Jesus shall reign

They had been in Bethany the night before. At the home of Lazarus, yes, that Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from death to life only days earlier. Mary and Martha were there also, and they were having dinner.

Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.[1] The stench of death had lingered over this household only days ago, but now the fragrance of love and devotion filled everything.

Mary shows us what discipleship is. Judas thought pouring the equivalent of some $20,000 over Jesus’ feet was extravagant and wasteful.[2] Extravagant? Yes. Wasteful? No. Nothing done out of love is ever wasted. On Thursday, we call it Maundy Thursday, Jesus would wash his disciples’ feet and ask them to repeat this act of service for one another—to approach one another not as masters, but servants. He would tell them that everyone would know that they were his disciples by the love they offered in response to God’s love.[3] Mary poured out her love over Jesus’ feet. She knew how to respond without being told. She gave boldly of herself in love.

We talk about stewardship of time, tallent, and treasure, and we talk about budgets and the cost of ministry, and all that has its place; but Mary shows us the foundation of all those conversations: Mary shows us faithful discipleship in offering her love in response to God’s love in Jesus. The house was filled with the fragrance of love responding to love. And the world is waiting to be filled with the fragrance of love responding to love.

We went back to the house of Lazarus in Bethany to remember that the next day when Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, he brought that fragrance to the city. It travelled on a breeze ahead of him, and throughout the Passover crowd children were tapping their parents knees and tugging their sleeves, “Mom, Mom, what is this? It smells so good.”

“It’s the fragrance of God’s Anointed, dear, the king of Israel, he’s coming to Jerusalem.”

Their hopes, their hunger, their longing for freedom, their memories of Israel’s greatness under king David poured out of the city with them to meet him, and they greeted him like a warrior king, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!” Such joy. Such expectation. And then they saw him, riding by on his little donkey. Do you imagine they all fell silent immediately? John is telling the story, and it is John’s voice, not a voice from the crowd, telling us, “Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion. Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”And John tells us that even Jesus’ disciples did not understand these things at first. This would not be the expected coronation. The fragrance of his anointing was the announcement of a kingdom not from this world.

Meanwhile, a kingdom very much from this world was asserting its power in spectacular fashion. Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. Passover made the empire very nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the hopeful memory of Israel’s liberation from Pharao’s yoke, the celebration of the exodus from the house of slavery to the promised land, and the situation could turn quickly from joyful worship to revolt. So Rome made its presence and power known. The governor, Pontius Pilate, entered the city riding on the biggest horse he could find in his stable. Behind him, elite soldiers on horseback, followed by rows and rows of foot soldiers; you could see banners and golden eagles mounted on poles, the sun’s bright beams reflected by helmets and the tips of countless spears; you could hear the beating of drums, the marching of feet, the clinking of metal against metal. The procession was designed to impress and intimidate. Rome knew how to project power and quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare. The heavy beams used to crucify the most dangerous troublemakers had already been stacked at the governor’s headquarters; Rome was prepared.

On the other side of the city, the crowd was pouring out through the gate, ready to greet their king: God’s anointed who would rally his people, organize the militias into an army, and drive out the foreign occupiers. “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel.” And then they saw him, riding by on his little donkey. There was a fragrance of promise about him, but he wasn’t entering the city to take over the system and put himself at the top. He came to reveal the power of redemptive love; he came to undermine and topple the logic of domination. A few days later, the two met, Jesus and Pilate, at the governor’s headquarters. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate asked, and Jesus responded, more than once, “My kingdom is not from this world.” Pilate spoke and understood only the language of power and violence. He didn’t know what to make of a rebel who not only didn’t play by the rules of his game, but played an entirely different game.

We look at the scene from the other side of the cross, from the other side of Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension to the throne of God. We have heard the witnesses, we have seen glimpses, moments of great clarity when we knew that this servant’s love reveals the heart of God. Jesus shall reign, we sing as we watch him riding by on his little donkey.

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun

does its successive journeys run;

his kingdom spread from shore to shore,

till moons shall wax and wane no more.

Jesus is riding on, past the churches with the big steeples, past the office buildings and the shiny bank towers, past the university campusses and the corporate headquarters, and the court house, and just watching him ride down West End and Broadway we realize how much we depend on him to redeem us from playing Pilate’s game.

To Jesus endless prayer be made

and endless praises crown his head;     

his name like sweet perfume shall rise

with every morning sacrifice.

There it is again, there it is still, the sweet perfume, the fragrance of love responding to love. And Jesus is riding on, but before he turns left to ride up to Legislative Plaza and Capitol Hill, he turns right and rides around Music City Center, wondering about the NRA and its firm grip on the imaginations of our legislators, and we wonder, too, because we’re the ones proclaiming that he shall reign.

Blessings abound where’er he reigns;

all prisoners leap and loose their chains;        

the weary find eternal rest,

and all who suffer want are blest.

That’s a good hymn to sing over in those parts, you know, over by the Mission and the Campus for Human Development, but not only in those parts. All of us carry a measure of weariness, all of us long to rest in the love of God, long to live in a world where Jesus reigns.

I want to talk a little bit more about a world where prisoners leap and loose their chains. Right now, the chains that tie prisoners to their past are heavy and strong, even after they have been released from prison. Landing a job is no small feat. Aside from figuring out where to sleep, nothing is more worrisome for people leaving prison than figuring out where to work. And finding a job is not just a matter of learning to stand on one’s own two feet again, or wanting to contribute, to support one’s family, and to add value to society at large. Finding a job allows a person to establish a positive role in the community, develop a healthy self-image, and keep a distance from negative influences and opportunities for illegal behavior. And beyond all that, most state parole agencies require parolees to maintain gainful employment, and failure to do so could mean more prison time. So finding a job is crucial, but it’s harder than it needs to be. Nearly every state allows private employers to discriminate on the basis of past criminal convictions or even arrests without conviction. It’s understandable; employers are cautious, they want to avoid hiring somebody who may pose a risk to their business, to their other employees, or their clients. The church wouldn’t hire a nursery worker with a conviction for child neglect and abuse, and a business owner wouldn’t want a bookkeeper with a criminal record of embezzlement and fraud. Rebuilding trust takes time, and it may be better for somebody with a child abuse conviction to seek employment in other fields such as construction or transportation, or perhaps bookkeeping. But many ex-offenders have difficulty even getting an interview, because of the box on job applications in which applicants are asked to check “yes” or “no” if they have ever been convicted of a crime. And it doesn’t matter if the crime had anything to do with the job they applied for. In too many cases, ex-offenders’ applications will automatically go to the bottom of the pile or be tossed out. Those men and women may be out of prison, but they’re still chained to the past.

In the early 2000s, groups in San Francisco and Boston began urging local governments to remove questions about convictions from job applications so that people can be judged first on their qualifications. Their past convictions would still be considered, but not until later in the hiring process, when an applicant has been identified as a serious candidate for the position. And then he or she would have a chance to talk about their record face to face, instead of being reduced to a label. Today there are 14 states, the most recent one being Georgia, and more than 90 cities and counties that have adopted such fair chance policies. The executive order signed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) in February states that “such policies allow returning citizens an opportunity to explain their unique circumstances in person to a potential employer.”[4] There’s an effort underway here in Nashville through a charter referendum to remove questions about criminal convictions from the initial application stage for Metro government jobs, and you can support the effort this morning by being one of the 6,847 voters whose signatures are needed to put the referendum on the ballot.

Jesus is riding into the city to reveal to us the power of redeeming love. Asking a city to consider removing a box from a form is nothing spectacular, but it may open windows for the restoration of community. It may open windows for the fragrance of redemption to spread.

[1] John 12:3

[2] A day laborer’s wages for a year of work (300 denarii), calculated with a minimum wage of $7.25/hr., would be between $17,400 and $26,100, based on an 8-12 hour workday.

