUSED, because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don’t know why some policemen abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.

I’M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take “our” side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. (…)

I’M HOPELESS, because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.

I’M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.

I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. (…) I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.

I’m grateful Benjamin Watson posted these statements. I’m grateful that he offered his thoughtful voice so others could articulate their anger, frustration, fear, and confusion and no longer feel voiceless. I spent Tuesday listening to cries of pain and anger, cries of retribution demanding a response, cries for justice, cries demanding some acknowledgement of the loss and some indication that it mattered not just to some, but all of us. I spent Tuesday reflecting on the deep desire for judgment we all share, a desire for things made right. A desire not just for retaliation or punishment, but for the cosmic equivalent of a day in court when we finally hear the truth about the violent mess we have inherited and perpetuate, day after day, generation after generation, barely knowing what we are doing. We want someone to tell us the truth about ourselves.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

Isaiah’s words resonated in my heart on Tuesday morning like they had never before.

You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. … Your holy cities have become a wilderness.O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! (Isaiah 64:1, 7, 10)

Isaiah offered these powerful words of lament in the wake of Israel’s devastating exile, a time of deep disorientation and disappointed hope for God’s people. The prospect of returning to Jerusalem was full of promise for the exiles, but the reality of rebuilding their lives was so much more difficult than they had expected.

We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name (Isaiah 63:9).

Isaiah laments the state of affairs between God and God’s people, and it’s not entirely clear whether his words are the people’s confession before God or their accusation brought against God – and perhaps they are both.

We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name.

It was as though their exile had ended only in geographical terms – they were back on the land, but they were still cut off from the restoring presence of God. We are not living in the wake of exile as they did, but we are far from home in this land of promise. The wound of slavery is not healed, and racism causes wave after wave of pain to wash over us – but the pain is mostly felt by the descendants of slaves and other people of color.

Isaiah’s words give voice to our longing for God’s earth-shattering, heaven-ripping presence: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down! We have made such an unholy mess of the world that only you can set it right. You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. You let us have our way of domination, exploitation, and dehumanizing trade in human bodies, and we can’t find our way home out of the exile our own actions have created and continue to replicate. Our communities are broken and fragmented in ways we do not comprehend, perhaps cannot comprehend. We have long been like those whom you do not rule, like those not called by your name. We are stumbling in the darkness, not walking in your light.

Isaiah’s words give voice to our Advent longing and he lights a candle of hope with the smallest, most inconspicuous word. Which word might that be in his passionate lament, you wonder? Yet.

Yet you, Lord, are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.

In Advent we acknowledge that we need God to come. In Advent we name the darkness in which we await the rising of the sun of righteousness who comes with healing in his wings. In Advent we look at the world we have inherited, the world we are making, and we don’t allow despair or fear to throw their heavy cloak on us, or denial its seemingly lighter blanket. In Advent we stand with the prophets of old and the prophets of today and say the shortest prayer of hope: yet You. Our hearts ache for the loss suffered by the family of Michael Brown - yet You are our God. Our souls sink at the anger and hopelessness experienced by so many - yet You are our God. Our minds struggle with the divide that a heritage of racism and violence has placed among us – yet You are our God and we are all your people. Yet You reminds and invites us to trust in God’s creative and redemptive work among us as we struggle not to give up on each other, but reach across fear and fixed attitudes, seeking to prepare the way of the Lord.

Jesus urges us to practice watchful preparedness. Yes, look at the world and notice where God appears to be painfully absent, but look again and notice where, any moment now, God’s salvation will come.

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near (Mark 13:28).

Look for the tender places. Look for the places along the long divide where brothers and sisters are already reaching across with the desire to speak with honesty in seeking deeper understanding. Light a candle and look for the tender places where people say, “I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m sad, I’m hopeless and hopeful, I’m encouraged.” Be near the tender places where the voiceless are given voice; sit there and listen well and watch as your heart too becomes tender.

During the Christmas holiday of 1968, Wendell Berry sat in the library at Stanford and wrote an essay on racism that is unique in its analysis and its tenderness. Toward the end he wrote,

No [humans] will ever be whole and dignified and free except in the knowledge that the [humans] around [them] are whole and dignified and free, and that the world itself is free of contempt and misuse.[2]

We light a candle, one small flickering flame of hope, because we trust that Christ will always find a way to come to us. He will come and set us free.



[2] Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound, 105.


Every single one of us

Have you watched Cosmos with Neill deGrasse Tyson? It’s a great piece of science education, paying homage to the late Carl Sagan; television worth watching. Thanks to Netflix, I watched a couple of episodes last week, and again I was moved by the beautiful imagery depicting the physical cosmos from the molecular and even subatomic level to the mathematical imaginations of a multiverse. Again I was moved by the visions of Giordano Bruno, the 16th-century Dominican monk who saw, long before there were telescopes, the vastness of creation beyond earth and sky. He was convinced that there had to be more than one sun in the universe and many more planets that may also be home to life. He told us that our God is too small if we can’t allow our imagination to enter the unknown, and he was burned at the stake for undermining the power of the church.

I listened to Neill Tyson, and again I tried to comprehend the vastness of 13.8 billion years of spacetime; if the history of the universe were compressed into one calendar year, our sun was formed at the end of August and just about all of known human history happened in the last few seconds before midnight on December 31. It’s mindblowing and awesome; creation is so immense and we are so small. There’s a place in Washington, D.C. that’s built to human scale; there you can walk the universe from the beginning of time to its end. Perched on a hill above the town, it is like something out of a dream, a place of grandeur and great beauty. I’m talking about National Cathedral. It’s only stone and light, yett the visual effects are nonetheless stunning. Entering the cathedral is like entering the mystery of life itself. Above the front entrance is a dramatic depiction of the creation of humankind, carved in bright lime stone, human bodies emerging from whirling, swirling textures fluid as water. Stepping across the threshold you find yourself immersed in light filtering through magnificent stained glass windows, in a place filled only with hushed whispers. The tall pillars envelop sacred silence, interrupted only by the proclamation of God’s word and the worship of God’s people.

As you make your way to the altar on the opposite end of the sanctuary, you journey through human history, past the monuments of faith and of the saints, past memorials to achievements in science and art, and past testimonials to what we honor as good, true, and beautiful. At the end of your walk down the nave you arrive before the finely carved high altar: Jesus sits on the throne of his glory at the end of time, surrounded by the whole company of heaven, balancing the earth like a ball on the palm of his hand, his other hand raised in blessing. This is Christ preparing to speak the final word on all things come into being from the foundation of the world to its fulfillment. In the cathedral even the most casual tourist moves through all of history from the beginning of time to the end, to stand before the One who will sort out everything that has happened in between.

“All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”

Life, of course, is not for tourists who take a picture, turn around, and head out to the next sight on their city tour. Our journey through the grand cathedral of time does come to an end, and we stand before the throne of glory, naked and empty-handed, and Jesus speaks.

“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, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

The ancient and medieval imagery of shepherd and king, of cathedral and throne may seem dated to some of us, but the testimony of the gospel is not. When all things come to an end, the final word about your life is not spoken by yourself, or by those who remember you, or by your enemies, but by Jesus, the crucified Son of God, risen in glory. Your life may seem infinitesimally small in the vastness of spacetime and among billions of human beings, but in the eyes of the judge it deserves to be recognized and weighed.

And the judge is none other than Jesus whom we judged, sentenced, and executed. The judge is the Son of God who walks barefoot with the poor and declares them blessed, who sleeps among those who have no place to lay their head, who knows betrayal and torture and death row without parole. The judge is the Least of These: rejected and ridiculed, spat upon, sneered and yelled at, beaten, abandoned, killed and forgotten. The judge is the Least of These, raised by the power of God.

The criteria of his judgment – a surprise until you find yourself in this story – the criteria are not the sincerity of your confession, or the orthodoxy of your doctrine, or your knowledge, your wisdom, your wealth or fame, but the mercy of your actions. You can make a name for yourself in a million ways, but the truth that abides when all things come to an end, the truth is divine mercy embodied by ordinary humans. We would not know had he not told us that we are looking into the eyes of Christ when we look into the eyes of the brother or sister who needs something to eat or a place to spend the night. The truth may get lost in the grandeur of the cathedral and the vastness of spacetime and the far-from-spectacular busyness of our days, but it remains true until the end of time: the judgment is not the crowning of the top athletes of piety, but the revelation of the ultimate importance of the ordinary, everyday actions of ordinary, everyday people. Hungry and thirsty, ailing, lonely, unsheltered, unwelcome, weighed down, excluded, abandoned – every one of these words describes a situation of need and waiting. And mercy is the answer. The need for mercy calls forth deeds of mercy, and the Lord is present in both the need and in the kindness that meets it. That is all that matters in the end, says Jesus: Ordinary, everyday people and all the ways they embody mercy in ordinary, everyday actions; it’s lovely in its simplicity.

But something bothers me about this story. Doesn’t it suggest that we are saved by what we do and damned by what we don’t do? Doesn’t it suggest that Jesus didn’t come to save us but to teach us how to save ourselves? And what about those of us who need to know the details: how many deeds of mercy does it take to tip the judge’s balance toward the sheeps’ side? Or how many times can I drop the mercy ball without losing my place on the team of eternal life? What’s the hope for those of us who worry about the details?

Mary Gauthier pleads in one of her great songs,

My brother could use a little mercy now
He’s a stranger to freedom, he’s shackled to his fear and his doubt
The pain that he lives in it’s almost more than living will allow
I love my bother, he could use some mercy now.[1]

What about those of us whose need for mercy will always outweigh our capacity for mercy, because we’re strangers to freedom, strangers to life’s wondrous depth, love?

Reinhold Niebuhr wrote,

“On the one hand it is true that it makes a difference whether [humans] are good or evil, loving or selfish, honest or dishonest. It makes a real difference, that is, an ultimate difference in the sight of God. On the other hand it makes no difference. No life can justify itself ultimately in the sight of God. The evil and the good, and even the more and the less good are equally in need of the mercy of God. (…) Love is both the fulfilment and the negation of law. Forgiveness is the highest justice and the end of justice.” [2]

We are all equally in need of the mercy of God. In more ways than we can name or imagine, every single one of us belongs to the least of these who have nothing but mercy going for them. Knowing that and knowing it in our bones is the key to faith without fear. The one who comes to judge us is the one who has come to redeem us, to free us from sin, guilt, shame, fear and every shackle that keeps us from living in the glorious freedom of the children of God. The one who comes looking for mercy among us is the one who was and is and forever will be the very mercy of God. Worry and fear will not free us from anxious self-observation; worry and fear will not free us for a life of loving service to others, only faith will – only trust in God’s unending love for us.

Each human life is a magnificent journey in time and a short verse in the glorious song of creation, from God’s first to the final word. Each human life participates in the one life of God, and that is why we cannot live as solitary travelers seeking fullness in individual fulfillment. The fullness of eternal life is given shape by God’s loving attention to our needs and by our loving attention to the needs of others. Thanks be to God whose mercy endures forever.


[1] Mary Gauthier, Mercy Now, 2005

[2] Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy, 1937; quote from


Well done

As the days grow shorter, the Sunday texts get darker. No more lilies of the field and birds of the air for us; no, we hear of weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness. Some of us hear the words and fear creeps in, fear of falling short, fear of rejection and exclusion. We long for acceptance and belonging, and this just sounds like more of what we already know: To all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The words make me shiver. We struggle to build economies where it’s not just the rich who get richer, and Jesus sounds as though there is some kind of cosmic principle at work that is also the basis for divine judgment. What is going on here? Did we just see compassion and mercy fly out the window?

The story involves enormous amounts of money. A talent here is not your God-given talent for music or multiplication, a talent is a ton of money. I did the math. One talent equals 60 pounds, and a pound equals 100 denarii, and a denarius is the minimum wage for a farm worker in Jesus’ day. So based on the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 a talent would be $348,000. This man, going on a journey, entrusted his entire property, everything he owned to his servants, to each according to his abilities. This means the first slave was handed $1.74 million and he went off and started trading, along with the second slave; and in the years of their master’s absence they each doubled what they had been given. “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.”

Now the spot light is on the third. We know he dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money, and in the first century that was a common, good and faithful way to protect a safety deposit. Nothing indicates that the slaves were given specific instructions what to do with the money, but clearly the master was not happy with the third slave’s performance. The story has a strong allegorical flavor; it’s hard to look at the master and not see him as a representative of Jesus and the slaves as Jesus’ disciples. Two of them are praised and invited to enter into a place of joy, while the third is not only left empty-handed, but thrown out. The line seems to be drawn very clearly. But let’s complicate the simple plot a little.

Let’s pretend there was a fourth slave, one who was given three talents, according to her abilities. And she also went off at once and traded with them, and upon the master’s return she said, “Master, you handed over to me three talents and I traded with merchants from east and west, north and south – and it’s all gone.” What do you imagine the master said to her? Did he invite her to enter into his joy or did he call her wicked and reckless? Your answer will depend on what kind of master you think he is and what to make, in an allegorical reading of the story, of those fat bags of cash.

In Matthew, Jesus did not tell his disciples this story after giving each of them a denarius and saying, “Now go and do some good.” This story follows his teachings about discipleship, and at the time Jesus was only days away from being crucified. The story is about us and what we do with all we have been entrusted by our master before he went away. Between us, we have been given all that is his. We have his teachings and his spirit, we have the authority to proclaim the good news and the power to forgive each other – he has entrusted all that he has to us. None of us, of course, will claim to be five-talent servants, we’re much too meek to be so bold. Let’s say, in the spirit of humility, we’re all half-talent servants. That’s perfectly fine as long as we don’t hide our half-talent in a hole. Together we have been given all that is needed to participate in God’s mission in the world. Half-talent discipleship is just fine as long as we don’t defer to what we might consider better-endowed disciples when it’s time for compassionate action or truth telling.

It’s not about the numbers or about calculating the estimated return on investment. It’s about digging up the buried treasure of all our master has entrusted to us and trading with it. “It is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher,” says Jesus, “and the slave like the master.”[1] It is enough for us to imitate him, to invest ourselves the way he did for the sake of God’s reign: with generosity and kindness, with prayer and mercy, lovingly and fearlessly. It is enough for us to discover how much we have been given and to make it our daily joy and work to invest it.

The third slave in the story did not know his master. “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.” The master we know has scattered the seed of new life with lavish extravagance. The teacher we follow in no way resembles this servant’s description. If there is one thing we know, it is that he is not harsh. He only reaps what has sprung up from the seeds he scattered throughout his life: seeds of grace, seeds of hope, seeds of joy. He himself is the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, and he only gathers the abundance of fruit that gift has born.[2] The third slave in the story did not know the master.

Jesus has entrusted the good news of the kingdom to all of us half-talent disciples and encourages us not to hold back when it comes to trading with what we have been given. In the kingdom economy a tiny mustard seed grows into a tree, and the birds come and make nests in its branches.[3] The generous gift of five loaves and two fish more than doubles and thousands feast on it.[4]

So what about that fourth slave I asked you to imagine as part of the plot? “Master, you handed over to me three talents and I traded with merchants from east and west, north and south – and it’s all gone.”

“All gone? Well done. Nothing you do in my name is ever lost. Your faithfulness has born fruit in places you never saw and in moments long after you moved on. Come, enter into the joy of your master.”

Jesus teaches us, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[5] I believe he is not just talking about the rare circumstances where his followers will have to face violent persecution. The way I hear him, he’s addressing the daily challenge of investing ourselves in God’s mission without fear: think about that difficult conversation you’ve been putting off for months, and now imagine that moment of courage when you simply begin it, although silence has felt so much safer for so long; or imagine that moment of profound faith when you start moving toward forgiving someone, when for years burying that impulse seemed so natural; or imagine yourself in that large group listening to a speaker and everybody around you seems to be nodding in agreement and you know it’s not right, and then the moment when you stand up, your knees shaking and your heart beating up in your throat, and you say, because love demands it, “I disagree.”

It seems to always begin with that moment when you discover that you have been given all that is needed to participate in moving life, your life, somebody else’s life, a little closer to the kingdom. Sometimes that discovery feels like somebody just turned the light on, and sometimes it’s like digging through layers of dirt and unearthing a gift, a hidden treasure that’s been buried longer than you can remember.

Jesus reminds us that “No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the landstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” [6]

As the days grow shorter, the nights get colder. We let the light of Christ shine in the dark by participating in Room in the Inn, by opening our doors and welcoming strangers as our guests, offering them a safe and warm place to spend the night. Those gestures of hospitality, those casseroles and sausage biscuits, those moments sitting at table with three or four homeless men and listening to their stories may seem so little, pennies of kindness really – but we are trading with what we have been given and entering the joy of our master. Eventually all of us half-talent disciples will realize that we have indeed been given the entire kingdom treasury.


[1] Matthew 10:25

[2] John 12:24

[3] Matthew 13:31

[4] Matthew 14:17

[5] Matthew 16:25

[6] Matthew 5:15-16


We sing with our lives

“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake” (Amos 5:18).

No question, most of those who had come to God’s house that morning for a word of reassurance and heard Amos shouting about felt like they had got bitten by something nasty.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

The word of the Lord.

Your offerings? I will not look upon them, let alone accept them. I can’t stand the smell.

The word of the Lord.

Take away from me the noise of your songs. I will not listen to your harp music.

The word of the Lord. Nobody responded, Thanks be to God.

No question, after Amos finished that morning nobody invited the preacher to lunch. A torrent of accusations had washed over them and their ears were still ringing, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” They thought they had come to the sanctuary to hear a word of hope about the coming of the Lord, about the great day when God would appear in glory and might and Israel’s enemies would be vanquished. And instead they had to listen to this Amos, this fellow from the South, talking about God’s judgment not against the nations but against them. Who was he? Who did he think he was? No doubt some of them shouted, “Go back where you came from, we have our own prophets!”

“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son,” Amos told them; “I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” [1]

Amos was from the hill country south of Jerusalem, from a small town called Tekoa – not exactly a foreigner in Samaria, but still an outsider, a stranger, an intruder. In the name of God, but with a Jerusalem accent, he lashed out against the social injustice in Samaria. He accused the leaders, including the priests of the king’s sanctuary, of perverting justice and cheating the poor in the marketplace. And in the context of such oppression, he told them, their worship, though religiously and beautifully presented, was no offering of praise but only ugliness, noise, and stench. “The cumulative image of these [lines of Amos’s speech] is God’s holding the nose, shutting the eyes and closing the ears to Israel’s ceremonies.” [2]

Justice and righteousness characterize the God of Israel, and justice and righteousness are to characterize the life of God’s covenant people. Without them, their worship was not just incomplete, but a perversion; without them, the people did not worship the Lord God, but only their own religious fantasies. Attention to the liturgy without attention to those who get pushed to the margins in daily life is not worship.Without attention to the faithful ordering of life in the city, the nation, and the world, attention to the order of worship is religious distraction at best, and idolatry at worst. The noble citizens of Samaria came to the sanctuary bearing gifts and dressed in their Sunday best, but they had forgotten how to live as God’s people.

You trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, Amos cried. You push the afflicted out of the way, you oppress the poor, and crush the needy. You hate the one who reproves in the gate and abhor the one who speaks the truth. You trample on the poor, afflict the righteous, and push aside the needy at the gate.[3] You think of yourselves as worshipers of God, but you are tramplers, haters, afflicters, oppressors, crushers, and pushers-aside of God’s own. You do not see past your own well-being, your own security, and the pleasures of your own lifestyle. Wake up and see that the ones you abuse, exclude, and ignore are one with you in the embrace of God. Open your eyes and let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. “Let justice run through society unimpeded by avarice or selfishness or cruelty; let it roll on without (…) hindrance like the waves of the sea; let it roll on unintermittently all the year round whatever be the political weather; let it roll on like a perennial stream which even in the fiercest heat of summer never dries up.” [4] Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

No matter how ornate, ritually correct and aesthetically pleasing the worship of God’s people may be, if it is not matched by a commitment to the establishment of just and righteous relationships in the world, it won’t be God’s name that is being honored. “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity,” says God in the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 1:13). Liturgical words and actions become meaningless, regardless of tradition, form, or quality, when those who participate in them do not seek to embody righteousness and struggle for justice for the most vulnerable members of the community.

In 1935, when the German government’s rhetoric and actions against Jewish citizens grew increasingly hateful and violent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only those who cry out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chant.”[5] Too few were paying attention; too many kept singing their beloved hymns on Sunday morning, folding their hands and bowing their heads in prayer, only to fall silent as soon as they stepped from the warmth of the sanctuary into the cold daylight of Nazi rule. They were grateful for the comforts of a familiar liturgy and the hymns they had known since childhood, but they failed to stand up and speak out against the persecution of their neighbors.

The prophets help us see and remember that singing and living go together, that we glorify God’s name with our communal worship in the sanctuary and with our words and actions in the community. Augustine said in one of his sermons, referring to the verse, Sing to the Lord a new song!,

“You tell me, ‘I am singing!’ Yes indeed, you are singing. You are singing clearly, I hear you. But make sure that your life does not contradict your words. Sing with your voices, your lips, and your lives. (…) If you desire to praise [the Lord], then live what you express (…) and you yourselves will be [the Lord’s] praise.”[6]

Be the Lord’s praise. Sing with your lives.

“Liturgy in the absence of justice does not please God; it nauseates God,” wrote Nicholas Wolterstorff. “Gregorian chants or Genevan psalms or Lutheran chorales or Anglican anthems or Orthodox troparions [or Baptist revival songs] sung in the presence of injustice disgust God.”[7] The point of our worship assemblies and liturgies is to praise God; we gather around the Word, around baptistry and table to give symbolic expression to the commitment of our lives to God. “Liturgy is for giving voice to life, to lives of faith.”[8] In our lives, we seek to obey God, individually and collectively; in the liturgy we praise the one whom we seek to obey, and we confess our failings. In our lives, we demonstrate our love of God; in the liturgy we bless and praise the God we love. In our lives, we strive to be like God: holy, merciful, just. In the liturgy we intercede with God to be our holiness, our mercy, and our justice. But if our lives are not in fact committed to God and God’s mission of reconciliation, then going through the motions of the liturgy is a disgusting religious performance. If in our daily lives we do not struggle for the feeding of the hungry and peace with our neighbors, then interceding with God for the hungry and for peace on earth is a disgusting religious performance. If in our daily lives we do not actively imitate the divine longing for justice and righteousness, then professing devotion to God in worship is a disgusting religious performance. Without connection to lives ordered by God’s love and the demands of that love, worship nauseates God.[9]

We’re only a week away from setting up rows of mattresses in our fellowship hall for Room in the Inn. We’re only a week away from cooking delicious meals, adding a special snack to a brownpaper breakfast bag, and, night after night, welcoming a group of strangers with a smile. We do it to the glory of God and for the healing of our community; it is part of our worship.

We hear with joy and amazement that more than 700 homeless individuals in Nashville have found permanent housing since June last year in a collaborative effort of government agencies, non-profits, landlords, and numerous volunteers. But we also hear that in the city-wide street census, the overall number of homeless individuals and families in our community has only dropped by less than 40. We wonder why so many people are losing their homes when they go through personal crises, and we ask what can be done about it – we wonder and we ask to the glory of God and for the healing of our community; it is part of our worship. We do these and all things to let our life together reflect the character of the God we worship. We sing with our lives.


[1] Amos 7:14-15

[2] Jannie Du Preez, “Let justice roll on like...”: some explanatory notes on Amos 5:24.” Journal Of Theology For Southern Africa no. 109 (March 1, 2001) 95.

[3] See Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10,12.

[4] John E. McFadyen, cited in Du Preez, 98.

[5] my translation; quoted from memory. See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie (München: Kaiser, 1983) 685.

[6] Sermon 34, 5-6

[7] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice as a condition of authentic liturgy,” Theology Today 48, no. 1 (April 1, 1991) 10.

[8] Wolterstorff, 17.

[9] See Wolterstorff, 17.


Heaven is a multitude

We don’t know what to do with Revelation [Lectionary reading: Rev 7:9-17]. “Whenever we enter the apocalyptic … territories of the Bible, we suddenly become disoriented tourists who don’t know the language, who stumble over the customs, who are made queasy by the diet, and who can’t find our way back to the hotel.”[1]

We don’t know what to do with Revelation. It “remains for many Christians not only strange and difficult but also theologically offensive - a book with ‘seven seals’, seldom read, seen as a curiosity in the Bible, and at most quoted very selectively.”[2]

We don’t know what to do with Revelation, unlike some of our brothers and sisters who, poring over maps of the middle east and the latest news about ISIS, are piecing together the puzzle – again! – and counting the days. Their reading of the text seems bizarre to us, but so does the text itself. We know that “apocalyptic poetry and historical prose are usually not commensurate. When Scripture says, ‘The stars will fall from heaven and the sun will cease its shining; the moon will be turned to blood and fire mingled with hail will fall from the heavens,’ we don’t expect the next phrase to be ‘the rest of the country will be partly cloudy with scattered showers.’”[3]

We don’t know what to do with Revelation, because its “apocalyptic language … does not appeal to our logical faculties but to our imagination and emotions. It is mythological-fantastic language - stars fall from heaven; the world becomes a palace with three stories: heaven, earth, and underworld; animals speak, dragons spit fire, a lion is a lamb, and angels or demons engage in warfare.”[4]

We wonder if we’re offered a snippet of Revelation on the first Sunday in November because it follows Halloween, a night of ghouls, ghosts, and gargoyles galore, and all in good fun. On Halloween we make fun of all that frightens us, especially the dark and the master of all fear, death. We make fun of our fear to remind ourselves and each other that the ultimate horizon of life is not fear, but heaven. Halloween and All Saints go hand in hand because remembering the saints who have gone before us we also remember that the way of Christ is the way of light and life. Remembering the saints as the earth turns into the dark winter months helps us to see our lives in Easter light.

Revelation does the same thing. It’s a letter of comfort and encouragement to Christians in dark times. John was a Christian leader, banned by order of Rome to a small island in the Mediterranean. Jerusalem was gone; the Romans, tired of the protests and revolts in the volatile province of Judaea, had destroyed the city and demolished the Temple – a pile of rubble was all that was left. Rome’s soldiers had brought peace to the troubled region, PAX ROMANA that is, the Roman variety of peace: submit or else. Christians were suspect because of their refusal to honor the gods of the empire. Violent persecution wasn’t the norm, but many Christian leaders were executed or imprisoned, or, as in John’s case, banned. He found himself far from home, a prisoner on Patmos, a small island off the coast of Turkey. The world around him was falling to pieces, and he knew that across the sea, in the cities of Asia Minor, where arrests and executions continued, his friends were struggling and suffering. They were losing hope: Rome had surrounded them with demands and expectations that turned just about every step toward the kingdom of God into an act of rebellion against the empire.

Acclaiming the emperor as Lord and Son of God was part of their duty as citizens and subjects of Rome – but how could they do that without denying the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God? How could they praise the emperor as Savior of the World when they confessed and proclaimed Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior? The “great ordeal” of Revelation’s first audience was not state-sponsored persecution on a large scale; soldiers weren’t going door to door rounding up any who refused to curse the Lord. But those who did not participate in the Roman imperial system found themselves increasingly marginalized, socially and economically. The pressure was growing to deny God’s claim on their lives and to submit instead to Rome’s.

John, in his letter, placed their struggle into a cosmic frame of reference, and in the passage we heard today he offered them a glimpse of heaven: There was a great multitude, more people than anyone could count. There was no limit to the scope of this multitude, be it geographic, ethnic, numeric, or linguistic. A multitude, dressed in white, waving palm branches and shouting out joyful praise to God on the throne and the Lamb. Angels were there and elders, too, twenty-four of them, as well as four living creatures, which John had described earlier. One looking like a lion, one like an ox, one was some creature with a human face, and one was like a flying eagle. John’s imagination was steeped in scripture, his letter contains more than five hundred references to the Hebrew scriptures, especially the prophets. Their words were the material he used to paint the scene in which all the residents of heaven sing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen!” What was Rome’s demand for the allegiance of God’s people against such a magnificent backdrop of heavenly praise?