[3] John 13:35



Renounce and embrace

If you want to see Jesus, where do you go? You can go to a museum or find a big, glossy art book, or you can watch a movie to see pictures of Jesus. But you’d probably know the entire time that you’re looking at actors and models, not Jesus himself.

You could read all you can about Jesus and create your own mental image of him; that’s like seeing him, in a way, although you could never be quite sure how much of yourself has gone into your picture of him. If you want to see him in person, where do you go?

Dr. Who fans among us will suggest a short trip on the Tardis to Nazareth, Jerusalem or Capernaum, except that you’d have a hard time giving the time-traveling doctor the proper coordinates since the gospels contain only a very rudimentary calendar.

It was on Passover, John tells us, in Jerusalem, when some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” People had been talking about him. Over in Bethany, they said, only days ago, he raised a dead man from the tomb, and he was dead for sure, he had been in that tomb for four days. People were interested, people were curious, and Jesus’ opponents said, with worry in their voices, “Look, the world has gone after him!”(12:19). And as though to prove them right, some Greeks came to Philip and said, “We wish to see Jesus.”

Did they know they had found one of his first followers, or were they just happy to have bumped into a man with a Greek name who could perhaps speak Greek and give them directions they would actually be able to understand?

It’s a curious scene, as so often in the gospel of John. He tells us that Philip was from Bethsaida, a detail we could easily look up ourselves in the first chapter, but he never tells us whether these Greeks got their wish. Philip told Andrew, and then he and Andrew went and told Jesus, and Jesus’ response, Jesus’ response leaps out of the story and addresses every last one of us.

“The hour has come,” he says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

This is where you go, if you want to see Jesus. To the word that speaks of his glorification in his death. But what kind of glory is that? Where is the radiance of life, the splendor of the light of the world in that? Let’s sit with the word and our questions for a moment. Let’s sit together and meditate on this scripture, not just because it’s a good thing to do. I don’t know if I’ll ever be old enough to preach a decent sermon after reading John, so meditative reflection is the best I can do.

Jesus tells us a parable.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

In giving its life, the single grain doesn’t become lifeless, but rather fruit-bearing fullness of life. Later in the unfolding story of his final days, Jesus talks about branches that bear much fruit because they are connected to the vine. Jesus’ life bears fruit in the lives of the people who abide in him. His life-giving, selfless love multiplies in the life of all who believe in him, all who serve and follow him.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the witnesses tell us – the glory of life and light, of grace and truth, love and compassion. With all that he is and does in the world, Jesus embodies divine love for the world, the same love that unites him and the one he calls Father. These relationships are his life. Now the hour has come for the Father to glorify his name and for the Son to be glorified in death and resurrection, to reveal the unbreakable bond of their love and give birth to the church, the community of  his friends who continue to embody divine love in his name. The Word became flesh, and on the cross, the gracious movement of God’s incarnation into the world is not ended or simply reversed, it is consummated in the hour of Jesus’ free, surrendering love. The Jesus we encounter through the gospel of John lays down his life in sovereign love for God and his friends. His death is not the tragic end of a beautiful life, but the complete gift of his beautiful life for the glory of God and the life of the world.

Those who love their life lose it, but those who love life (like Jesus lived to love) will find eternal life in communion with God. Those who hate their life in this world are not life-haters, but rather men and women who renounce life shaped by the categories of the world and embrace the life that Jesus’ gift of love makes available.

Renounce and embrace. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and it presents the world with an urgent choice: Will we respond with faith to the invitation to find life in communion with God? Or will we cling to the promises of the ruler of this world?

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

The world and its ruler will sit in judgment and condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion. He must die because domination, violence, and death are the world’s ways under the ruler’s reign, and all that does not fit must be eliminated. Jesus does not fit. There’s no room in the ruler’s world order for fearless truth-telling or self-less service or table-flipping temple-cleansing. Jesus can’t be silenced. Jesus can’t be bought. Jesus must die.

“If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus tells one of his judges, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” But his kingdom isn’t from this world. His kingdom is the end of this world. He refuses to fight. He refuses to respond in the ruler’s own violent terms. He lays down his life and dies.

He lets the world have its way with him. He dies as though the devil were in charge, but the devil doesn’t know that Love makes of the cross a throne. The devil doesn’t know that death has no power over the Word of life. And that is how what looks for all the world like the judgment of Jesus is in truth God’s judgment of this world and its ruler. Jesus, lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to himself. Love makes of the cross a throne, and from the throne the king of grace and truth draws all people into communion with God. Women, men, and children from every tribe and nation are drawn into the community of believers, a community that participates in God’s reconciling presence and work in the world, giving testimony with our words and actions to the light and life we receive from the crucified and risen Christ.

Where do you go, if you want to see Jesus? You follow him. “Where I am, there will my servant be also,” he says. You let yourself be drawn by him. You let yourself be drawn more deeply into the kingdom of God. You renounce and embrace, again and again. You renounce the ruler of this world and embrace the life of Jesus. The moment is always now, again and again. You renounce the logic of violence and embrace love. You let yourself be drawn by him, knowing that he won’t draw you around the world’s hatred, around the world’s rejection, around the cross. He draws you to the cross, into the hatred and rejection he faced with love. You let yourself be drawn, trusting that the bonds of love cannot be broken, knowing that the world wouldn’t hate the disciples of Jesus if they belonged to the world. You let yourself be drawn by the one to whom you belong, the Word of life. The world will hate you; you will encounter forces of evil just as he did, and you will be asked, in each encounter, to completely surrender, as he did – not to evil, never to evil, but to God. The way of life in Christ is the complete surrender to God’s love.


Prayer Vigil During Holy Week

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the final week of Lent. During this week, the church is immersed into the final days of Jesus' earthly life and ministry, particularly the meal he shared with his disciples on the night before he was betrayed and his judgment and execution the following day.

We will have prayer services in the sanctuary on Maundy Thursday (April 2) and Good Friday (April 3), each beginning at 6 p.m.

Jesus said to the disciples, "Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial," when he himself was praying in Gethsemane. We will keep a prayer vigil from 7 p.m. on Maundy Thursday to 6:00 p.m. on Good Friday. We have divided the hours into segments of 30 minutes, and invite members and friends of the church to pray during those hours. Please add your name to our vigil schedule. If you wish to come to the chapel or sanctuary to pray, please let us know so we can make the necessary arrangements. 

The youth have made votive candles from Christmas candles we lit to celebrate Jesus' birth. Now we will each light one while we pray and reflect on Jesus' complete gift of his life. We will have the candles available for you to take home this coming Sunday and at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service. If you are unable to come to church then, please let us know and we will gladly bring a candle to your home.

On Good Friday, those of us who are able to come will bring our candles to the sanctuary for the concluding prayer service.



But God

About ten years ago, Janet Parker, a pastor from Virginia, went to Rwanda, where, ten years earlier, in just 100 days between April and July, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million people had been slaughtered. Most of them had been members of the Tutsi minority, and had been targeted for extermination by members of the Hutu majority. Janet was in Rwanda to attend a church conference.

“I saw a beautiful land and a lovely people, whose smiles almost hid the haunted look behind their eyes. But as they opened their hearts to me and shared their stories, as they took me around to the countryside, I glimpsed the horror that still stalks this wounded nation like a wraith.”

“Rwandans themselves do not fully understand what happened to them. Again and again they said that the genocide was ‘insanity,’ that ‘it didn’t make sense,’ and ‘cannot be explained.’ Most poignantly, Violette Nyirarukundo, a survivor and a Presbyterian church leader, thanked us for our presence and said, ‘Please tell us the truth. We need to better understand ourselves.’”