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” asked one of the elders, only to answer a moment later, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.” A multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages! Most Christians today are aware of themselves as members of an international community, numbering hundreds of millions, with a venerable history that reaches back through the generations and the centuries. But imagine what the members of John’s churches at the end of the first century were looking at: their congregations were small; on the margins of society; politically suspect; without impressive buildings, institutions, or respect from their neighbors. John’s vision encouraged them to embrace their identity as God’s own and not to give in to pressures that let Rome claim the heavenly throne.

In a context where other powers claim ultimate allegiance – and who can name a context in which powers other than God do not claim ultimate allegiance? – in such a context, Christian worship is fundamentally an act of resistance. Christian worship, this weekly gathering, is a subversive practice that keeps others, including ourselves, from claiming the throne that is God’s. “What the powers desire most from human beings is our worship,” writes Charles Campbell; “they claim to be the divine regents of the world and to offer us life if we will only serve them. In this context, it is not surprising that the fundamental practice of the redeemed community in the book of Revelation is worship. There is no more subversive act where the powers are concerned than praising the God of Jesus Christ, who has exposed and overcome them.”[5] Standing next to the throne in heaven is not the general of the great army that conquered the world, or the brilliant technologist who invented the greatest gadget of all time, but the Lamb who loved the world and continues to love it through the church.

It is good for us to remember that heaven is not some Disciples Hall of Fame for the great athletes of piety. Heaven is a multitude, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages – all dressed in white because of what the Lamb has done. Heaven is a multitude and its unity lies in the love of God.

Kathleen Norris tells of a Benedictine sister who was keeping vigil as her mother lay dying in a hospital bed. She ventured to reassure and comfort her by saying, “In heaven, everyone we love is there.” The older woman replied, “No, in heaven I will love everyone who’s there.”[6]

Heaven is a multitude drawn together by the love and faithfulness of God. Let us worship God then, or, in the words of Saint Augustine,

Let us sing alleluias here on earth, while we still live in anxiety, so that we may sing it one day in heaven in full security ... We shall have no enemies in heaven, we shall never lose a friend. God’s praises are sung both there and here, but here they are sung in anxiety, there in security; here they are sung by those destined to die, there, by those destined to live forever; here they are sung in hope, there in hope’s fulfillment; here, they are sung by wayfarers, there, by those living in their own country. So then ... let us sing now, not in order to enjoy a life of leisure, but in order to lighten our labors. You should sing as wayfarers do - sing, but continue your journey ... Sing then, but keep going.[7] 


[1] Thomas G. Long, “Imagine There’s No Heaven: The Loss of Eschatology in American Preaching,” Journal for Preachers, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Advent 2006, 22.

[2] Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World, Proclamation Commentaries, 6.

[3] John Barton, cited in Long, 23.

[4] Fiorenza, 27.

[5] Charles Campbell, The Word before the Powers, 142.

[6] Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, 367.

[7] Saint Augustine, cited in Norris, 368.


Love flows

Many generations ago, a lover of God and God’s word counted all the commandments God gave to Moses. We don’t know who it was, or when and where, nor how long it took, but the count became part of Jewish teaching: there are 613 commandments.[1] Other lovers of God and God’s word determined that there are 365 you-shall-not’s (one for each day of the year) and 268 you-shall’s (one for each bone of the human body). I’m sure that over the generations there have been plenty of smart kids who insisted on a recount – either of the text or the bones – but there were also equally smart parents and teachers who told them, “Go ahead, count the commandments.” They trusted that sooner or later the youngsters would discover that the tradition was not about mathematical accuracy, but poetic truth: We are to know God’s will and word in our bones, with our whole being, and we are to embody God’s commandments faithfully every day of our life.

Now when you visualize 613 commandments, what do you see? An endless laundry list or a wall covered with sticky notes? A giant stack of index cards you try to manage as you prepare for the big exam? Or do you see a long legal document with headings and subheadings and bullets and cross references and footnotes in small print?

I see a tree. I see a big tree with a massive trunk, thick branches, tender twigs, and leaves in various shapes and shades of green. I see a tree, rooted in the heavens, with its branches reaching down to earth, touching every imaginable moment of human life – birth and death, food and drink, what to wear, when to work and rest, how to worship, how to raise children, all of it. But who can remember all 613? And who can apply them faithfully in every circumstance? Teachers and sages were commonly asked to summarize the commandments in a succinct teaching: What is the essence of faithfulness to God?[2] Is there one commandment that represents the trunk of the tree? Can we identify one commandment in which all the others come together? Is there a way to comprehend God’s will in its entirety by embracing the tree near its root?

Rabbi Aqiba said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; this is the great principle of Torah.”[3] The Apostle Paul makes a similar statement in his writings. In his letter to the Galatians we read, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4] And in Romans, Paul declares, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[5] The whole law summed up in a single commandment is the trunk of the tree from which all other branches emerge. Many Jewish and Christian teachers gave similar answers, identifying love’s demands as the heart of God’s law. Other voices in the Jewish as well as in the emerging Christian community urged greater caution, insisting that all commandments were of equal importance and that any attempt of ranking them was mere human presumption.

What did Jesus say? Did he come down on the side of those who saw a way to sum up God’s torah in a unifying principle, or on the side of those who urged equal attention to all commandments? We know by now that Jesus is very comfortable in the territory between all our various camps. We’re not surprised to hear him say,

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”[6]

Every last little detail of the law and the prophets matters, he insists, but then he also calls his opponents hypocrites for giving to God a tithe of every herb from their kitchen garden, but neglecting the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.[7] Even the smallest stroke of a pen in the law matters, but woe to us if our attention to tithing mint and parsley keeps us from addressing injustice in our communities and the lack of mercy and hope in the lives of others and our own.

When we ask Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he doesn’t name just one. There are two commandments; they address what motivates our obedience; and the two are one. They are different, and yet they belong inseparably together: Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. The tree that is rooted in the heavens has the love of God pulsing through it. Love flows through the trunk and into every branch, into every twig and sprig and leaf: every commandment, even the smallest letter and stroke of a pen pulses with that love.

As creatures made in the image of God and called to live in covenant with God we are to know this love in our bones and embody it every day in every aspect of our life. How can I know this love in my bones? How do I love someone whom I can neither see nor touch? The saints who have gone before tell us that loving God involves our whole being – our wonder, our intellect, our will, our desire, our trust. Some things we can only learn in the arms of another; some things we can only learn with our nose in the book, others we can only learn with our hands in the dirt or our feet on the road. How do I learn to love the Lord? I believe it happens as I come to know myself as the Lord’s beloved. Saint Augustine wrote,

Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.[8]

Late have I loved you, wrote the old man. Late did he come to know himself as God’s beloved. Late did he come to know the world and its brokenness as embraced and held by God’s vulnerable solidarity with us.

We have no trouble speaking of love. We love our Ma and Pa, we love chocolate and cheesecake, we love the boyfriend and the bride, we love our kids, and we love Jesus. When we speak of love we speak of affection, gratitude, and desire, but also of commitment, vulnerability, and more. Douglas Hare writes,

Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that [the commandment to love God] demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.[9]

We look to Jesus on the way and we see God’s compassion at work. We look to Jesus on the cross and we see the love that embraces enemies as brothers and sisters and doesn’t let go. We look to Jesus and we come to know ourselves as God’s beloved; and once we know ourselves and each other in that way all that we are and do pulses with the love of God.


[1] Tanhuma 16b: “R. Simlai has said: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were spoken to Moses on Sinai; then David came and brought them to eleven [Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved (Psalm 15:2-5)]; Isaiah brought them to six [Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, they will live on the heights (Isaiah 33:15)]; Micah brought them to three [What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)]; Amos brought them to two [Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba (Amos 5:4)]; Habakkuk brought them to one [Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)].”

[2] Sometimes the question was frivolous: Once a heathen came to R. Shammai and said to him, “I’ll become a convert if your can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai became angry and drove him off with a tool he had in his hand [I hope it wasn't a hoe or a hatchet!]. He came to R. Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel said to him,  “Whatever you dislike, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study [i.e., learn the commentary]” (b. Sabb. 31a).

[3] Kedoshim 4:12

[4] Galatians 5:14

[5] Romans 13:10

[6] Matthew 5:17-20

[7] See Matthew 23:23

[8] Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, transl. Henry Chadwick, X.xxvii.38

[9] Douglas Hare, “Matthew,” Interpretation Commentaries, p. 260.


Whose image?

“We know that you are sincere,” they said to Jesus. “We know that you teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.” Matthew had to warn us at the beginning that we were about to witness a plot designed to entrap Jesus, or we would have read those words and said to ourselves, “How nice of them to say that.”

Pharisees and Herodians make strange bedfellows, but stranger things have happened in politics. Judea was a province of the Roman Empire, and the population was heavily taxed to support the army and government that occupied what used to be Jewish land. The name Herodians is shorthand for supporters of the political status quo, men who saw nothing wrong with Roman rule and very likely benefitted handsomely from it. The Pharisees were not openly opposed to Roman rule, but certainly not in favor of it; they were pious men from across Galilee and Judea who aspired to fidelity to God’s law in all aspects of daily life. The Roman occupation of the promised land may not have been their primary concern, but it definitely was not part of their vision for Israel. They wanted God’s people to live on God’s land, in faithfulness and righteousness.

What brought the two groups together was Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God which, for different reasons, made both of them nervous. For a moment, they put aside their significant differences and set up a clever trap. They used a little shameless flattery to butter him up and attract the attention of passersby, and then dropped a question that left no way out: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” It was a brilliant move. If Jesus said yes, he would immediately be exposed as a collaborator with the occupation, and his approval rates would drop to levels of complete insignificance; no Pharisee needed to be nervous anymore. If he said no, he would immediately be arrested for inciting sedition and the authorities would take care of him; no Herodian needed to be nervous anymore.

It was a brilliant move, but Jesus didn’t play their game: “Show me the coin used for the tax,” he told them, and his opponents had no trouble finding a denarius; they obviously were much better connected to the imperial economy than Jesus of Nazareth. They didn’t have twitter in first-century Palestine, but if they had, we could read angry tweets like,

“Guess who brought blasphemous coins into the holy temple? #herodians #pharisees #whatsinyourwallet”

“Rome’s currency isn’t kingdom currency! #jesusmessiah #blessedarethepoor #whatsinyourwallet”

Jesus still didn’t answer their question, but now asked them, with a nod of the head toward the coin: “Whose head is this, and whose title?” A more literal translation would be, “Whose image is this, and whose title?”

“The emperor’s,” they answered. Most likely the coin bore the image of the emperor Tiberius who ruled Rome during those years. And the title inscribed on it was more than a title. To Jewish eyes and ears it was blasphemy: Emperor Tiberius, august son of the divine Augustus, high priest.[1] This brief debate wasn’t about paying taxes, it was about idolatry. And Jesus didn’t answer their question, but said, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

It’s as though he told them and us, “If it bears Caesar’s image, let him have it; give it back to him, it’s rightfully his. But remember that to be human is to be made in the image of God. Remember that to be human is to give back to God what is God’s – your life, your breath, your days and nights.” Jesus didn’t answer their question, but showed them and us a much bigger and more important question we need to answer every day: How do we live as people who know that we are not our own, nor anyone else’s, but God’s?

Marcus Borg wrote,

This text offers little or no guidance for tax season. It neither claims taxation is legitimate nor gives aid to anti-tax activists. It neither counsels universal acceptance of political authority nor its reverse. But it does raise the provocative (…) question: What belongs to God, and what belongs to Caesar? And what if Caesar is Hitler, or apartheid, or communism, or global capitalism?[2]

How do we live as God’s people when the economic and political systems we create and sustain become oppressive? When they claim and take what is God’s by abusing humans who bear the image of God? We cannot serve two masters. We cannot neatly divide our loyalties between God and other lords. And we must not confuse our loyalties to other lords with our loyalty to God.

We bear the image of God, but when we look at each other, or in the mirror, we also see the inscriptions that our interactions with the world have left on us: You are what you wear, is a common script. You are what you do, what you earn. Or: You are nobody. You don’t count. We are made in the image of God, but other scripts and images continually overwrite our identity as God’s own with layers of falsehood.

James Kelly wrote,

We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us. Each of us tends to be, not a single self, but a whole committee of selves. There is the civic self, the parental self, the financial self, the religious self, the society self, the professional self, the literary self. And each of our selves is in turn a rank individualist, not co-operative but shouting out his vote loudly for himself when the voting time comes. And all too commonly we follow the common American method of getting a quick decision among conflicting claims within us. It is as if we have a chairman of our committee of the many selves within us, who does not integrate the many into one but who merely counts the votes at each decision, and leaves disgruntled minorities. The claims of each self are still pressed. (…) We are not integrated. We are distraught. We feel honestly the pull of many obligations and try to fulfill them all. And we are unhappy, uneasy, strained, oppressed, and fearful we shall be shallow. For over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power.[3]

Give to God the things that are God’s is not an invitation to draw a line through our lives and the world where things on one side belong to God and things on the other to other lords and other claims. Give to God the things that are God’s is not a call to fragmentation. Jesus didn’t suggest a split between a political self that answers to Caesar and a religious self that answers to God. Jesus didn’t carve out separate realms with separate loyalties: he proclaimed and inaugurated the kingdom of God. Give to God the things that are God’s puts all other demands made on us in perspective.

“We are trying to be several selves at once, without all our selves being organized by a single, mastering Life within us,” wrote James Kelly. The Life that integrates our conflicting selves and frees us to be who we are, is the life of Christ.

“We have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence,” wrote James Kelly. That way of life is what Christ embodied: “a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power,” a life rooted in God’s love.

As part of every baptism, just after the person has emerged from below the surface of the water, we make the sign of the cross on her forehead and say, calling her by name, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” In baptism, the life of Christ becomes ours and through him we give to God the things that are God’s – our life, our breath, our days and nights. With him we learn to live as citizens of the kingdom, as people who know that we are not our own, nor anyone else’s, but God’s.

When Caesar was Hitler, the small Confessing Church in Germany declared,

As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so, in the same way and with the same seriousness he is also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures.

We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords - areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.[4]

The Confessing Church was persecuted and driven underground, its pastors were arrested and sent to concentration camps, but, though small in numbers, those brothers and sisters refused to give the things that are God’s to anyone but God.

Christ has made us his own, and in every area of our life we belong to him, and neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can change that.



[2] “What Belongs to God?”

[3] James Kelly, A Testament of Devotion, chapter 5



Joy remains

Wednesday was a great day. If somebody, somewhere is keeping a record of best days in history, Wednesday ought to be added to the folder labeled Thomas. It was fall break for metro schools, and on Monday I had checked the weather forecast for the week – cloudy with a chance of rain every day, except on Wednesday: Sunshine, mid to upper 70’s. It looked like the perfect day to go kayaking with Miles.

Wednesday morning I got up early and looked out the window – very promising! Miles and I loaded the kayaks on the car, put the paddles and the rest of the gear in the trunk, and took off to Percy Priest Lake. First thing I did when we got there, was send a text to Kaye, Hope, and Greg telling them I would not be coming in (no worries, I wasn’t playing hooky; it was a make-up day). Miles and I put the boats in the water and started paddling across the lake toward the dam. The sky was clear with just a handful of fluffy white clouds, the lake was smooth, and not a jet-ski in sight; it was gorgeous. I took a couple of pictures to send to Hope, Greg, and Nancy, but that was it. I didn’t think about stuff, let alone worry, I just paddled and enjoyed the view, the quiet, the sun on my face, the breeze on my skin, and that Miles seemed to have a good time as well. We had a little snack break on Bear Island before paddling back to the boat ramp at Hamilton Creek park and driving home.

Wednesday was a great day. Friday, however, was something else altogether. Friday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.[1] I had made plans to power wash the stone columns in the entrance to the sanctuary. They have some stains from algae growth, particularly on the west side. So on Thursday, I checked the power washer in the basement. It didn’t have gas in it, and I made a mental note to get some in the morning. Bob Lyons had told me I could use one of his trucks for the day, so I could pull a boom lift from Home Depot to the church. We swapped vehicles on Thursday night, and Friday morning, after a quick stop at the gas station, at around 7, I signed the rental agreement with Home Depot tool rental for a 35-foot boom lift. I backed up the truck, the hitch and the trailer fit like they were made for each other, when suddenly the guy from Home Depot told me that he couldn’t let me drive off the lot with the equipment: “Sorry, buddy, your truck doesn’t have the proper towing package; you can’t use a bumper hitch mount.” Uh-oh. Where do I get another truck on Friday morning? It was too early to call anyone, so I started texting: “Bob, do you have another vehicle I could use?” “Jack, could you help me pull a boom lift from Home Depot to church?” “Joe, I hope you continue to do well after the knee replacement and I hate to bother you with this, but could I borrow your truck?” Bob had a van with a trailer hitch, but it wasn’t available that day. Jack hadn’t looked at his phone yet, but I got a call from Joe: “Sure, you can use my truck. Just come on over and get it.” Perfect! So I drove to West Meade, left Bob’s truck in the driveway, took Joe’s truck and returned to Home Depot tool rental, signed another rental agreement, paid the deposit, and pulled the boom lift to the front of the church.

It was 9:30 by now, and I hadn’t done a thing yet; but I was ready. I hooked up the pressure washer and filled the tank with gas. Then I positioned the boom lift on a level spot and proceeded to lower the outriggers.

“Strange, that key doesn’t seem to fit,” I mumbled. “No, they wouldn’t give me the wrong key, it’s probably me.” Well, it wasn’t me, it was the wrong key. So I drove back to Home Depot where the guy apologized profusely and handed me the correct key. “Sorry, buddy, we’ll definitely adjust your rental time.” Oh, that’s so generous of you, I said to myself, but I was eager to get back to church and didn’t say anything.

So I drove back, positioned the lift on a level spot, pulled the parking break, extended the outriggers, and tested all the controls. Everything seemed to be working just fine. Excellent! I turned on the water, ran it through the pressure washer for about thirty seconds, and prepared the small engine. Power switch on. Gas line open. Choke valve open. Pull starter rope. One. Nice rumble. Two. Three. Well? Four. You know, of course, what happened. Exactly, nothing. The pressure washer didn’t start. I waited a minute and tried again. Same result. Could be a clogged air filter, I thought, or perhaps a bad spark plug. Who knows when that thing was last used. I didn’t have the tools to check the spark plug or the filter, and did I mention that it was raining the entire time? I walked around the building to see if the tree guys were still there. They were taking down a big tree by the playground, and they know how to convince a misbehaving small engine. They were already gone.

I played with the idea of renting a pressure washer, but then I calculated that another trip to Home Depot would take another hour, and by the time I’d get started, I’d have to think about returning the lift. And I didn’t have all afternoon anyway, since there would be a wedding rehearsal, and while they would love to notice clean columns, they certainly would’t want to see me there. So I turned off the water, rolled up the hose, rolled the pressure washer to the storage room, pulled in the outriggers, hitched the lift to the truck, and drove it back to Home Depot. Then I took Joe’s truck back to his house, and Bob’s truck back to the warehouse, and drove home in my own car.

I had been busy for something like 7 hours, and I hadn’t got anything done. It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. You’ve had days like that, haven’t you? Days when just about everything that can go wrong, does in fact go wrong? And you know what was playing in the back of my head? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). I carried that word with me all week; I wanted it to be the backdrop for anything and everything I would encounter day to day. Oh, and Wednesday, glorious Wednesday, enjoying a lovely late summer day with Miles, immersed in the beauty and peace of creation, I rejoiced and my heart sang, “Lord of all, to thee we raise this our song of grateful praise!” Who wouldn’t sing when the lake reflects the blue and white of the sky, the shore line is dressed in every color fall introduces early in the season, and everything, everything glows in golden light? Who wouldn’t rejoice and sing?

But on Friday, well, on Friday rejoicing was a stretch. Rejoice always? Paul was no pollyanna. He wrote those words from jail, facing capital charges, knowing that he might die soon. “But even if I am being poured out as a libation” – he speaks of his own possible execution here – “even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:17-18). Like a thread of gold, joy is woven into the text of this letter from jail, and it shines in places where you’d least expect it. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near” (Philippians 4:4-5). The source of Paul’s joy is the nearness of God.  The horizon of Paul’s world, even in the confines of his cell, is the nearness of God. “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything; in everything, let your requests be made known to God. The peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7). The horizon of Paul’s world is not determined by the particular circumstances of each day, but by the nearness of God. According to Paul, joy is not an occasional emotional outburst, but something both bigger and deeper that grounds our experience; it is a discipline of perception, a fruit of the Spirit, a gift of grace. Joy rises when we remember that Christ has made us his own; when we know that we are not children of circumstance, but children of God. Joy rises from the nearness of God in any circumstance.

Friday was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day – but only because I wanted to get those columns cleaned and things didn’t go my way. But at the end of the day – and believe me, it didn’t dawn on me until late in the evening – what’s a stained column against the horizon of God’s reign? Yep, it’s exactly that: a column that will have to get washed another day. But wasn’t it great to talk with Joe on the front porch about physical therapy and small engine maintenance? Wasn’t it great to drive back to Bob’s warehouse and talk again about that crazy day, groaning and laughing? “Go home and have a beer,” he said when I was about to leave. “I think I’ll have two,” I shouted over my shoulder. Later that night I told Nancy the Reader’s Digest version of the story, and that’s when it dawned on me: it wasn’t such a bad day after all. It allowed me to notice again and be grateful for Joe’s generosity. It gave Bob and me another story to tell the grandkids after the one about the great flood of 2014. I discovered again after sitting with the day’s events and processing them quietly, what a gift it is to share all of it with Nancy. And what’s all that against the horizon of God’s reign? It’s the stuff that matters. It’s the joy that remains. Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say, rejoice.


[1] This is no endorsement of the current movie, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The book, written by Judith Viorst and illustrated by Ray Cruz, was published in 1972.


Ten words of life

We celebrate today. We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We celebrate that congregations around the world, gathered at the table of Christ, praise God in more languages and dialects than any of us can imagine. We celebrate that in the breaking of bread we all come to know our crucified and risen savior. We celebrate our liberation: the burden of sin removed from our shoulders, the fear of death driven from our hearts. We celebrate the freedom to live as God’s people, for we are no longer slaves to the powers that oppress us, but free servants of God. We celebrate the covenant God made with Israel in the wilderness.

They had left behind Pharaoh’s mud pits and the bosses who enforced the daily brick quotas. They had crossed the sea. They had eaten the bread of angels and drunk water from the rock. They had argued and complained, and through it all, they had begun to discover the faithfulness of God. Now they were at the mountain, and all of them heard the ten commandments, the ten commitments that from that day forward would be a kind of constitution for the covenant community of God’s people.

Ten words of life. Chances are the last time you heard them mentioned was in a news story about a court case. Either somebody, somewhere wanted to have the Ten Commandments added to a public building, or somebody, somewhere wanted to have them removed. There are approximately 4,000 public displays of the Ten Commandments in the United States, including the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress. Zeal for the commandments runs high, but so does ignorance. A 2004 poll indicated that 79% of Americans oppose the idea of removing displays of the Ten Commandments from government buildings, but fewer than 10% of Americans can identify more than four of the ten. Tom Long points out that “in the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging ‘thou shalt not.’ For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society.” The Ten Commandments have become iconic symbols in battles that have little to do with the words of life the ten are. It’s easy to forget that they are not prefaced by a directive, “Here are the rules, ten of them. Obey them!” No, they open with an announcement of freedom, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). The ten words are affirmations of life after liberation, affirmations of freedom. “Because the Lord is your God, you are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols. You are free to rest on the seventh day. You are free from coveting, lying and stealing as ways to secure your life.”[1]

Martin Luther was convinced that knowing the Ten Commandments was tantamount to knowing the entire Bible. “This much is certain,” he wrote in the introduction to the Large Catechism, “those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.”[2] He knew, of course, that knowing the ten perfectly doesn’t end with being able to recite them – but it certainly begins there. There are ten of them, which is very good because we can use our fingers to help us learn and remember. They are, for the most part, brief and simple, so we can take them to heart and be guided by them in our living – and living from them, living into them is the key to knowing them perfectly. Perhaps all this talk of perfection makes you nervous. Isn’t perfection just another yoke? Isn’t seeking to be perfect a heavy burden that only creates hypocrisy and self-righteousness?

That question is raised in a another catechism from the Reformation period. The Heidelberg Catechism grew on the reformed branch of the tree and it also contains a long exposition of the Ten Commandments. Question 114 asks, “But can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly?” The response is refreshing in its frankness, “No, for even the holiest of them make only a small beginning in obedience in this life.” Only a small beginning in obedience, but it’s a beginning in the direction of God’s will and promise; it’s a beginning in the direction of freedom from all that keeps life from flourishing; it’s a beginning in the direction of God’s kingdom.

At the heart of the ten is the good word about remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy. I won’t say that it is the one commitment we struggle the most with; we’re only beginners in all of them. But when we don’t remember the sabbath day, when we don’t remember that it is God who has set us free for freedom, we forget everything else. We forget who we are as God’s people. We open the doors to lesser gods and friendly looking idols to teach us their ways.

I want to read you a poem. It was written by Stanley Wiersma, a poet and teacher who grew up in the 30’s in a Dutch Reformed community in Iowa. He begins with a question:

Were my parents right or wrong
Not to mow the ripe oats that Sunday morning
with the rainstorm threatening?

I reminded them that the Sabbath was made for man
and of the ox fallen into the pit.
Without an oats crop, I argued,
the cattle would need to survive on town-bought oats
and then it wouldn’t pay to keep them.
Isn’t selling cattle at a loss like an ox in a pit?

My parents did not argue.
We went to Church. 
We sang the usual psalms louder than usual-
we, and the others whose harvests were at stake:

“Jerusalem, where blessing waits,
Our feet are standing in thy gates.”

“God, be merciful to me;
On thy grace I rest my plea.”

Dominie’s spur-of-the-moment concession:[3]

“He rides on the clouds, the wings of the storm;
The lightning and wind his missions perform.”

Dominie made no concessions on sermon length:
“Five Good Reasons for Infant Baptism,”
though we heard little of it,
for more floods came and more winds blew and beat
upon that House than we had figured on, even,
more lightning and thunder
and hail the size of pullet eggs.
Falling branches snapped the electric wires.
We sang the closing psalm without the organ and in the dark:

“Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God’s covenant love is never ended.”

Afterward we rode by our oats field,
“We still will mow it,” Dad said.
“Ten bushels to the acre, maybe, what would have been fifty
if I had mowed right after milking
and if the whole family had shocked.
We could have had it weatherproof before the storm.”

Later at dinner Dad said,
“God was testing us. I’m glad we went.”

“Those psalms never gave me such a lift as this morning,”
Mother said, “I wouldn’t have missed it.”
And even I thought but did not say,
How guilty we would feel now if we had saved the harvest.

The one time Dad asked me why I live in a Black neighborhood,
I reminded him of that Sunday morning.
Immediately he understood. (…)

“Were my parents right or wrong?” The author didn’t answer the question, but he acknowledged that his parents’ sabbath observance was at the root of his own attempts at faithfulness. He was grateful that they had bequeathed to him a “more important pattern defined as absolutely as muddlers like us can manage:” That pattern – and the poem’s title – is “obedience.” [4]

I’m drawn to this poem because it questions my own initial response to the harvest challenge. I probably would have mowed that field and later thanked the Lord that we got it all in safely before the storm. I would have missed the worship service and the singing in the storm; I would have missed the closing psalm’s affirmation in the dark,

“Ye seed from Abraham descended,
God’s covenant love is never ended.”