Janet felt both moved and humbled by that statement. Later she realized, “We should have asked our Rwandan friends the same question. As representatives of an international community that failed to respond to the unfolding genocide, we might ask Rwandans and the other neglected victims of violence in the world, ‘Please tell us the truth. Help us to understand ourselves (…).’”[1]

We need one another to understand ourselves; we can’t do it by ourselves. Here in the U. S., we live in a different country, but a wounded nation nonetheless, stalked by the horrors of slavery and racism. Earlier this month, the Civil Rights Division of the U. S. Department of Justice published a report of its investigation of the Ferguson Police Department. Somebody had to go there on our behalf and tell us what was going on, and not because Ferguson is a particularly racist town and we’re always looking for a scapegoat. Somebody had to go there and tell us the truth, because we need to better understand ourselves.

I read the report and I want to share some of the findings with you.

Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community. Further, Ferguson’s police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate existing racial bias, including racial stereotypes. (p. 2)

(…) The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. (…) Officer evaluations and promotions depend to an inordinate degree on “productivity,” meaning the number of citations issued. Partly as a consequence of City and FPD priorities, many officers appear to see some residents, especially those who live in Ferguson’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, less as constituents to be protected than as potential offenders and sources of revenue. (p.3)

The numbers are remarkable:

Of the $11.07 million in general fund revenue the City collected in fiscal year 2010, $1.38 million came from fines and fees collected by the court; [the numbers in fiscal year 2011 were similar]. In its budget for fiscal year 2012, however, the City predicted that revenue from municipal fines and fees would increase over 30% from the previous year’s amount to $1.92 million; the court exceeded that target, collecting $2.11 million. In its budget for fiscal year 2013, the City budgeted for fines and fees to yield $2.11 million; the court exceeded that target as well, collecting $2.46 million. For 2014, the City budgeted for the municipal court to generate $2.63 million in revenue. (p. 10)

Not surprisingly, racial bias becomes obvious in traffic stops: African-American drivers in Ferguson are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops despite the fact that they are found in possession of contraband 26% less often than white drivers.

But the bias isn’t just statistical:

In email messages and during interviews, several court and law enforcement personnel [including supervisors] expressed discriminatory views and intolerance with regard to race, religion, and national origin. The content of these communications is unequivocally derogatory, dehumanizing, and demonstrative of impermissible bias. (p. 72)

A November 2008 email stated that President Barack Obama would not be President for very long because “what black man holds a steady job for four years.” (…) A June 2011 email described a man seeking to obtain “welfare” for his dogs because they are “mixed in color, unemployed, lazy, can’t speak English and have no frigging clue who their Daddies are.” An October 2011 email included a photo of a bare-chested group of dancing women, apparently in Africa, with the caption, “Michelle Obama’s High School Reunion.” (p. 73)

In the days following the publication of the report, City Manager John Shaw, municipal Judge Ronald Brockmeyer, and Police Chief Thomas Jackson resigned, but again, the value of the report, beyond good and much needed recommendations for reforming the system of law enforcement in one of our towns, is to help us understand ourselves better. This report illustrates how collectively we create institutions that reflect and embody our racial biases and our contempt for the poor, and how those institutions in turn shape and form us and our children.

The wickedness exposed in the findings is small and ugly, but it is greater than what can be addressed via personal morality or public policy. The mess we’re in is much greater than we want to admit. We want to hold on as long as we possibly can to the illusion that we just need to try harder. Better schools, better laws, better legislators, better judges, city managers, and police chiefs – nothing wrong with that, except that the wickedness is pervasive; it is not just around us, it is between and within us. We are captive to destructive forces larger than us, wicked forces that drain love and justice from our life together. And we are slow to admit that we need saving. Trapped in death, we can be convinced that life’s just like that, or worse, that it’s supposed to be like that. Our whole life can be twisted around a lie and we’re convinced it’s the truth, because it’s all we’ve ever heard.

We need saving because we live in a world that is estranged from the Holy One who made it. Estranged from God, we become confused about the purpose of life and who we are, and we lead lives that are destructive for others and for ourselves.

“You were dead,” we read in Ephesians. Which is to say, you were caught in a futile way of life obedient to selfish desires, seeking the approval of a culture built on greed and oppression, helpless to disentangle yourself from the web of lovelessness. You were dead.

“But God,” the witnesses in Ephesians interject, but God, rich in mercy and overflowing love, God loved us even when we were dead and made us alive together with Christ and set us in a place where all of life is at home in the constant presence of Christ. A place of reconciliation where all of us are and know one another to be children of God, brothers and sisters, showing and proclaiming in the world how divine love disentangles the mess of sin and frees us to be truly alive together. We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the life God prepared for us, no longer following the course of this world, but walking in the way of Christ, embodying and reflecting the gracious love that is God. “Have mercy on us and forgive us,” we prayed earlier, “that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your name.”

As God’s own, we’re not being saved by being taken out of the world, but rather by being taken deeper into it as people of hope and messengers of reconciliation.

Sin is the name we have given to all that alienates us from God and therefore from each other, from the earth, and from ourselves. Sin is pervasive. But God, rich in mercy, is at work in the world. “For all their power to cripple, control and alienate,” wrote Fred Craddock, “all hostilities in the universe will not only cease ultimately, but will be reconciled. For redemption in Christ to be complete, it must range as far and wide as the forces of evil.”

As people who discovered by the grace of God that we cannot save ourselves, we have tasted the freedom of the children of God. And because we have tasted our true freedom, we live toward its fullness.

We read portions of Psalm 107 this morning, a redemption song whose verses sing of our need to be liberated from our many troubles and of God’s power to deliver us:

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
    prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
    and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
    they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
    and broke their bonds asunder.[2]

Sin is the name we have given to all that alienates us from God and therefore from each other, from the earth, and from ourselves. Pride, envy, greed, and racism are just some of the ways in which sin entangles us in lovelessness. Sin is pervasive. But God, rich in mercy, is at work to redeem us.

God tells us the truth: we are forgiven sinners. We are reconciled to God, we are alive with Christ, not because of anything we did, but only because God’s love overflows. This is the place where the healing begins.


[1] Janet L. Parker, “Can These Bones Live? What the church must learn from Rwanda,” Sojourners magazine, April 2006

[2] Psalm 107:10-14 (NRSV)


Crosswise translation

David Sedaris had moved from New York to Paris and was taking French lessons. One day, when the Italian nanny was attempting to answer the tacher’s latest question, the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”

It would seem that despite having grown up in a Muslim country, she would have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”

The teacher called upon the rest of us to explain. The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and… oh, sh*t.” She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

“He calls his self Jesus and then he die one day on two … morsels of … lumber.”

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

“He nice, the Jesus.”

(…) Part of the problem had to do with vocabulary. Simple nouns such as cross and resurrection were beyond our grasp, let alone such complicated reflexive phrases as “to give of yourself your only begotten son.” Faced with the challenge of explaining the cornerstone of Christianity, we did what any self-respecting group of people might do. We talked about food instead.

“Easter is a party for to eat of the lamb,” the Italian nanny explained. “One too many eat of the chocolate.”

“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asked.

I knew the word, so I raised my hand, saying, “The rabbit of Easter. He bring of the chocolate.”

“A rabbit?” The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears. “You mean one of these? A rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said. “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed. With a hand he have a basket and foods.”

The teacher sighed and shook her head. (…) “No, no,” she said. “Here in France the chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome.”

I called for a time-out. “But how do the bell know where you live?”

“Well,” she said, “how does the rabbit?”

(…) Over time it became impossible to believe that any of us would ever improve. (…) It was mid-October when the teacher singled me out, saying, “Every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section.” And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.

(…) The teacher continued her diatribe and I settled back, bathing in the subtle beauty of each new curse and insult.