It is difficult for us to grasp that obedience to God is at the heart of freedom. The world we live in tells us that to be free is to be able to do what we want. Then it goes on to tell us what to want. Our economy grows on the assumption that coveting is a virtue. The world we live in tells us that we are what we do; and so we do more in order to be more. And the more we do, the less we remember who we are. Without sabbath, amnesia sets in.

We celebrate today. We celebrate the freedom to live as God’s people, not as slaves to the powers that oppress us, but as free servants of God. We celebrate our liberation from the burden of sin and the fear of death. We celebrate life in God’s covenant community.


[1] See Thomas G. Long, “Dancing the Decalogue.” Christian Century 123, no. 5 (March 7, 2006) 17. 

[2] The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, ed. by Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, Charles P. Arand (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000) 382.

[3] Dominie is a term used in the U.S. for a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church

[4] “Obedience,” by Sietze Buning (Stanley Wiersma’s pen name)


The rock at Horeb

Remembering is essential for God’s people. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart,” we read in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 8:2). Remembering is essential for God’s people in order to be God’s people, and so is telling in story and song. Today’s reading from Exodus and the Psalm are part of the telling that makes remembering possible.

“We failed the wilderness test,” the witnesses declare, “and what was in our hearts was lack of trust, despair, and grumbling, betrayal of the covenant, and the stubborn refusal to see the desert as the place for knowing the Lord and the way to the land of promise.”

“We failed the test,” the witnesses declare, but they didn’t photoshop the desert scenes to make themselves look a little better. “We forgot what God had done, and the miracles the Lord had shown us, who divided the sea and let us pass through it and made the waters stand like a heap; who led us in the daytime with a cloud, and all night long with fiery light; who split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave us drink abundantly as from the deep, making streams come out of the rock and causing waters to flow down like rivers.[1] We failed the test, but the promises were new then and we had everything to learn; everything to learn. What did we learn, you ask? We learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.”

Psalm 78:

“Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth.”

It is the voice of a teacher we hear in this psalm.

“I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our ancestors have told us.”

Israel continued to utter dark sayings from of old because they continued to shed light on what it means to live as God’s covenant people.

“We will tell to generations to come the praisworthy deeds and the power of the Lord, and the wonderful works God has done” (Ps 78:1-4).

Israel continued to remember and tell so that every new generation would “put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep God’s commandments; and not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God” (Ps 78:7-8).

It is a humbling exercise to pass on a tradition that includes yourself and your generation among those who failed it, but such honesty may well be the most profound proclamation of God’s faithfulness. Israel’s parents and teachers didn’t tell their children, “We did everything just right back in the day, and you must learn to do the same.” No, they told them, “We have failed again and again in our life as God’s people, but God has been faithful and true all the way. We failed to remember God’s promise and the commandments of life, but God remembered us.” Psalm 136 recalls Israel’s story with the God of gods and the Lord of lords, and after each line the refrain is, whose steadfast love endures forever. “We failed the wilderness test,” the witnesses declare, “but through our failure we learned to sing of the faithfulness of God.”

The commentaries point out that complaining is a defining theme of the wilderness wandering stories. Trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s approaching army, the people said to Moses, not without a dose of dark humor, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11-12). Soon they marveled as the Lord made a way out of no way. Then they couldn’t drink the water of Marah, because it was bitter, and the people complained against Moses, “What shall we drink?” (Exodus 15:23-24). The Lord showed Moses a piece of wood to sweeten the water. Then they ran out of food, and again they complained against Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:2-3). And the Lord gave them quail and manna to eat. Then the water gave out altogether and the people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink,” followed again by a version of the now familiar refrain, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3).

Yes, there’s definitely a pattern, and Moses certainly noticed it. “What shall I do with this people?” he cried out to God. It is tempting to notice the pattern and ask, “What is wrong with these people? They’ve been surrounded by miracles every step of the way, and all they can do is complain! Is their memory that short? Any little crisis, and their anxiety takes off spinning like a dust devil.” That’s easy to say for someone who reads about it in an air-conditioned room after a good breakfast.nA professor from Atlanta wrote,

I never fully appreciated the Hebrews grumbling in Exodus until two years ago when given the opportunity to journey through the Sinai wilderness on a Middle East travel seminar. We entered the region after having hiked a day in the full heat of the Petra sun, and I had become extremely dehydrated—so dehydrated that I could not make it to the top of Mount Sinai on the next day’s hike without becoming ill. As we trekked by bus through the Sinai Peninsula, I gained much more sympathy for the travelling Hebrews. In my early years, I would often hear preachers caricature the wandering Hebrews (…) as a petulant group of stubborn children who never knew true obedience or faith. When I look at this text (…) after having travelled by bus and with plenty of water through the Sinai desert, I realize that these newly freed slaves actually had reason to complain.[2]

Israel’s testimony wasn’t written on a bus tour. It was born in a long struggle for freedom and against oppression, a struggle against hunger and thirst, against fear and despair. Israel’s trust in God was not a relaxed nod in response to a friendly invitation – it was found at the bottom of all they could imagine, at the end of their strength, and at the very edge of what they could bear: nothing left to lean on but the promise of God. “The desert is only the real desert when it is too big for you,” wrote Mary Boulding, “when you do not know your way and have no reliance except God.”[3]

The men, women, and children who followed Moses were pioneers of faith who went into the unknown much like their ancestor Abraham who left all that was familiar to him in response to God’s promise. It is tempting and easy for us to notice the pattern of complaints in the desert and to miss entirely the trust that was built over a generation of wandering between the people and God. It was that trust that became the foundation of the covenant God made with them at Sinai. Their testimony to their children, to every generation of Israel, and to us is that the journey is precarious, but that God is faithful, even though our own fidelity is shaky.

The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Nothing more is said or shown. No additional scene describing the size of the rock, the faces of the elders upon seeing water flowing from the rock, or the joy of the people drinking and watering the animals. None of that. The Lord’s instructions are recorded, and the narrator only adds, “Moses did so.” Our attention is not drawn to the miracle but to the God whose word can be trusted.

There’s another detail that invites us to read the entire episode metaphorically rather than hydrologically. The rock to which God pointed Moses was not some rock over there, next to another rock; it was the rock at Horeb, the mountain where Moses received God’s Torah, the commandments and teachings of life.

“The journey was long and precarious,” the parents and teachers told the children, “but God never failed us. We had food to eat and water to quench our thirst. None had too much and no one had too little. Because God was faithful, we learned to be faithful to each other. Not that we never failed each other again, God knows we did, but in the wilderness we began to drink God’s word like our life depended on it, and God’s word has sustained us ever since. Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, test and argument. Looking back, we thought he could have called it Ya-amin, the Lord is faithful, but perhaps he still had to discover that himself then.”


[1] See Psalm 78:11-16

[2] David G. Garber

[3] Mary Boulding, The Coming of God, 38.


Monday Men - the tour

Since Boscos closed its doors in Hillsboro Village, Vine Street's Monday Men are looking for a place to have a beer and solve all the world's problems.

An initial survey yielded a rich harvest of pubs, bars and restaurants, and so it seems best to plan a tour. The links below make an initial review pretty convenient. Please procede to the form to indicate your rankings. The very secret site selection committee (a.k.a. Isle of Skye Monastery) will publicize the tour schedule on October 6.


12 South

Hillwood Pub

Craft Brewed

Broadway Brewhouse


Flying Saucer

Stone Fox 


Cultivating mercy

What a curious story Jesus told us. Take it to a business owner or a manager and tell them how this peculiar workday unfolded from first light to pay time. They’ll scratch their heads and wonder, “What kind of business man is this land owner? How did he ever manage to stay in business?”

Then take it to the union hall where the organizers will try to keep their calm while explaining why you can’t pay some workers for one hour’s work what others make in an entire day. It’s just not right.

Then take the story to the corner of the parking lot at Home Depot. Early in the morning, men and women gather here, waiting for someone to hire them – spread mulch in somebody’s yard, perhaps, or help clean up a construction site. They laugh as they listen to your story because they know how hard it is to get hired, how hard it is to make a living with day labor. They know what it’s like to watch truck after truck drive by – and how few trucks come around after noon.

When Jesus first told this story, many farmers in Galilee had lost their land, and they had to make a living as day laborers. Mid-size and large farms, many of them owned by absentee landlords, were usually operated with day labor rather than slaves; it was much cheaper, and there was an abundance of landless peasants. Farmworkers in Galilee were poor, chronically underemployed, and yet they still had to pay taxes to Rome.

One denarius, a small Roman coin, appears to have been the going rate for a day of field labor, but a denarius wasn’t much. You could buy 10-12 small loaves of pita bread for a denarius. For a new set of clothes you had to save 30 denarii.[1] Day laborers lived hard and often short lives.

So this landowner went out early in the morning to hire laborers. Nothing unusual. Common practice. Familiar world. But then he came back at 9 to hire more workers. “Well,” you say to yourself, “he must have realized that he needed more hands to get the work done; it happens.”

Then he came back at noon. “Does he know what he’s doing,” you wonder, “or is he perhaps one of those rich guys who buy themselves a vineyard and a winery and it’s all just an expensive hobby?”

Then he came back again in the middle of the afternoon, when everybody was dreaming about quitting time, and he kept hiring. Now you are running out of explanations that don’t involve mental health concerns. Has the owner perhaps been in the sun too long?

About an hour before the first stars would come out the owner of the vineyard returned again, and he hired every last worker he could find. You’re done trying to explain this.

What do you make of this story? Where do you find a way in? Imagine it was you who got up at dawn to go to the corner where they pick up day laborers. You know that if you get hired, you can get some bread on the way home and your family will eat. But you don’t get picked in the first round. You go to the other side of the square, hoping to have better luck over there, but you don’t. The younger ones are hired first. The stronger ones are hired first. You cross the road again, but it’s noon already. You decide to check out the Labor Ready office, but they tell you to come back tomorrow, and to be there early. So you go back to the marketplace, and just when you decide to call it a day and walk home, this landowner shows up and asks you, “Why are you standing here idle all day?”

You already feel like a left-over person, no longer needed, unnoticed, forgotten, and this man calls you idle. He doesn’t know how long you have been on your feet. He doesn’t know how hard you have tried to find work. He doesn’t know how hungry you are and how much you dread coming home tonight with empty hands. Did he just call you lazy or work-shy? “We’re here because no one has hired us,” you tell him. “You also go into the vineyard,” the landowner replies. And you go. You’re not doing it for the money, or you would have asked him how much he’s paying. You go because …, who knows. Perhaps it’s just because you want to be useful, because you want to contribute and feel like you belong.

So you go and work in the vineyard. Soon the foreman calls everybody to line up, starting with those hired last, starting with you. You barely got your hands dirty.  How much could it be for an hour’s work? It doesn’t really matter. It won’t be nearly enough to put bread on the table.

The foreman puts a coin in your hand. You feel the weight. No way. It’s a denarius. It’s a full day’s pay. It’s unbelievable! You turn around to the people behind you, “Look at this! A full day’s wage – and I just got here!”

The news travels fast to the end of the line, where the ones hired first are waiting to be paid. So there’s another door to enter this story.

Imagine you’ve worked twelve long, hard, hot hours. You are dirty, your clothes are sticking to your skin, and your back is aching. Talk about eating your bread by the sweat of your brow! But you’ve heard the news from the front of the line and now you’re looking forward to a little bonus, and your back is already starting to feel better. The line moves slowly forward, and eventually the foreman puts a coin in your hand. It’s a denarius. One denarius. It’s unbelievable! You turn to the people around you, and they are just as upset as you are. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” You have made them equal to us.

What a curious story, this parable of God’s kingdom. You wish somebody would just explain it, boil it down to its essence; but it resists reduction, this curious story. Instead, it shakes up our expectations; it challenges our assumptions about God and the world, and perhaps it subverts what we accept as settled just enough to free us to re-envision our world anew in light of such grace.

This parable holds the pain and the hope of those in every generation who are treated like left-over people. All those latecomers in the company of sinners and tax collectors who are not pious enough to be counted among the righteous, who are unworthy of divine reward, and yet Jesus welcomes them into the kingdom.

This story holds the pain and the hope of all those in the company of landless peasants who feel like they are no longer needed or wanted, and Jesus affirms them because the words “no longer needed” are not in the kingdom dictionary.

But this story also holds the anger and resentment of those in every generation of God’s people who worry that too much mercy for others will only breed further lack of effort on their part; it holds the anger and resentment of all who look with envy on those they deem less industrious, less committed, less worthy of the joy of God’s reign than they themselves are: the company of the self-made upright who cannot imagine themselves as recipients of any gift they didn’t earn, but whom Jesus welcomes with the same compassion as he welcomes notorious sinners.

You have made them equal to us. Yes indeed. Will we learn to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies like me and them”?

This little story of God’s amazing grace holds a mighty surprise. Whether we respond with joy or with grumbling depends entirely on where we see ourselves in line:

Have I been working since the break of dawn, or am I only just now beginning to get my hands in the dirt of this landowner’s vineyard?

Do I see that work in this vineyard is about cultivating mercy and not about endlessly cloning our own concepts of fairness and equity?

Do I recognize that at the end of the day the story is not about my work in this landowner’s vineyard, but about this landowner’s patient, passionate work in the vineyard of our life? Very little is said about what the workers do all day, but a lot about what the owner of the vineyard does. How much time he spends on the road, driving back and forth between the vineyard and the marketplace, picking up anybody off the street at all hours that is looking to make a living! The harvest is not about grapes, it’s about us. It’s about our growth in God’s extravagant mercy.

The peculiar landowner in this story is a lot like the man who told it: persistently looking, calling, and inviting us to go and work in God’s vineyard. Every last one of us needs to work a little in that vineyard. Until all of us rejoice in the gift of life shaped entirely by God’s grace.

[1] Ulrich Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (EKK 1/3), 146.