“You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me?”

The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded, “I know the thing that you speak exact now. Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus.”

David Sedaris’s story, Me Talk Pretty One Day, sheds little light on Easter, but it does illuminate just how difficult it is to learn a new language and translate one’s culture into the language and world of another.

Paul struggled with translation. Just about everybody in Corinth spoke Greek, as did Paul, so that wasn’t the issue. The problem was using eloquent, sophisticated speech to talk about the cornerstone of faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Corinth was a cosmopolitan city. Situated between two sea ports, it was an economically vibrant and culturally diverse community where countless languages were spoken, traditions mixed and mingled, and all manner of goods, services, and ideas were exchanged. The young church in Corinth was a microcosm of the city, but things didn’t mix and mingle well. Competition among members had plunged the community into conflict. Some said they belonged to Apollos, others to Cephas, and still others to Paul. Each faction praised the theological acumen of their respective apostle or teacher while disparaging the others, significantly bolstering their own egos in the process, since they were the ones recognizing true greatness!

Corinth was a hub in the Roman Empire, and Corinthians were involved in global trade and imperial politics. Among the elites, rhetoric was a major part of education; in business and in public life in general one had to know how to sway others with the right word at just the right time. People quickly identified eloquence and cleverness of speech with power, wealth, and success. Correspondingly, the lack of refined and polished speech indicated low status. In Corinth and in other cities of the empire, Me Talk Pretty One Day was a line about upward mobility, about success and belonging. Clever speech was seen as a ticket to the top, and great orators were celebrated like rock stars.

Apollos apparently was a much more impressive speaker than Paul, and so a heated debate erupted in the church over who was more eloquent and hence the greater apostle. Paul was out of town, but had heard about the divisions and wrote a letter to the church.

“So, I understand some among you shout, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and others, ‘I belong to Apollos;’ and still others, ‘I belong to Cephas.’ Who then is shouting, ‘I belong to Christ?’ Huh?—Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name?”[1] He could have borrowed a line from David Sedaris’s French teacher and sighed, “You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me?” Except that Paul wasn’t exhausted by their foolishness, but by their loveless ways and their insistence on using what passed for wisdom to judge the meaning of Jesus. Against their waves of clever speech, Paul held up a single word: the cross.

“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”[2]

Centuries of use as a religious symbol have dulled the impact of the words cross and crucifixion. The cross has all but lost its power to scandalize, but not so in Paul’s day. As a particularly horrible form of public torture and execution in the Roman Empire, crucifixion was designed to demonstrate that nothing but complete surrender to the power of Rome would be accepted. Crucifixion was reserved for non-citizens, for slaves, prisoners of war, and insurgents—anyone who threatened the divinely sanctioned order of Rome. The cross was an instrument of degradation, humiliation, and shame, and crucifixion an obscenity not to be discussed in polite company. Cicero, one of the great Roman orators, was defending a senator against a murder charge. The prosecutor was seeking the death penalty and was apparently suggesting crucifixion. Cicero declared, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”[3] And that very word ‘cross’ is what Paul holds up for all in Corinth to see.

Years ago, a young friend of mine was shocked by the sudden realization that the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. “Isn’t that like putting an electric chair in the middle of the chancel,” he asked. “Isn’t that like hanging a noose above the baptistry?” Degrading, humiliating, and shameful. Crucifixion was designed to demonstrate publicly that any attempt to defy the powers that be was futile. Paul, however, declares that far from proving the sovereignty of Roman political order, the crucifixion of Jesus has shattered the logic of power. Humble obedience to the God who loves even the enemies of God has broken the logic of power. Paul’s gospel is a scandal, an insult to the sensibilities of educated men and women, an ugly interruption of any polite conversation about politics, the law, or religion where everything is in its proper place. Paul proclaims Jesus Christ, and him crucified. He does not make pretty talk of the cross, or clever talk. He holds it up. He holds it up until we see how the cross disrupts everything we think we can say about the divine, or about justice, or power, or love.

We want signs. We want God to do something big and spectacular, something like a Super Bowl of truth where Jesus wins 40:0 while the whole world is watching; instead we must look at the cross. We want wisdom. We want the gospel to be philosophically elegant and aesthetically pleasing; instead we must listen to the cross.

The power of God is both hidden and revealed in the cross: Where we expect power, weakness is given. Where we expect wisdom, foolishness is given. God acts to judge and save us in ways that subvert our ways of knowing and doing.

Around the cross, God gathers a community shaped by the love and obedience of Jesus Christ, a community of mercy. In the world as we know it, power is the ability to inflict suffering or escape from it, and all our knowing and doing serves to gain and maintain that power. But the God who hides and meets us in the cross of Jesus Christ is not part of the world as we know it. The cross marks the end of the world as we know it and the beginning of the world redeemed by God, the world where mercy reigns.

As a people gathered around the cross we no longer outmaneuver, outsmart, or outtalk each other in the race to the top; our life has a new direction: we walk together in the way of Christ, sent as ambassadors of reconciliation to the places where our loveless ways have fractured life. We let the mercy of God translate all that we are, our thinking and speaking, our sufferning and our doing into wholeness.


[1] 1 Corinthians 1:11-13

[2] 1 Corinthians 2:2

[3] The Speech In Defence of Gaius Rabirius, sec. 16


Joining the Song

The gospel of Mark was written to be listenened to in its entirety in one setting. It was written to be read aloud in the assembly from beginning to end. Mark’s story is just the right length, about 70-80 minutes, for an audience to be drawn into the life of Jesus as participants in the unfolding of his ministry.

In a rapid and urgent sequence of events listeners witness Jesus driving out demons, touching lepers and healing them, forgiving sins, baffling the authorities, telling stories of God’s reign, feeding thousands with just a few scraps of food, restoring a little girl to life by taking her hand and saying, Talitha cum, little girl, get up – and when the waves beat into the boat that evening on the stormy sea and he rebuked the wind, everyone asked, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Everyone asked.

We have followed Mark as our guide into the life of Jesus since the first days of Advent, we have watched and listened, wondered and questioned – and now, about halfway through the story, Jesus turns to the disciples and asks, “Who do people say that I am?” We tell him what we’ve heard along the way, “Some say, the Baptist, others, Elijah or one of the prophets.” But Jesus isn’t interested in what people think or say. He asks us, “But who do you say that I am?”

Halfway through the unfolding story of his life and ministry, Jesus becomes a question to his followers – and the answers we give inevitably determine who we are as his followers. If we think of him as a wisdom teacher, we will think of ourselves as students. If we think of him as a miracle worker, we will think of ourselves as journeying from one spectacular moment to the next. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks us, and Peter answers, “You are the Messiah.” Which is to say, you are not another one of many wisdom teachers and miracle workers who have come before and gone, not another healer, master, prophet, or preacher – you’re the one. You’re the Messiah.

We’re now at a turning point in the course of the story. We’re near Caesarea Philippi, a city built by Herod’s son, Philipp, a city surrounding a splendid temple dedicated to the worship of the emperor of Rome, the real power behind the power of Herod the Great and his sons. “You are the Messiah,” Peter says to Jesus, and we wonder if he’s saying, “You’re the one anointed by God for the final battle. You’re the one anointed by God to restore the kingdom to Israel.” The air is charged with expectation in the villages around Caesarea Philippi and Mark continues to tell the story.

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

Peter can’t hear the good news in the new teaching; too much talk of suffering, rejection, and death – he misses the word of resurrection.  Peter can’t face the way laid out by Jesus and so he takes him aside and rebukes him; he stops following and gets in the way; he stops listening and gives voice to the powers that oppose the coming of God’s reign in the person and the way of Jesus. Does he want to follow a Messiah who marches on, from triumph to triumph, until all is well and God’s people live in peace on God’s land? Jesus rebukes him, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We’re at a turning point in the course of the story. This is the point where we begin to grasp that identifying Jesus as God’s Messiah doesn’t mean that we get to press him into the mold of our hopes and desires. Getting behind him, we surrender our expectations to him and his way of suffering, rejection, death and resurrection. Jesus is not the fulfillment of our kingdom dreams; he himself is the kingdom in whom even our dreams are converted to the way of the cross. Jesus is not the fulfillment of our visions of salvation, he himself is God’s salvation who transforms our entire imagination to the way of the cross.

We don’t press him into the mold of our hopes but rather are invited ourselves to be remade in his image. He says,

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who will lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Halfway through the unfolding story of his life and ministry, Jesus becomes a question to his followers – and identifying him as God’s Messiah inevitably determines our identity as his followers. When we let go of our ideas what a proper Messiah is supposed to be and do, we also let go of our ideas of ourselves. He calls us to let go of what we think we know and need, to let go of what we fear – and to find life with him.

“The very first step is to try to forget about the self altogether,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “Your real, new self (…) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for [Christ]. (…) Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.”[1]

The call to discipleship is the call to let go completely of our concern with ourselves and our obsessive compulsion to secure our own life, likability, and even afterlife. The call to discipleship is the call to turn our eyes and attention away from ourselves and toward the One who is going ahead of us.

“Self-denial means knowing only Christ, no longer knowing oneself. It means no longer seeing oneself, only him who is going ahead (…). Self-denial says only: he is going ahead; hold fast to him,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He knew self-denial had nothing to do with blending into the background so as to become invisible. He knew that love of God and neighbor meant speaking the truth without fear under the dark fog of the Nazi empire and even sinning bravely by conspiring to murder Hitler. “The cross is neither misfortune nor harsh fate,” he wrote. “Instead, it is that suffering which comes from our allegiance to Jesus Christ.” He didn’t know at the time he wrote these words that he would be executed by the Nazis for his allegiance to Jesus, the Messiah of God. But the cross is not limited to the possibility of a martyr’s death. The cross is the reality at the heart of being a disciple; it marks the place where our old life comes to an end and our new life begins. Again Bonhoeffer, “The first Christ-suffering that everyone has to experience is the call which summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ. (…) The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus.”[2] Following Jesus, we die to our anxious self-absorption and live ever more fully in the community of love where we are no longer strangers or enemies, but brothers and sisters.

Last Thursday night, I stood with a group of fellow students in the parking lot outside the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. We were near the end of a pilgrimage through cities in Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, honoring the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans and trying to comprehend the shameful failure of too many white churches to recognize that struggle as a matter of faithfulness to Jesus Christ and the gospel of reconciliation. We were standing in the cold parking lot, listening again to a speech Martin Luther King Jr. gave on April 3, 1968 at the Mason Temple. He had led a march that day protesting low pay and cruel work conditions for black garbage collectors in Memphis. Dr. King had warned in previous sermons that he might die before the struggle ended; he had been living with death threats for years. That night he ended his speech, saying,

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Andrew Young said the next day was one of King’s happiest. Surrounded by his brother, his staff and close friends of the movement, he laughed and joked all day until it was time to go to dinner. Then he stepped onto the balcony outside his room, checking the weather to decide whether to bring a coat. Ben Branch, a musician who often led singing at protest gatherings, asked King what he would like him to play at a rally later that night, and he asked for Precious Lord. Moments later, he was fatally shot.

There we stould under the balcony in the cold parking lot, mourning the death of America’s prophet who gave his life for the sake of the gospel. In silence we prayed for the nation still torn by racism and that we would have the courage to live in Christ’s community of love where we are no longer strangers or enemies, but brothers and sisters.

One of us started singing, Precious Lord, take my hand …, and we joined the song.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, p. 175

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, pp. 86-88.



The Meaning of Jesus

A couple of weeks ago, I heard the news that Marcus Borg had died at age 72. Many remember him as a member of the controversial Jesus Seminar, and while some called his scholarship blasphemous, others found his work engaging and eye-opening.

Borg loved to debate, but he was never a polemicist. With N. T. Wright, an Anglican New Testament scholar whose views on the Gospels were and continue to be more traditional, he co-authored “The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions.” The book, first published in 1999, remains a fine example of disagreement bounded by mutual respect and friendship. I have read both authors, and find myself in the happy place where I often agree and occasionally disagree with each!

This is my invitation to friends and church members to read “The Meaning of Jesus” with me during Lent, both to honor Marcus Borg’s life and work and to engage in conversation about the meaning of Jesus for us personally.

We will meet on Wednesday evenings at 7 p.m. for about an hour to an hour and a half, beginning on February 25. Depending on the size of the group, we will meet at church or take turns meeting at each others’ homes. The group is likely to meet about eight times, given the eight parts of the book. If you would like to be part of this Lenten study, let me know. I won't buy copies of the book since it is widely available and some folks prefer reading the electronic version. So there's no need for a deadline.

The Meaning of Jesus | Wednesdays at 7 | starting February 25


Flirting with Idols

"Now concerning food sacrificed to idols," what do you prefer? At our house a favorite on Super Bowl Sunday is Rotel dip, a blend of a chunk of a cheese-replacement-product commonly known as Velveeta, and a can of diced tomatoes and green chilies. It’s easy to make, and actually tastes pretty good with tortilla chips. The dip is the perfect accompaniment to the annual grand liturgy of the American game, with the fly-over, the flag, the anthem, the half-time show, the commercials, and the properly inflated ball. Of course I’m only half-joking, but you know that. When it comes to sports, patriotism, and making money, we’re flirting with idols.

The context in Corinth was only slightly different. So let’s go there. Corinth was a vibrant and bustling Greco Roman city, located between two sea ports, and Paul started a congregation there. He didn’t stay long, though, because there were so many more cities where he had to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. So he came, preached, impressed upon the converts that the Lordship of Christ was to be lived out in their daily life as witnesses, and moved on. Questions remained. In his absence, answers were created by other missionaries and various locals with a mind to imposing them upon the others. That didn’t go well. Competing arguments and power plays fragmented their assemblies. Chloe’s people finally located Paul in a distant city and told him what was happening back in Corinth; some of the leaders went to Paul for advice, and at some point a letter was written from the church to Paul containing a list of issues that were troubling the fledgling community of Christ in the pagan city. That letter is lost, but Paul responded to it in writing. “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote,” he opens chapter 7 and replies to their questions with a word of the Lord or his own best judgment. If my spouse is not a Christian, they asked, should we stay together? May widows remarry? Is being married less spiritual than being single? Are we to dissociate ourselves totally from old friends? Is it proper for a woman to pray with her head unveiled? How do our common meals differ from those we once had at pagan temples?  What are the most important gifts of the Spirit? When will you be back?

One of the questions in that letter was about meat: Should Christians in Corinth eat meat that had been offered to idols?

A typical sacrifice meant that an animal was killed, a portion was burned to honor the respective god, a portion was given to the priests, and the rest was either consumed with family and friends in a festive meal in one of the temple’s dining rooms, or, if it was too much for one meal, a portion was sold in the market. Just about all the meat available in a city like Corinth would have been offered at some shrine or other, and many temples functioned as butcher’s shops and restaurants. Wealthier Corinthians with a pagan background would have been invited to meals in such places as a regular part of their social life, to celebrate birthdays, weddings, or other important occasions, or simply to entertain business partners.  For those Corinthian Christians who were among the wealthier class, their public and professional duties virtually required the networking that occurred through attending and sponsoring such events. To eat the meat served on such occasions was simple social courtesy; to refuse to share in the meal would have been an insult to the host. Within the social circle of the poorer Corinthians, however, such meat-eating would not have been commonplace. Meat was not an ordinary part of their diet; it may have been accessible only at certain religious festivals when public officials and their sponsors distributed meat to the entire city population. Consequently, the wealthy and powerful among Corinth’s Christians, who also had the most advanced education, would take the eating of meat in stride, “What’s the big deal? We know idols aren’t real…” At the same time, the poor might regard any meat as laden with strong religious connotations. Some members of the fledgling church did not think of idols as manufactured pseudo-gods, but still knew them to be powerful; they simply could not eat such meat without stepping back into the symbolic world of their former life outside of Christ.