Pharaoh's army got drownded

We hear the words from Exodus and whether we like it or not, fragments of clips begin to play in our imagination. For some of us the scenes are from Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1956) where Charlton Heston stands on the rock above the sea, with arms stretched out wide, staff in hand, declaring, “The Lord of hosts will do battle for us,” and then thick clouds gather and the wind makes a way in the sea. Others will remember the scene from “The Prince of Egypt” by DreamWorks (1998), where Moses walks a few feet into the surf, staff in hand, and he pushes it down on the ground he stands on and the waters part and draw back, opening a path for God’s people to escape Pharaoh’s army. On dry land they cross over, between enormous walls of water on their left and on their right, protected from the chaos and death of the sea. Pharaoh’s army follows them, warriors on foot, warriors in chariots, but then the walls of water begin to collapse behind the Israelites and violent waves wash over the Egyptians.Not one of them remained, the Bible tells us, and at dawn the Israelites saw the bodies of their former masters washed up dead on the seashore. The chariots, cutting edge military technology: gone. Pharaoh’s elite warriors: perished. The house of slavery: dismantled.

Walter Brueggemann comments, “The narrative invites silence before this stunning reversal of the processes of power.”[1] In the DreamWorks version of the story the people look across the sea, wide-eyed, and no one makes a sound for seconds, which is a long time in an animated musical. You can see awe in their faces.

In the Bible, the chapter is followed, not by silence, but a song:

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. (…) The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; (…) the floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.[2] 

Was it necessary? Wasn’t there already a heaven-sent pillar of cloud and fire holding back Pharaoh’s chariots so that the Israelites could pass through the divided sea? Could not that pillar have kept them at bay a little while longer, until the waters had returned? Did they all have to be covered by the sea, sink like lead in the mighty waters? I wonder—don’t you?

Whatever you make of it, the violent ending is not random violence. Much is at stake here, everything is at stake. It’s Pharaoh’s oppressive sovereignty clashing with God’s. It’s Pharaoh’s vision of a house of slavery competing with God’s vision of God’s people on God’s land. Noone was going to look back and say, “Well, if that odd cloud hadn’t been there, they wouldn’t have gotten out. There’s no way they could have outrun the Egyptian military.” They did and the outcome was decisive and clear. After that night, no situation of human oppression could ever be justified as somehow being part of God’s plan for creation. “Pharaoh’s army got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep,” slaves in this country sang, knowing in their bones that God is a God of freedom and that they and their children would be free some day.

Victory songs on the seashore are not the end of the story, though. The rabbis noticed a phrase that opened a window to heaven. When the angels saw the drowning Egyptians they were about to break into song, but God silenced them saying, “How dare you sing for joy when my creatures are dying?” [3]

Pharaoh and his warriors are no less the work of God’s hands than the children of Israel, and while humans may sing after the yoke of oppression has been lifted from their shoulders at such a cost, the angels may not. That song will have to wait.

In the book of Proverbs, the ambivalence appears in two sayings, one stating, “When the wicked perish, there is jubilation” and the other, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall.”[4] If we don’t sing when slavery has come to an end and God’s people are on the way to freedom in the promised land, then we are not in tune with God’s will and purpose; but if we are not saddened by the loss of life, our knowledge of God’s heart is still very fragmentary.

“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways,” we read in Ezekiel (33:11). In a bold rabbinic reading of the story of the parting of the sea, Pharaoh did not drown with his army. He is mentioned explicitly only at the beginning of the chapter, and with great interpretive skill Rabbi Eliezer showed that Pharao did not die but fled to the east. Eventually he became the king of Nineveh, and when the prophet Jonah showed up, it was Pharaoh who led the repentance movement in the city and throughout the land.[5] You may think that the ancient scholars were a little too creative in their interpretive work, but I look at it as yet another way of composing a song of hope inspired by God’s mercy. Who would have thought that ole Pharaoh could end up serving as the poster child for repentance?

Some of us, I believe, still struggle with the violence of God in this story, and not all of that struggle can be explained by pointing to the different sensibilities of the writers of those days and today’s readers. The tension between God’s fierce justice and God’s equally fierce mercy is part of the biblical witness, not just something we bring to it.

Terence Fretheim points out that God’s violence is never an end in itself, but is always exercised in the service of God’s saving purposes for creation under threat: it serves the deliverance of slaves from oppression,[6] the deliverance of the righteous from their antagonists,[7] the deliverance of the poor and needy from their abusers,[8] and the deliverance of Israel from its enemies.[9] And violence in the service of God’s saving purposes for creation under threat is not just a matter of the end justifying the means. Walter Brueggemann suggests that we understand the violence assigned to God as counterviolence, which functions primarily as a critical principle in order to undermine and destabilize other violence.

“Israel lives (as do we) in a threatening world of many competing powers, all of which struggle for control. Thus the violence undertaken by [God] as warrior is not characteristically a blind or unbridled violence. It is rather an act of force that aims to defend and give life to the powerless against demonic power.” He also points out that “this rhetoric of violence is characteristically on the lips of those who otherwise have no effective weapons,” that is, not on the lips of the mighty.[10] If there were no human violence, if there were no human disregard for the image of God in another human being, there would be no divine wrath or judgment, which may take the form of violence.

Abraham Heschel wrote, “[Our] sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God, it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. Is it a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?”[11]

I can’t begin to imagine what our history had been, not to mention what our hope would look like, had the Hebrew slaves simply slipped out of Egypt under the cover of night, without the clash of the two very different visions of freedom, land, and life represented by Pharaoh and the God who hears the cries of the poor. Would we even care about continuing forms of slavery and human trafficking? Would we care about domestic violence? If God is not angry, why should we be? We may struggle with the violence of God, but indifference with respect to those who have suffered human cruelty, indifference is not an option. The God we encounter through the witness of scripture is a passionate God.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land.”[12]

God does not simply give people up to experience violence. God chooses to come down and deliver so that evil will not have the last word. Again and again, God takes the side of those afflicted by violence. And in another exodus, again creating a way out of no way, God in Jesus entered deeply into the abuse, the ridicule, and the scapegoating we engage in with each other. And God bore the full weight of it, the whole, oppressive yoke of our sin, all of it, and cast it into the depths of the sea.[13]

At dawn, Mary came to see the tomb and the angels in heaven sang, “O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn, O Mary don’t you weep, don’t you mourn, the power of sin got drownded, O Mary don’t you weep.” The angels sang, Mary’s mourning was turned into dancing, and the song will never end.


[1] Brueggemann, Exodus NIB, 795.

[2] see Exodus 15:1-18 and Miriam’s song in 15:21

[3] Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b

[4] Proverbs 11:10 and 24:17

[5] Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer vi. Ch. xl.-xlvi.

[6] e.g., Exodus 15:7; Psalm 78:49-50

[7] e.g., Psalm 7:6-11

[8] e.g., Exodus 22:21-24; Isaiah 1:23-24; Jeremiah 21:12

[9] e.g., Isaiah 30:27-33; 34:2; Habakkuk 3:12-13

[10] Walter Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament, 244.

[11] Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) 284-285.

[12] Exodus 3:7-8

[13] See Micah 7:19


The river flows

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” the disciples asked, and Jesus responded by talking about children, humility and lost sheep. Then there is a noticeable change in the text. It is still Jesus talking and teaching, but he “is so concrete and practical in this passage that you could swear he was Paul, writing to a feuding congregation,” Anna Carter Florence observed. “He tells the disciples what to do if [one sins against another,] and then offers step by step instructions for how to proceed.”[1]

“If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” He does sound a little bit like Paul, doesn’t he? Paul wrote passionate letters to the churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Rome to remind them and the whole church that we need each other in order to be whole. When sin creates a rift between us, we must pursue one another, because we belong to each other; one member of the body of Christ cannot say to another, “I have no need of you.”[2]

Jesus in today’s reading may sound like he’s writing the article on excommunication for the bylaws, but he’s still responding to the disciples who are with him on the road to Jerusalem, wondering who will get the best seats in the kingdom.[3] They have their eyes and minds set on greatness and triumph, and he teaches them, teaches us the hard and humble work of reconciliation between one sinner and another. Through his instructions he unfolds for us how we are to be each other’s shepherds when sin has caused alienation. Rather than dreams of greatness, we are to cultivate gentleness and mercy by humbly seeking and restoring one another.

“If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” It doesn’t often happen that way, does it? If a brother or sister sins against me, I want to tell somebody about it. I want to tell my story and make sure I get plenty of sympathy. I have been wronged. I have been offended. I have been hurt. I may end up telling several people about it, but not the one person who, according to Jesus, needs to hear about it first and foremost. That’s how it goes, quite often. I know it’s not right, but my proud heart doesn’t relent easily; not even to the Spirit’s prodding.

Every time we say the Lord’s prayer, we speak about forgiveness. Whether we learned to say trespasses, debts, or sins, we put into words our need to be forgiven and to be forgiving. We ask God to ‘give us this day our daily bread’ and in the same breath we remember the one thing we need just as much as bread – forgiveness, given and received, daily.

Breaking bread with a stranger, of course, is much easier than seeking forgiveness with a brother or sister. Vengeance and retribution require little effort; all I have to do is let the waves of my pain and anger carry me. You hurt me and I’ll hurt you back; it’s easy. You hurt me and I hold a righteous grudge, and I even feel good about it in a weird way. We all know how it feels when a relationship is stuck in unspoken hurt. And we know how it feels to wait for the other to make the first move. “Not only do you owe me an apology, sister, you also have to be all-knowing; you must realize without my telling you that that half-sentence you so thoughtlessly dropped on me last Friday in the parking lot outside the restaurant was incredibly insensitive and hurtful.”

Jesus knows what kind of games we play. “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” he says plainly. You can add a cup of coffee, but beyond that it’s as basic as it gets: One-to-one. Face-to-face. Take a breath. Speak the truth. Beverly Gaventa wrote a few years back, “Jesus’ counsel … demands a costly forthrightness that I normally reserve for the few and the greatly trusted.”[4] Yes indeed, Jesus’ counsel demands that I expand my small circle of the few and the greatly trusted to include all who are members of his church. I may think that sin is a matter between me and God and between me and the other person, but Jesus has placed me and the other into his community of reconciliation. Consequently the rift sin has created between me and another is not merely a private matter, but the place where the whole fabric is torn. What we do or fail to do to each other has an impact not just on individual relationships, but on the community as a whole.

Jesus teaches in the tradition of Israel’s covenant law, where we read in Leviticus, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] Jesus, as always, has love in mind when he says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” If the two of you can work it out, no one else needs to know.

“If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” He has love in mind, and so he’s certainly not suggesting that I come back with some muscle to intimidate my brother or sister. I ask somebody to help us hear each other out and come to a shared understanding of what happened. I ask one or two others to hold us in prayer and help us remember that the wholeness of the community is at stake, not just a private relationship. If we can work it out, no one else needs to know.

“If the brother or sister refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” It is easy to see how this can go terribly wrong. First one sister, then several people, then an entire congregation confront one brother with his sin, but instead of a humble confession, they only encounter a growing wall of silence. One could of course describe such a coordinated effort as loving persistence, but the person at the center of all that attention may call it harassment. Scenes from The Scarlet Letter come to mind where a community is all too eager to mark and exclude the “offender.” Jesus himself comes to mind, alone on the cross, outside the city gates, the excluded offender, violently excommunicated. Keep that image in mind, we’ll come back to it.

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.” Shut the door on such a one; a hard word of exclusion. But the one who said it is the one who died for gentiles, tax collectors and every species of sinner on the face of the earth. The excluded are the very people Jesus seeks out to save and restore to community in his ministry.[6] So in one sense, treating someone “as a gentile and a tax collector” means rejection and exclusion. But in another sense, and quite ironically, it means the radical, offensive inclusion demanded by the gospel itself.[7] Ultimately, then, there is no outside of God’s love.

Paul comes to mind again.[8] Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is demanding. Love is persistent. It doesn’t write off anyone. It keeps going back repeatedly to work toward reconciliation. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul writes in Romans; “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”[9]

The road to the brother or sister who has sinned against me is demanding and difficult, but it is the road Jesus travels. I must learn to be truthful without being hurtful. You must learn to say hard things gently. We must learn to trust the bond of love Christ has created between us.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” To me, this is the verse that holds the entire passage together. “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” When we gather in his name, we are never just the two or three of us. We are only together because of him and what he has done for us. At first glance, we may only see a brother struggling to find the right words to tell a sister how she has sinned against him. But with our eyes illumined by God’s reconciling love, we see Jesus, one arm on her shoulder, the other on the brother’s. We find the courage to bring each other back into reconciled community by trusting in the work and presence of Christ between us.

Forgiveness is a call to a future better than vengeance, a future not bound by the past. It is a call to move out of stuckness.

You can’t make yourself forgive anyone, but you can prepare your heart for it by remembering God’s mercy.

Forgiveness is not so much our doing as it is our standing in a healing river whose source is not in us. Forgiveness begins with God’s love for the world. In Jesus, God became vulnerable to the world of human beings, vulnerable to our capacity to touch, caress, comfort, and hold, but also to the many ways in which we abuse, betray, mock, and abandon one another. In Jesus, God entered the space between us where sin destroys trust and friendship and all that is sacred, and God ended up being the one judged, condemned, and crucified. Everything ends there, in the darkness of Friday. Everything comes to an end there, everything but God’s mercy and forgiveness. Love’s final move is not retribution, but resurrection, and the river flows. The river flows. May it flow through us.


[1] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching the Lesson, Lectionary Homiletics Vol. 19, No. 5, p. 54

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:21

[3] See Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 202

[4] Beverly Gaventa, “Costly Confrontation,” The Christian Century, August 11-18, 1993, p. 773

[5] Leviticus 19:17-18

[6] See, e.g. Matthew 9:10-13

[7] See Beverly Gaventa, “Costly Confrontation,” The Christian Century, August 11-18, 1993, p. 773

[8] See 1 Corinthians 13

[9] Romans 13:8


Sunday morning in the chapel

How did you like our first Sunday with the revised morning schedule? We have heard many positive comments, particularly about the time after worship when we gathered in Fellowship Hall. Several people appreciated the opportunity to talk with folks with whom they rarely got to exchange more than a friendly “Hello! How are you?” on Sunday mornings before.