The answer seems simple: Christians know idols are the creations of human minds and hands. Therefore, meat ritually slaughtered and dedicated before these idols is just a piece of meat and can be consumed with no second thoughts. If a brother or sister fresh from baptism is still bothered by such practices of so recent a past, abstain in the presence of these persons. That settles it.

Well, not really; things were much more problematic. Such simple answers they already had. They knew these things. In fact, in asking the question they made sure that Paul knew that they knew the right answer. “There is no God but one,” they said. Right! “No idol in the world really exists,” they said. Right! “We all know this,” they said. Right!

Then what is the problem in a church that knows the answers to its own questions? Paul understood that this was not just a quarrel over what’s for dinner. The problem may seem petty, but if the lives and relationships of a body of believers are seriously affected, could there be any bigger problems? And so Paul reached for the widest possible horizon as the context for his response.

Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:5-6).

Remember, he told them without saying it, remember when you struggle with this and that and the other, remember the size and significance of our confession:

One God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

A congregation that is not continually nourished by its confession of faith, that is not daily called to think, act, and live the abundance of its trust in the grace and judgment of God the Creator; a congregation that is not experiencing and reflecting upon the life-giving presence of Jesus Christ, will turn to slogans as substitutes for the confession. In Paul’s absence, some members of the Corinthian church captured the truth in catchy slogans that also happened to serve their interests remarkably well. “There is only one God.” “Idols are nothing.” “We know the truth.” Paul himself was drawn into the slogan game for a moment and responded with one of his own: “Knowledge puffs up, love builds up.” Then he caught himself.  He realized how the conditions of that church were reflected in those one-liners. Slogans capture some aspect of truth. But that is the problem: they capture and display rather than engage and share responsibility in the issues of our faith. Slogans are the coinage of those unable or unwilling to discuss or wrestle with the immensity of the gospel, those who desire to possess the truth in simplistic quotable bits, thereby ending thought, stopping growth, and owning rather than being owned by the Word. Or, in Paul’s terms, knowing rather than being known. The Corinthian congregation was trapped in the slogan game, competing in the creating and marketing of answers that are clever, quotable, and, of course, final. Truth was captured, reduced, packaged, and pronounced; case closed. No open sharing; no vulnerability; no risk; no arms or legs or heart of faith. Answers, always answers, short, simple answers, painless answers without Gethsemane, without wrestling all night with the will of God. Slogans are the undernourished church’s substitute for the gospel. But it is not so where our baptism into Christ is remembered and confessed. So Paul quickly withdrew from agreeing or disagreeing with the slogans and reminded the Corinthians whose they were:

For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

The truth isn’t something we know and quote strategically, the truth is who we are together in Christ. Any “knowledge” that causes the knowledgeable ones to despise those who are ignorant or uncertain is not in tune with our baptism into Christ. Through baptism we become members of the one body of Christ, we are given to each other to embody the truth. My actions are no longer simply mine, determined solely by my understanding of my liberty. I’m not free to be who I want to be, because I’m only free in Christ, and in Christ I am part of the community Christ has chosen, not I. For Paul, love in the community does not necessarily mean that I have to like the other people in the community, or that I have to agree with what they decide or how they understand the world. It does mean that I owe you and you all owe each other more than slogans. It does mean that we owe each other more than self-assertion. Insisting on my rights, even insisting on my rights as a Christian, Paul tells us, is a sign that something else other than the true God is being worshipped. Outside the love of Christ, I’m flirting with idols, no matter how certain I am that “no idol in the world really exists.”

For us there is one God, the Father,

from whom are all things

and for whom we exist,

and one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom are all things

and through whom we exist.


Can you believe how they turned?

Jonah and Nahum are neighbors in the Bible, they live on the same block, as it were, but they can be hard to find. Each book is only a few pages long, and flipping through the prophets you can easily fly from Obadiah to Habakkuk as though they weren’t there. The two share not only a scriptural neighborhood, they also each have an intense relationship with a city, Nineveh.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyria, a middle eastern power before the rise of the great empires of Babylonia and Persia. Geographically it was about where Mosul is today, in northern Iraq. For Israel, Nineveh was not just the name of a city; it had become a symbol of violence and oppression. Nahum’s entire proclamation is infused with pain and rage against Nineveh, the whore:

Doom, city of bloodshed—all deceit,
full of plunder: prey cannot get away.
Cracking whip and rumbling wheel,
galloping horse and careening chariot!
Charging cavalry, flashing sword, and glittering spear;
countless slain, masses of corpses,
endless dead bodies—they stumble over their dead bodies!
Because of the many whorings of the whore,
the lovely graces of the mistress of sorceries,
the one who sells nations by means of her whorings
and peoples by means of her sorceries:
Look! I am against you, proclaims the Lord of heavenly forces.
I will lift your skirts over your face;
I will show nations your nakedness and kingdoms your dishonor.
I will throw filth at you;
I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.

Only violence and public shaming for the city of murder and treachery, according to Nahum. The book ends without even a hint of pity,

There is no remedy for your injury; your wound is fatal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has not suffered from your continual cruelty?[1]

Nineveh was completely destroyed in 612 BCE and never rebuilt. In the imagination of many it remained as a symbol of brutal oppression until other cities of wickedness took its place like Babylon and Rome, all of them serving as examples of the fall of the mighty who refuse the demands of justice.

I suspect we wouldn’t be talking much about Nineveh anymore if the curious and delightful book of Jonah hadn’t given the city a very different treatment. Most of us know the story, not in great detail, but we’re familiar with the plot, especially since the children’s choir only a few months ago performed the musical version. The Lord told Jonah, “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.” And Jonah, instead of taking the road North, went West as far as his feet would take him, until he stood on the beach, with his toes touching the waves of the Mediterranean Sea; and that wasn’t far enough. He found himself a ship going to Tarshish, a port far beyond the horizon, at the end of the world, as far away as he could from the presence of the Lord. Jonah ran away to go where God was not, only to find out that there was no such place. Then of course there was the mighty storm and the waves threatening to break the ship in pieces, and Jonah telling the sailors, “It’s all because of me. The Lord wants me. Throw me overboard.” At first they wouldn’t, but then they did – and the sea ceased its raging. And then, well, everybody knows about the whale and how Jonah got swallowed up; and three days later the big fish spewed Jonah out upon the dry land – the very beach where his adventure at sea had begun. There he sat, whale slobber all over him, when the word of the Lord came to him a second time.

“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

And this time, Jonah went as he was told. Not a word in the story about how he felt or what was going through his mind. But you can’t help but notice that running from the Lord’s presence and call is not just really, really hard. It’s pointless; Jonah tried it. So he went to Nineveh and started proclaiming, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” That’s just eight words in English, five in Hebrew. Without a question the shortest prophetic utterance in all of scripture. Jonah didn’t scold or accuse his audience nor did he give any reasons for his announcement, he just made it. And not a word about how this was a campaign that took years given the size of the city and the evil ways of its population. No, Jonah made his announcement and the people heard it as a call to repentance and repent they did like nobody’s ever seen, a whole city – it was a prophet’s happiest dream come true. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes with his people. Now who’s ever heard anything like that? Then came the royal decree proclaiming a fast in the city, no food or water, only prayers and repentance; even cattle and goats covered with sackcloth, and you may think that’s a little over the top, and it probably was, but all in the city turned from their evil ways and from the violence on their hands.