This Sunday, we want to introduce an addition to our Sunday morning line-up: a brief communion service in the chapel at 8:30 a.m., led by one of the ministers and an elder. It will not include music or singing, and will allow us to focus on listening for the Word of God in scripture, praying, and sharing the bread and cup. Our intention is to close with a benediction at about 8:50 a.m. so that all can participate in various education events for children and adults at 9:00 a.m.

Some of us already like the idea of beginning Sunday morning at Vine Street together with prayer and the meal of thanksgiving, and we hope that others will join us on occasion or perhaps every week.

Order of service:

Opening Prayer
Scripture Reading (with silence, we may share briefly what we heard)
Intercessory Prayer (shared concerns; we enter into silence; we offer prayers for each other, the church, and the world)
The Lord’s Supper
Words of Institution
Sharing the Bread and Cup


No wunderlist of love

Are you a listmaker? I’m not, or at least I didn’t use to be one. But then I noticed that when life just seems to be piling up I’m a lot less likely to forget things when I write them down and manage not to lose the piece of paper I wrote them on. A few years ago I found this app that manages all my tasks and sends me a tidy to-do-list in my email every morning. It’s called Remember the Milk, and it’s great for grocery lists, but also for recurring things like changing air filters around the house or sending that monthly email reminder to the guys.

I think I may have become a listmaker. Going back to school has a lot to do with it. All those reading and writing assignments – there’s no way to keep up with all that without a personal assistant or a great app that syncs across all my little screens, from the phone to the pad and the laptop. This summer I said good-bye to Remember the Milk and said hello to Wunderlist (app relationships are short-lived), which is half-German for miracle list or wonder list. Great app. And you know what is one of the best features? When I check off an item, I get a “ding” – and I hate to admit it, because I know it makes me something akin to a lab rat, but that “ding” has a direct connection to the area of my brain where deep satisfaction registers. It feels good to tap the complete box and get a “ding.” It makes me feel like the little boy who got a gold star for his homework.

Now the Rev. Hope Hodnett is in a whole different category of listmaking. She will tell you that it’s a terrible waste to just put “do the laundry” on your list. She breaks it down to “wash whites” – check; “dry whites” – check; “fold whites” – check; “wash light colors, dry light colors, fold light colors” etc. She gets twelve things done in the time other folks just do their laundry!

Do you think the Apostle Paul was a listmaker? Today’s reading from his letter to the Romans sure sounds like a list. Let love be genuine. Be ardent. Serve. Rejoice. Contribute. Bless. Extend. Don’t be haughty. Live peacably. I counted thirty-one imperatives in that short passage. I’d say that makes it a list; but it’s not a to-do-list. These aren’t items we can check off and move on to the next. It’s something like a “to-become-list,” and it’s all about how believers extend the love of God in Christ to each other and on to others outside the community of believers. It’s about becoming a community shaped by nothing but the love of God. It’s about becoming a community whose life together in the world shines with the likeness of Christ.

“Let love be genuine” it begins – and everything that follows is an unfolding of that initial statement. In Greek, there are just two words: Love – unhypocritical! No masks. No pretending. No counterfeit niceness. Love as real as Christ crucified and risen. That’s enough for a lifetime of prayer and practice.

Paul knew that, and that’s probably why he started to unfold it for his listeners and readers. “Love one another with mutual affection.” The word he uses is philadelphia, love one another like family, like brothers and sisters. You come from very different parts of town, different parts of the world even, and your daily lives rarely overlap – love one another like family. Yes, all of you. Jews and Gentiles. Wealthy wine merchant and day laborer. Love one another like family.

I wonder if somebody in Rome unfolded those statements some more when they first read Paul’s letter there on a Sunday night. I wonder how they read that letter, that particular passage. One verse at a time? I don’t know how else they could have done it. The unfolding of unhypocritical love in a city that’s not particularly friendly to making righteousness a standard of community, the unfolding of unhypocritical love in such a city is demanding.

I imagine them saying to each other, “We need to talk about these things. Don’t you think? One line tonight. Then let’s talk about the next one next Sunday. We can’t just hear these words and nod and sing another hymn and go home. This isn’t just a laundry list of things to do or not do; these words make demands. We need to let them sink in so they can begin to renew our doing, speaking, and thinking.”

I wonder if perhaps the first Christians in Rome learned these words by heart. One phrase each. And every time they gathered to pray and break bread together, just before the benediction, just before they all went home, one would say, “Let love be genuine.” And from the other end of the room a voice would respond, “Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.” And yet another voice would add, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.”

I wonder how they wove those words into the fabric of their life together in the unending effort to let nothing but the love of God shape their community. How did they, how do we remind each other to persevere in prayer without just telling each other what to do? How do we encourage each other to serve the Lord in all that we do instead of just adding more and more things to do to our days?

Today is our first Sunday with a new schedule. We gathered for worship at 10 a.m., for a variety of reasons, but mainly to carve out a little more time on Sunday morning for all of us to simply be together. To get to know each other. To learn each other’s names. To hear each other’s stories. We have more ways to connect via technology than any generation before – mobile phones, email, text, tweet, facebook, skype, websites, not to forget good old handwritten notes and glossy newsletters. But in order to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep,” we need more than a name in a prayer concern that arrives in our inbox or is printed in a bulletin. Love is never virtual. Love is embodied. Love is incarnate. Love as real as Christ crucified and risen gathers us around a table, face to face; blesses us, hand in hand.

That hour after worship gives us an opportunity to unfold more layers of genuine love, simply by being together. And it’s not just about us. It’s not about suddenly turning our focus inward in some kind of warm fuzzy huddle. It’s about our capacity to be part of God’s church in this city. It’s about modeling community that is inspired and shaped by the love of Christ. Perhaps you noticed how in Paul’s unfolding of the demands of love the circle is being extended further and further outward to include not only strangers, but even enemies. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil,” he writes, and “never avenge yourselves.” Why not? He tells us earlier in his letter: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us; … while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:8, 10). We are to leave vengeance to God who did not repay evil for evil but overcame it with good.

Barbara Brown Taylor affirms that "the only way to conquer evil is to absorb it. Take it into yourself and disarm it. Neutralize its acids. Serve as a charcoal filter for its smog. Suck it up, put a straitjacket on it and turn it over to God, so that when you breathe out again the air is pure." I counted seven imperatives in just over fifty words. She sounds quite confident that you can do all that – take it, disarm it, neutralize it, all of it – between breathing in and breathing out. I think Paul knows us better. It’s the love of Christ that conquers evil by absorbing it. The love of Christ takes evil into God-self and disarms it. Outside of that love we can do nothing.

The Apostle Paul doesn’t tell us to do stuff. He calls us to give ourselves to the love that has found us in Christ. He urges us to allow this love to unfold between us and transform us. And he’s convinced that neither death, nor life, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from that glorious communion of life.


Embracing the way of life

How many videos have you watched of people giving a little speech before pouring a bucket of icewater over their heads? Charlie Rose wore a tuxedo in his. Carol Doidge came prepared with a towel and a set of dry clothes to yesterday’s board retreat. Bill Gates carefully planned and built a contraption that is scheduled for release as part of Microsoft Office in October. President Bush thought he could get away with just writing a check, but his wife Laura knew better. Jack McLaughlin told his dad to go first and for a moment it looked like he really just wanted to see his dad do the deed and use his own bucket to water the lawn. If you saw any of those brief videos, chances are you smiled a lot or laughed out loud, because people are so funny and creative. And you probably cried a little, because you got to hear moving stories of love and courage. This wave of short, life-affirming videos is rolling across the nation, telling us about ALS and asking us to support efforts to treat and prevent that terrible disease.

And then, midweek, news of another video, made by the servants of death, showing the beheading of American journalist, James Foley. What a clash of creative, splashing, life-affirming exuberance and the horrid theater of terror and death. “The brutality of this act is itself evidence of an unspeakable evil that is rampant and inhuman,” said New Hampshire Bishop Peter A. Libasci of Manchester. “To the prayers that have been offered since his captivity almost two years ago, we now add our prayers for James’ eternal rest and, in Christ Jesus Our Lord, James’s future resurrection to eternal life. Our prayers also must accompany a sorrowful mother, a grieving father, a deeply pained family and countless friends who have kept vigil all this time,” he said. “May we also pray for those who have embraced the way of darkness and death, that they may turn away from this terrible evil now and forever.”[1] The latter prayers will be more difficult than those for James’ family and friends, but Christ is praying with us for liberation, the liberation of all from all that keeps life from flourishing.

In our reading from the book of Exodus we hear about a new king who arose over Egypt, a king who did not know Joseph, son of Jacob. A new king with a short memory who did not remember how well Joseph had served Pharao, and how he had risen from slave and prisoner to the king’s right-hand man. A new king who didn’t remember that it was Pharao who had said to Joseph, “Settle your father and your brothers and their families in the best part of the land,” and they settled in the Nile delta. There they prospered; they were fruitful and prolific, and the land was filled with them. The new king regarded those Hebrews, those resident aliens and their large families with growing suspicion. In his mind, fruitfulness and flourishing among the Hebrews represented a growing threat. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.” His anxiety quickly turned into a policy of forced labor, but his efforts only had the opposite effect of his intentions: the Hebrews continued to multiply and fill the land. The new king was a man of considerable power, but another power was at work in the community he feared: life, unstoppable, irrepressible, uncontrollable life.

Forced labor wasn’t enough to keep the Hebrews in their place, and so the king ratcheted up the oppressive measures; summoning the Hebrew midwives and giving them the obscene command to kill all newborn Hebrew boys he embraced the way of darkness and death. Zora Neale Hurston wrote about this in her book, Moses, Man of the Mountain:

“Have mercy! Lord, have mercy on my poor soul!” Women gave birth and whispered cries like this in caves and out-of-the-way places that humans didn’t usually use for birthplaces. Moses hadn’t come yet, and these were the years when Israel first made tears. Pharaoh had entered the bedrooms of Israel. The birthing beds of Hebrews were matters of state. The Hebrew womb had fallen under the heel of Pharaoh. A ruler great in his newness and new in his greatness had arisen in Egypt and he had said, “This is law. Hebrew boys shall not be born. All offenders against this law shall suffer death by drowning.” So women in the pains of labor hid in caves and rocks. They must cry, but they could not cry out loud. They pressed their teeth together. A night might force upon them a thousand years of feelings. Men learned to beat upon their breasts with clenched fists and breathe out their agony without sound. A great force of suffering accumulated between the basement of heaven and the roof of hell. The shadow of Pharaoh squatted in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. Hebrew women shuddered with terror at the indifference of their wombs to the Egyptian law. (…) Then came more decrees:

Israel, you are slaves from now on. Pharaoh assumes no responsibility for the fact that some of you got old before he came to power. Old as well as young must work in his brickyards and road camps.

No sleeping after dawn.

Fifty lashes for being late to work.

Fifty lashes for working slow.

One hundred lashes for being absent.

One hundred lashes for sassing the bossman.

Death for hitting a foreman.

Babies take notice: Positively no more boy babies allowed among Hebrews. Infants defying this law shall be drowned in the Nile.

Hebrews were disarmed and prevented from becoming citizens of Egypt, they found out that they were aliens, and from one new decree to the next they sank lower and lower. So they had no comfort left but to beat their breasts to crush the agony inside. Israel had learned to weep.[2]

Yet in the deadly chaos of genocidal cruelty, courage and grace arose. And in the story, each is given a name: Shiphrah and Puah. Remember those names, remember those women.

The servants of death want to build their empire of fear, and you feel small and powerless against them and you say to yourself, “Why doesn’t the ground open under the feet of these evil doers and swallow them up? Who will stop them? What can I do?” Remember Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. The first time God is mentioned in the great story of the Exodus is when these two women are introduced. They knew a thing or two about new life that wants to be born. They knew a lot about helping new life to emerge and thrive. These two women knew everything about the shadow of Pharaoh squatting in the dark corners of every birthing place in Goshen. But the midwives, it says in verse 17, feared God; and the fear of God gave them the courage to resist. They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them; they let the boys live.

What can one person do? Choose to fear the God of life and refuse to obey the masters of oppression.

The great story of the liberation of God’s people begins with two women willing to say ‘no’ to a mad king’s deathly decree. With defiant grace they went about their good work in the birthing place. When the king summoned them again, demanding an explanation, Shiphrah and Puah lied in the name of truth. “Those Hebrew women, you know how they are. They give birth so quickly, they’re done long before we get there,” they told him. Now the mad king commanded all his people to throw every boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile.

Lord have mercy. The way of darkness and death has long distorted everything – work into forced labor, neighbors into executioners, the great river into a mass grave, the mission of God into crusades, the name of God into a justification for murder. Yet amid the chaos of the king’s decrees, life yet again broke through defiantly; and it was good: a man and a woman got married and they had baby. His mother hid him, and when she could no longer hide him, she made a basket, put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the water’s edge. The Hebrew story teller has left a beautiful hint that is hard to detect in translation. The word for ‘basket’ is the same word which is translated ‘ark’ in the story of Noah and the flood. We’re invited to hear the two stories together, to let one resonate in the other, and to know that the little boy, floating in his little ‘ark,’ is safe. It may appear as though nothing could escape the pull of terror and death in the mad king’s realm, but the floating cradle tells a different story.

Pharao’s daughter comes to the river, finds the basket and opens it and sees the little boy who is crying and she picks him up. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she says. She recognizes that he is a child from the slave community, a child under death sentence from her father – and yet she doesn’t throw him into the river. She obeys a different law than her father’s and thus becomes part of the conspiracy of grace that resists Pharaoh’s fury. Now the boy’s sister steps forward, and smart as a whip she asks with all innocence if perhaps her royal majesty would like her to go and get her a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for her? And before you know it, the little boy is back in his mother’s arms.