“Who knows?” the king wondered. “God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.” When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Jonah didn’t like it; he was angry. Perhaps he wanted to see the city of bloodshed publicly shamed and humiliated, perhaps he wanted it destroyed.

Violence is a terrible temptation. For as long as human beings have lived in cities or been part of city economies, the city has been a symbol of prosperity and of systemic poverty, of freedom and of oppression, of community and of fragmentation. Nineveh, in the imagination of Jonah’s people, had become the epitome of an evil system: godless, unjust, violent, oppressive, and invasive.  

I’ll be traveling to Montgomery and Selma in a couple of weeks, and on to Jackson, Mississippi and Little Rock and Memphis, and in preparation for the trip I have read too much and not nearly enough about the struggle for civil rights and human dignity these city names represent. I have been particularly interested in how Christian faith shaped attitudes and actions or was shaped by them. It is hard to read the words of prophets fifty and sixty years later, knowing how few, how very few people in positions of privilege were willing or able to hear them. It is hard and it is humbling, because I ask myself, “Who are the prophets and which are the voices that I am ignoring or dismissing?”

Martin Luther King said to the brave ones who fought segregation with nonviolent means and organized for stronger communities,

Remember “that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who are caught in those forces. It is evil we are seeking to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. Those of us who struggle against racial injustice must come to see that the basic tension is not between races. (…) The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice.”[2]

It is so easy to confuse the unjust system with the people caught in it and to forget that when godless, unjust, violent, oppressive, and invasive systems fall, and fall they must, the people caught in them are men and women made in the image of God who desire to live and flourish.

At the end of Jonah’s very curious story, God has the final word, and God asks a question,

“Should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left (…)?”[3]

The book of Jonah keeps the door open for a different path than the inescapability of divine punishment for the worst of human injustice. Nineveh is more than a symbol, it is a city inhabited by human beings, and human beings, as much as we have been shaped and bent by unjust, evil  structures, human beings can change. Nineveh, the city of bloodshed that was destroyed never to be rebuilt, must not remain a paradigm for how the God of justice deals with human injustice. In the very curious book of Jonah, Nineveh thrived and flourished, because acts of repentance on earth were met by mercy from heaven. Nineveh, the city of “can-you-believe-how-they-turned?”

I mentioned that Jonah and Nahum are neighbors in the Bible, but not next-door neighbors; perhaps the wise ones who compiled the books thought Nahum’s vision of public shaming and destruction, and Jonah’s vision of repentance might clash, and so they inserted Micah between them. And Micah decries injustice and corruption in the cities with the passion of Nahum, but he also keeps the door open for hope, the small door through which the redeemer enters the city,

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?[4]

[1] Nahum 3: 1-6, 19 (CEB)

[2] From an article in the Christian Century, 1957; reprinted in A Testament of Hope, 8.

[3] Jonah 4:11

[4] Micah 6:8 (NRSV)


We are not our own

On Mondays, Katie, Greg and I meet to pick the hymns for the coming Sunday, and usually it’s a quick meeting. Katie comes prepared with a list of suggestions, and we talk about which hymns would best fit at what point in the service, and usually we’re done in under half an hour. Usually. But try to find a hymn that goes with fornication. Or perhaps I should rather say a fight song that strengthens our resolve to shun fornication, as Paul clearly urges his hearers to do in this morning’s passage from his letter (1 Corinthians 6: 12-20).

I thought I would talk about sexuality and spirituality today. Many seem to think that the two are worlds apart, and I thought I’d take Paul’s profound reflections on the body to explore how deeply connected they really are; then we’d sing “Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for thee,” consecrating our whole being to the glory of God. 

I thought I would talk about sexuality and spirituality today. But I couldn’t get Charlie Hebdo out of my head. In response to last week’s cowardly murders in Paris, the men and women who now create and publish the magazine, put together a special edition and started printing. Before the assault on its Paris headquarters, Charlie Hebdo had a circulation of around 30,000. They had planned to print a million, but quickly tripled that number. Yesterday the magazine announced it would increase the print run to 7 million to keep up with international demand. Purchasing a copy has become a statement against violent intimidation and for freedom of expression. I thought the cover was a moving tribute, very well done (compared to what they usually put out), but then I heard the first reports about demonstrations in Pakistan and elsewhere – many people were deeply offended. I’m still trying to understand if the offense is the depiction of the prophet Muhammad itself or a perception of disrespect in the caricature or both. I realized again how small the world has become and how little we know about each other’s worlds. In Europe, in Russia and the Americas we have a long tradition of satire, caricature, and political jokes; we poke fun at people in power and at things we hold sacred – and we defend freedom of expression, particularly when it comes to irreverent expression, or even tasteless and offensive expression – we defend it because tyrants will do anything to prevent it. We bring that history, that struggle for freedom to every conversation about the press or Hollywood or protest marches that slow down traffic just when we want to get home for dinner after a long day at work.

Tomorrow our nation observes Martin Luther King day to remember how costly the struggle for freedom is and that it is far from over, because none of us are truly free until all of us are. “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” Dr. King wrote in his letter from a Birmingham jail in 1963. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Charlie Hebdo: the inescapable network of mutuality has become global in ways unimaginable in the 60’s.

What does it mean to struggle for freedom today, to imagine freedom, to think and talk about it? Freedom is a key dimension of our faith, with more facets than I could name this morning, so here are just a few: The freedom to be who we have been created to be. Freedom from slavery and oppression. Freedom to worship God without fear. Freedom to hear and interpret God’s word. 

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul declares in his letter to the Galatians. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Freedom was very much part of Paul’s gospel proclamation: freedom from sin, freedom from death, the freedom to live as children of God through faith. But some believers in Corinth apparently were hearing a different tune: 

I’m free to do what I want any old time. The cross marks the end of the power of the law and I’m free. “All things are permitted for me.”

The only law still in effect in their circles was the law of desire, supply and demand. They ate what they wanted, with whom, when and where they wanted. Only weak believers had scruples about eating meat that had been butchered and prepared in pagan temples; they stood above that, they were strong. They also slept with whom they wanted. There were plenty of temple prostitutes and they hosted some of the best parties in town. The only law still in effect was the law of desire, supply and demand. I’m free to do what I want and am able to afford.

“All things are permitted for me,” they proudly declared, and Paul calmly added a caution, “but not all things are beneficial.”

“All things are permitted for me,” and Paul didn’t necessarily disagree with their slogan, but quietly replied, “I will not be dominated by anything,” reminding them and us that misdirected freedom can easily turn into servitude to compulsive desires more powerful than our will. We may think of ourselves as free masters in control of our fate when in reality we are slaves of our appetites.

For Paul, freedom is not independence or individual license. On the contrary, freedom is about belonging to nothing and no one but Christ. “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” he asks and he continues, saving for last the part most important and most difficult to hear in ancient and in modern times: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that you are not your own?”

We are not our own. In baptism we are set free from the powers that oppress us, but not in some abstract fashion so we can be whoever or whatever we want to be; we are set free by being made members in the body of Christ, and we are set free for being members in the body of Christ. We are free because we are his. We are free to become who we were made to be because we are not our own.

John Calvin wrote in the 16th century,

We are not our own; therefore, neither is our own reason or will to rule our acts and counsels. We are not our own; therefore, let us not make it our end to seek what may be agreeable to our carnal nature. We are not our own; therefore, as far as possible, let us forget ourselves and the things that are ours. 

Calvin continues with a second set of three brief statements, each one beginning, “We are God’s” – and that is of course as easily misunderstood as when Paul says, “we are free.” “We are God’s” is not spelled gods, but uppercase God’s.

We are God’s; let us, therefore, live and die to [God] (Rom 14:8). We are God’s; therefore, let [God’s] wisdom and will preside over all our actions. We are God’s; to [God], then, as the only legitimate end, let every part of our life be directed.1  

Men and women baptized into Christ don’t ask, “What is permissible? What is permitted, what is lawful, legal and what is not?” They ask, “How do we let Christ direct our life? How do we glorify God in our body – individually and collectively?” Paul picks up the thread from chapter 6 in chapter 10 where he writes, “’All things are permitted,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are permitted,’ but not all things build up. Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other” (1 Corinthians 10:23-24). Christian freedom presupposes an orientation toward the other and an obligation to foster his or her flourishing. Christian freedom is oriented toward the building up of a community that reflects our reconciliation in Christ.

So what does it mean to struggle for freedom today, to imagine freedom, to think and talk about it? I believe Christians have much to offer in those struggles and conversations, because the concept of freedom Paul gave us is not an expression of individual autonomy. Seeking to let Christ direct our lives to God we don’t strive to secure ourselves and thus increase rivalry, competition, and angry conflict. Our freedom is an expression of our belonging to Christ and in Christ, to each other. Dr. King called it the Beloved Community. In a speech in 1956, after the U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, he said, 

“the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of [humans].”


1 Institutes 3.7.1.

Divine Solidarity

We give you thanks, Eternal God,

for you nourish and sustain all living things

by the gift of water.

In the beginning of time,

your Spirit moved over the watery chaos,

calling forth order and life.

In the time of Noah,

you destroyed evil by the waters of the flood,

giving righteousness a new beginning.

You led Israel out of slavery,

through the waters of the sea,

into the freedom of the promised land.

In the waters of Jordan Jesus was baptized by John

and anointed with your Spirit.

By the baptism of his own death and resurrection,

Christ set us free from sin and death,

and opened the way to eternal life.

We thank you, O God, for the water of baptism.

In it we are buried with Christ in his death;

from it we are raised to share in his resurrection;

through it we are reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We say this prayer every time we have a baptism. Those who wish to live as followers of Jesus and members of his church come to the baptistery and before we lower them into the water, we give thanks to God – thanks for the good news of life’s creation and redemption, and for the water that flows through it all like a river extending from the beginning of time to the city of God.

Water nourishes, sustains, and protects life – in the sea, in the womb, and all over the earth. But water also drowns, overwhelms, and destroys life. We don’t think much about water when we turn on the tap and expect the goodness to flow, fresh and clean, warm or cold; but when the Cumberland rises after heavy rains and claims new banks far above Second Avenue, words like awesome and devastating quickly come to mind. Water runs through all our stories like a river from the beginning of time, and today we celebrate that Jesus stepped into that river.

In Mark, there is no Christmas story at the beginning; only a long-awaited messenger who appears in the wilderness. John called people out into the wilderness to repent and be baptized in the Jordan to be prepared for the coming of the stronger One, the One who would come and baptize them in the Holy Spirit. And they came, from Jerusalem and the entire Judean countryside; they headed down to the banks of the Jordan to listen to John’s preaching and be baptized by him. One by one they stepped into the water. They could smell wild honey on his breath, they could see the light of his eyes under the dark brows as they said what needed to be said. Then they let his strong, sun-burned arms plunge them beneath the surface, into the silent depth. Long ago, their ancestors had entered the promised land crossing this river between the wilderness and the land of milk and honey. Like them, the men and women who came to John wanted to begin again, they wanted to live as God’s covenant people on God’s land as though they had just crossed over into it. They prayed that the river would wash away their transgressions and their guilt and the shadows of all they couldn’t undo; they prayed they would emerge from the chilly depth with their lives scrubbed clean as new, prepared to face the coming One, the holy One who would set all things right.

Jesus came like the rest of them had come, walking on dusty roads, waiting in line in the heat of the day, and finally stepping into the water, like the rest of them. Jesus began his ministry where sinners gathered, ordinary men and women with the desire to begin anew. So many were gathered at the river, you couldn’t have picked him out from the many faces, and the way Mark tells the story, neither could John. Standing in the water, he didn’t realize that his arms were holding the one whose coming he had been announcing. He plunged him beneath the surface like the rest of them, into the cold silence, down into the darkness at the bottom.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

The beginning of the good news of Jesus is like the beginning of creation: Water, Spirit, and the voice of the One who creates, beholds, and names.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth darkness covered the face of the deep and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and God said: Let there be light! And there was light. And God saw that the light was good and called it Day.

Water, Spirit, and the voice of the One who creates, beholds, and names. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. God was delighted. And when Jesus emerged from below the face of the deep, God was delighted. It was a new beginning for the world, a new day.

Twice in the gospel of Mark, the divine voice from heaven speaks, here and at the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8); here only Jesus hears the words of delight, at the transfiguration, three of his disciples hear the divine voice. Twice in the gospel of Mark, a veil is torn, here where Jesus sees the heavens torn apart, and at his death when the curtain of the temple is torn and when the voice affirming that he is the Son of God is the human voice of a Roman soldier (Mark 15:38). What is merely opened can be closed again, but what has been torn remains open: in the life and death of Jesus the veiled mystery of God has been made manifest. God does not remain hidden in the heights of heaven, but descends to earth, to the depths of earthly human experience, in this man’s life, Jesus of Nazareth. The tearing of the heavens only Jesus sees and he alone hears the voice of affirmation, but the tearing of the temple curtain that eliminates the separation between the Holy of Holies and the world, the second tearing at the time of Jesus’ death is for all to see and the soldier’s human witness is for all to hear. In this man’s life God has come to us. Jesus Christ is the one who baptizes us with the Holy Spirit; the one who stepped into the river and let himself be baptized with us, acting in loving solidarity with all human beings, disappearing in the deep, not to be washed, but to drown and rise.

“You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” is what Jesus hears in the river.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him,” the disciples hear on the mountain.

“Truly this man was God’s Son,” is what all can hear, it is the testimony of men and women who recognize the Holy One in this man’s life, Jesus of Nazareth.

He made us all his own, the moment he stepped into the river. Because of him, we emerge from the water assured of our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters, assured of our kinship with God and with each other and with all those on the river banks hoping for a new beginning, a new life. Baptized into Christ, his life becomes ours, his story our story, his way our way. No matter who you thought you were before you were immersed in the life and death of Jesus, you are God’s own, God’s beloved, God’s child.

Many of you know Janet Wolf; she used to serve as the pastor of Hobson UMC over in East Nashville. Now she works for the Children’s Defense Fund, but our paths still cross now and then over at Riverbend prison, where the good news of Jesus has continued to draw us both. Janet tells the story of a woman named Fayette who one day found her way to the Hobson church. Fayette lived and struggled with mental illness and she was homeless. At Hobson, she joined the new member class, and of all the good things she learned the best was about being baptized. Again and again she would ask, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she would say, and then the class could go back to their discussion.

On the day of her baptism, Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, “And now I am…?” And all sang, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.” “Oh, yes!” she shouted while dancing all around the fellowship hall. Two months later, Janet received a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the hospital. Janet wrote,

I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, “I am beloved...” She turned, saw me, and said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and...” Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and…” She looked in the mirror again and declared, “…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!”[1]

Fayette had been pushed to the bottom of life’s river who knows how many times; the waters raged and the waves thundered over her violently, but she clung fiercely to her identity as a precious child of God. She refused to let anyone but Jesus tell her who she was. It’s how Fayette spells salvation: Don’t let anyone but Jesus tell you who you are.

[1] Janet told the story in Disciplines 1999 (The Upper Room). I stumbled upon it in Jan Richardson’s blog, The Painted Prayerbook


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.