Two midwives, a mother, a sister and the king’s own daughter, each in her own way, resisted the pull of terror and death and, barely knowing of each other, the five women participated in God’s conspiracy of life and liberation. What can one person do against the servants of death and their empire of fear? Remember these women and their courage to say yes and no; then go and do likewise.


[2] Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain


The language of the unheard

There are Sundays when I don’t know where to begin the sermon and when to stop. Today is one of these Sundays.

We wonder what’s really going on on the border between Ukraine and Russia. We wonder when the history of injustice and violence between Israel and Palestinians will become a story of friendly neighbors who share the land and the water. We wonder how the violence in Syria and Iraq can be contained and ended. We are mourning the death of Robin Williams, one of the great artists of our time and we wonder how much longer we will have to struggle against the hushed silence surrounding mental illness. And we are mourning the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed young black man who was shot by police in Ferguson, MO. We don’t know the whole story yet, but the killing and the events that followed it revealed again the deep wound of racism in our communities, a wound time won’t heal.

I’m a parent of a teenage boy, and we talk about school, drugs, drinking, politics, driving, sex, telling the truth, respecting others, working hard, getting enough sleep etc., all the usual stuff of parenting. I never had to tell him not to run through our neighborhood because police might think he had done something wrong. But that’s just one part of the talk parents of black teenage boys can’t miss, because missing one part might have deadly consequences in a country with a history of regarding young black men as a threat. Historians say “the talk’’ dates back to 1863, following the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves living in still-rebellious states. Encounters between freed slaves and whites were fraught, and black parents made it a point to caution their sons who had been slaves that if they celebrated their freedom too publicly, they could trigger an angry and potentially lethal reaction. Keep it down, boys. Don’t wake the dragon. From emancipation, to the “separate but equal’’ segregation doctrine, to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, to the war on drugs of the 1980s that included police profiling that snagged noncriminals who happened to share skin color with criminal suspects, the essence of the talk has remained.[1] Keep it down, boys. Don’t wake the dragon.

Attica Scott is a mother and a Metro Council representative in Louisville; she wrote a piece for the Courier-Journal, and I will quote her at length so we can hear her.

“Son, when you go to work tonight, if you get stopped by the police for any reason, you reply with all of the respect that you can muster even if you are being pulled over for no reason. A 17-year-old, unarmed black teen named Michael Brown was shot Saturday in Missouri by police, and I am afraid for you.” What was left unsaid to my son is that I am a nervous wreck when he works the night shift and that I barely sleep when he is gone to work because I fear for his safety. (…) I am a single mom of two teenagers, both black, one female and one male, and we have to have “the talk” more regularly than I would have ever imagined. (…) What cuts like a knife when I think about Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, John Crawford, Michael Newby, Amadou Diallo and so many other black men and teens is that their lives were taken by police officers (or law enforcement authorities and wannabe law enforcement in the case of Trayvon Martin). We should not have to live in fear of the people who are paid to protect and to serve our communities; yet, I have to teach my son to live with that fear every single day — it is a matter of survival. (…) We are weak in this community and in this country when it comes to having honest conversations about race. We are not post-racial. Police officers have always had a license to kill unarmed black teens. What is a mother supposed to do with that knowledge besides teach her son to live in fear — and fear does not equate respect. (…) When we see uprisings in cities like Ferguson, Mo., it is one way in which people who are frustrated tell authorities that we must condemn police brutality, racial profiling, use of excessive force, the militarization of peaceful protests and shoot-to-kill policies.

Scott ends her piece quoting Martin Luther King:

In his speech, “The Other America,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “... a riot is the language of the unheard.” [2] 

The gospel reading for this Sunday is about Jesus crossing borders and about a mother making a riot on behalf of her child. We know what having a sick child can do to a parent: it makes you desperate.[3] It makes you say horrible things to the receptionist who won’t give you an appointment until a week after Labor Day. It makes you very rude to doctors who run test after test for hours and then won’t give you more than two minutes to tell you about the results. It makes you scream at the insurance company representative who tells you that your plan does not cover the treatments your child needs. It makes you stay up all night doing research on the web, finding out where the best clinics are, the best doctors, the most promising programs. You will do anything it takes to make your child well.

When Jesus crossed into the region of Tyre and Sidon, he entered territory that was foreign in every respect: foreign accents, foreign customs, foreign food, foreign religon – and yet Jesus went there. “Why did he?” we wonder.

A woman from that region approached Jesus, shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” It wasn’t proper for a woman to approach a man who didn’t belong to her family for help. It was unthinkable for a Jewish man to be approached by a Gentile woman, let alone when demons were involved. And she wouldn’t stop shouting, kept at it, relentlessly crying for mercy. We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she did; we know what having a sick child can do to a parent. The barriers of custom, language, ethnicity and religion were high between her and the man from Nazareth, but no match for her love for her child. Shouting without any restraint she begged the Lord Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.

To the disciples the whole scene was just too embarrassing, and they urged him to put an end to it. “Send her away,” said one.

“Lord, have mercy,” she kept shouting.

“Send her away,” said another.

“Lord, have mercy,” she kept pleading.

What are the limits of Jesus’ ministry? Where does he draw the line? How wide is the circle of God’s mercy that has the life of Jesus as its defining center? Wide enough to include one like her?

We may not like it, because this doesn’t sound like the Jesus we know, but he said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Let her shout – she doesn’t belong to the flock I was sent to tend.

But the woman was determined. She came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” We notice that she wasn’t arguing but praying. The Jesus we know would reach out and, taking her hand, would tell her to get up and go home and that her daughter was well. But this stranger in a strange land said, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” How wide is the circle of God’s mercy that has the life of Christ as its defining center? Which voices will prevail, the woman pleading, “Lord, help me?” or the voices of those already in the house, already at the table, already full and satisfied who are telling Jesus, “Send her away”?

This is a hard story because the debate over who is in and who is not is difficult, and in the language we use, our attitudes and commitments spill from our hearts and over our lips. “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Don’t you wish this had been said by one of the disciples rather than Jesus? It does sound like something we might say when we try to keep outsiders in their place: we insult them.

Many have wrestled with this story, trying to reconcile the Jesus they thought they knew with the Jesus who not only didn’t show any compassion but was incredibly rude. Some have suggested that he didn’t really mean it, that he was merely testing the woman’s resolve. Others have suggested that Jesus wasn’t testing the woman’s faith but the disciples’, that he was waiting for one of them, just one to stand with her and say, “Lord, have mercy.” That’s a kind thought, but there’s nothing in the story to suggest that this was a test.

I am intrigued by the fact that Jesus talked about bread. Throwing the bread to the dogs would be wrong, he told the woman, since it was the children’s bread. But the woman was not only courageous and persistent. “Yes, Lord,” she said, “yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” What she asked of him didn’t take away anything from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Crumbs of mercy would be plenty to save her child. He had just fed 5,000 people with a lunch that looked like nothing to his disciples, and when all had finished eating and all were full and satisfied, there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left. She had been paying attention; she knew that what she needed was his to give, and that there was enough for all. “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus finally said. “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

There is so much that divides us along lines that have been drawn and continue to be redrawn by privilege and power. Division, prejudice, and fear have been our lot for as long as any of us can remember. But this little story, beautiful and perplexing, reminds us that courage and mercy cross those lines from either side for healing. And who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to cross those lines for the sake of peace and wholeness? Who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to pray, “Lord, have mercy on us, we are being tormented by a demon and time won’t cast it out.”? Who would doubt that the Lord of reconciliation calls us to cross those lines and to pray for the healing of the wound of racism, because the lives of our children depend on it?

I want to close with a quote from Mark Twain’s book, The Innocents Abroad. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men [and women] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Travel in that sense is not just about going to far away places and peoples. It’s about taking the first step to meet the neighbor who is a stranger. It’s about crossing with a little more courage than we think we have the lines that power and privilege have drawn between us. It’s about getting out of our little corner.




[3] With thanks to Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, Vol. 19, No. 5, August-September 2008, p. 30


Mountain and sea

I thought I would preach today on Elijah’s time up on the mountain. I expected that this morning, in speaking and listening, we’d unfold together that scene on Mount Horeb when one spectacular thing after another happened – rock shattering wind, earthquake, fire – and yet, God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire, but in the silence that followed them; in the “still small voice” of the old KJV, in “a gentle whisper,” in “a sound of sheer silence” as more recent translations rendered the text.

“Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Holy One of Israel in Psalm 46, and I thought I’d preach on stillness today. A few years back I found a brief, prayerful text by Edwina Gateley I wanted to share with you today. And because it seems so much more appropriate to enter into silence than to preach about it, I invite you to ignore for a moment that the bulletin insists that now is the time for a sermon and to pray instead.

Be silent.
Before your God.
Say nothing.
Ask nothing.
Be silent.
Be still.
Let your God look upon you.
That is all.
God knows.
God understands.
God loves you
With an enormous love,
And only wants
To look upon you
With that love.
Let your God —
Love you.[1]

“Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Father of Jesus Christ in a Psalm that begins with bold assertions of human fearlessness. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”[2]

One of the wonderful things about living with scripture is that you never know what resonance it will create and what echoes you will pick up. Jesus, after the feast of abundance on the lakeshore that began with five loaves and two fish and ended when all had eaten and were filled and twelve baskets of left over pieces had been taken up, Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. The contrast of the tumult of mountains shaking in the heart of the sea and the stillness of resting in the presence of God, that contrast from the psalm also appears in our gospel reading; only there it’s Jesus resting in the presence of God up on the mountain while the disciples are dealing with the waves battering their boat. I thought I would preach about solitude and silence, but we’re all in that boat, far away from the mountain.

After the banquet on the beach, Jesus dismissed the crowds and told the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead without him. It was the first time since Jesus had called them to be his disciples that he told them to go on without him. When night fell, he was alone on the mountain, praying, and they were alone in the thick of things, far from land, with the wind against them, working hard to keep the course.

Since apostolic times, the church has recognized itself in this small boat on its voyage to the other side of the wide sea. In Matthew, this is actually the second time that we are invited to recognize ourselves in those seafarers rather than watch them from the shore. The first time, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples when a wind storm arose; the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep.[3] He was right there with them, but to them it was as if he wasn’t there at all. They woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. Why be afraid when Emmanuel, God-with-us is in the boat?

Well, in today’s passage of the sea crossing Jesus was not in the boat. It was dark, and they were far from the land because the wind was against them – but they were not afraid. They just kept the course. They knew what to do; several of them knew this lake like the back of their hands. Just keep your eyes on the horizon and the stars.

But then Jesus showed up. They thought they were seeing a ghost. Now they were terrified and crying out in fear, and Jesus said, “Take heart, it’s me; do not be afraid.” The wind and the waves they could handle, but Jesus showing up like that out of nowhere, that was frightening. The church has continued to tell and dwell in this story because it reminds us who Jesus is: not somebody we left behind on a distant shore when he sent us, but one who is with us and is coming to us. One whose voice and word we recognize. “It’s me; don’t be afraid.”

Now what got into Peter that he responded, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”? I’m only asking because it’s a good question to ask, not because I have an answer. Followers of Jesus have asked themselves for generations, and some suggest that Peter climbing over the side of the boat is a great example of daring discipleship. They paint a portrait of Jesus calling us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea and bidding us to come to him. Like Peter, we are to heed his call and find the courage to get out of the boat and walk. Step out boldly; just keep your eyes on the Lord. They think it’s perfectly OK for a follower of Jesus to want to walk on water, and if Peter hadn’t taken his eyes off the Lord, he would have hiked up and down the waves like it was just the thing to do out on the lake. Now I will gladly affirm that as disciples of Jesus we must step out boldly in faith, in obedience to Christ’s call; but Jesus didn’t come to them walking on the sea and saying, “It’s me; get out of the boat and let’s walk together.” That was Peter’s impulse, and the way I read this little gem of a story, he is not an example of courageous discipleship, but of rather ordinary discipleship.

The one we follow is with us and continues to come to us in unexpected ways. His is a presence unlike any other. Elijah on Mount Horeb fully expected to encounter the living God in the spectacular events of rock shattering and mountain splitting wind, of earthquake and fire, but the voice, the sound was still, small, a gentle whisper bordering on silence. “Take courage, it’s me. Don’t be afraid,” said Jesus. You are not alone on the journey to the fullness of God’s reign; I am with you. We hear the words, we hear the promise, but we go back and forth between between faith and the need for certainty.

Peter said, “Lord, if it is you…” In all of Matthew there are only two other scenes when someone addresses Jesus with this kind of conditional clause. In one, the devil comes to Jesus in the wilderness, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”[4] And in the other, at the crucifixion, some who pass by say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”[5] We are ordinary disciples; we want more than the word and the promise, and that puts us in the company of those who tempt and scorn the Son of God.

Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t sold Peter, but said, “Come.” The simple command reminds us of the day when Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw Peter and his brother and said to them, “Follow me.” They left their nets and followed him, and the hardest part then was keeping up with the man going ahead of them.

As we follow the Living One who is with us and who is coming to us we must learn to trust his word and promise and be attentive to his voice and call. Peter’s faith and ours is a blend of trust and doubt, of courage and fear, of sinking and being held.

“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck, I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”[6] The words of the psalm teach our hearts to trust in God’s promise and power to save. The world floods in on us with paralyzing experiences and frightening stories of what human beings are capable of doing to each other when love is absent. We have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over us, and many of us are drowning – in fear, in worries and despair.

I thought I would preach today on Elijah’s time up on the mountain and on God’s presence encountered in stillness. But Jesus came down the mountain in the darkness before dawn; he came down to meet his friends on the sea. When Peter began to sink and the waters were about to close over him, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” No more “Lord, if it is you,” only the voice of humanity crying out of the depths – and there it was, the strong hand of Jesus. Thanks be to God.


[1] Edwina Gateley, Let Your God Love You

[2] Psalm 46:1-3

[3] Matthew 8:23-27

[4] Matthew 4:3, 6

[5] Matthew 27:40

[6] Psalm 69:1-2