What a light

A Guinness World Records official confirmed Monday that the Richards family of Canberra, Australia set the record for Christmas lights on a residential property with 502,165 twinkling bulbs strung on 31 miles of wire. The family first entered the famous record book in 2001 with 331,038 multi-colored lights. But they were trumped last year by a family in New York who illuminated their home with 346,283 lights.[1]

This year the Richards are back with 31 miles of wire and 502,165 twinkling bulbs. And we light one candle. Obviously, ours is a different story.

The first word for the church in Advent is the magnificent portrait of peace Isaiah has put before us: a vision of nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord’s house, uncoerced and eager to know the word of the Lord; a vision of the Lord judging between peoples, mediating between them; and of the nations finally being free to beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks – in days to come.

Why do we begin with Isaiah’s second chapter, and not the first? Perhaps because the first chapter is a vision of gloom we know like the back of our hand. Rebellion, sinful, iniquity, evil, corrupt, estranged – these are key words from just the first four verses, and it doesn’t stop there, twenty-seven more relentless verses follow. The country lies desolate. The religious festivals have become a burden the Lord is weary of bearing, because the city where righteousness is meant to lodge, is marked by injustice. Your silver has become dross, your wine is diluted with water, your princes are companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them. Line after line written with tears of fury and the fire of wrath. “The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them.” Thirty-one relentless verses, and then Isaiah abruptly stops.

It’s like he wants to start over, and quite unexpectedly, the scene changes dramatically. In the doom and gloom of human faithlessness and injustice, light shines, divine light. It’s not Isaiah who wants to start over; the vision is God’s who calls Israel and the nations to a future of peace. “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!” the prophet cries, and we hear the children sing in response, “Siyahamba! We are walking in the light of God!” We aren’t stumbling in the dark, groping around for the light switch, we are walking in the light of God’s promise and word, with our eyes lifted up and our faces turned toward the mountain of the Lord’s house.

A colleague in Memphis was on vacation in Maine. One morning he took the ferry to one of the islands. The sea was smooth as glass, mirroring the clear, blue sky. It made for a most pleasant crossing. The trip back later that day, though, was a different story. A front had moved in and where earlier there had been only a gentle breeze, there were now stiff gusts of wind.

“Still planning to go back?” he asked the man at the helm somewhat apprehensively.

“Oh yes, this is nothing,” he said with a smile. 

Before long, the sea became quite choppy and the intrepid adventurer from Memphis was starting to feel a storm brewing in the pit of his stomach. The captain took one look at him, noticed the slight hint of green in his complexion, and gave him a good word.

“Sit down, find a point on the shoreline and focus on it.” That’s exactly what he did. He sat down near the rail. Then he picked a spot, far away on the rocky shore, a sharp peak with a lighthouse on it, and he kept his eyes on it. The boat kept rocking and rolling, but he kept his eyes fixed on that point. Soon his stomach became calmer, his head cleared, and he began to breathe deeply.

“I’m going to make it,” he said to himself.

The word that Isaiah saw is a point on the horizon of time in turbulent days of injustice, fear, and war. We begin Advent, we begin the year, we begin again and again with our eyes fixed on God’s promise, not only to calm our storm-tossed souls, but to keep the goal in mind in everything we do. God’s future casts its gleam into this and every moment, and we move toward it by making our choices in its bright glow.And along the way, we light candles of hope and peace, one at a time.

The mountain of the house of the Lord, the spot on which we keep our eyes fixed, is a place of reconciliation. It has traditionally been a place of reconciliation between God and God’s people, but in this vision it becomes a place of reconciliation for all nations with God as judge. In this vision the judgment of God is no longer one of divine wrath poured out on a corrupt city. The divine judge is a mediator who builds bridges across divisions and helps the nations address conflict without creating more victims. How do we direct our footsteps toward this future of reconciliation and where do we find the courage to summon each other to go there?

Some of you will recognize her name, Ruby Bridges. She was one of four children to integrate New Orleans public schools in 1960 and the only black child to enter the William Frantz Elementary School that year. For days that turned into weeks and weeks that turned into months, this child had to brave murderously heckling mobs, there in the morning and there in the evening, hurling threats and slurs and hysterical denunciations and accusations. Federal marshals took her to school and brought her home. She attended school all by herself for a good part of a school year, owing to a total boycott by white families. Robert Coles, a young psychiatrist working in New Orleans, one day happened to drive by the school and he saw this crowd of adults heckling a little child. He was stunned by the evident dignity with which she comported herself, and he began to talk to teachers, to her family, and to Ruby herself. One of her teachers told him,

“I was standing in the classroom, looking out the window, and I saw Ruby coming down the street, with the federal marshals on both sides of her. The crowd was there, shouting, as usual. A woman spat at Ruby but missed; Ruby smiled at her. A man shook his fist at her. Ruby smiled. And then she walked up the steps, and she stopped and turned around and smiled one more time. You know what she told one of those marshals? She told him she prays for those people, the ones in that mob. She prays for them every night before going to sleep.”

When Coles spoke with Ruby she told him, “Yes, I do pray for them.”

“Why?” he asked her.

“Because.” He waited for more, but to no effect. He told her he was curious about why she would want to pray for people who were being so nasty to her.

“I go to church,” she told him, “every Sunday, and we’re told to pray for everyone, even the bad peeple, and so I do.”

She had no more to say on that score. But when the subject came up again she said, “They keep coming and saying the bad words. But my momma says they’ll get tired after a while and then they’ll stop coming. They’ll stay home. The minister came to our house and he said the same thing, and not to worry, and I don’t. The minister said God is watching and He won’t forget, because He never does. The minister says if I forgive the people, and smile at them and pray for them, God will keep a good eye on everything and He’ll be our protection.”

Coles asked her if she believed the minister was on the right track.

“Oh, yes,” she said; “I’m sure God knows what’s happening. He’s got a lot to worry about; but there is bad trouble here, and He can’t help but notice. He may not rush to do anything, not right away. But there will come a day, like you hear in church.”

There is bad trouble here, and God can’t help but notice. There will come a day. And Ruby lit a candle, and what a candle it was.

Robert Coles, looking back on this and many other conversations, later wrote, “If I had to offer an explanation, I think it would start with the religious tradition of black people (…) In home after home I’ve seen Christ’s teachings, Christ’s life, connected to the lives of black children by their parents.” [2] 

The courage we seek, the courage that might enable us to walk with Ruby toward the future of reconciliation is born out of the connection of our lives to Christ’s life. Christ has made us his own. The hill on which he was crucified isn’t much of a mountain in geographical terms and it isn’t the temple mount, but it is the mountain of the house of the Lord where the nations find reconciliation and peace. Jesus died surrounded by swords. A soldier pierced his side with a spear. Our tools of war surrounded and pierced the body of Jesus and they were melted into light, and what a light it is.

We begin Advent, we begin the year, we begin again and again with our eyes fixed on God’s promise of peace, not only to calm our storm-tossed souls, but to keep the goal in mind in everything we do. The future doesn’t belong to the powers of the world but to the maker of heaven and earth. The future is God’s; it casts its gleam into this and every moment, and we move toward it by making our choices in the light of its bright glow. We know how it ends. There will come a day. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!


[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/25/world-record-for-christmas-lights_n_4337137.html

[2] Robert Coles, The Moral Life of Children


Advent on your phone?

Perhaps you already have a hard copy of this year's Advent Devotionals from Vine Street. We thought that some of you might want to read it the electronic version (with pictures and pop up scriptures). This iBooks file works best on macbooks or iPads.

Download file


All will be thrown down

I couldn’t help but smile when I read our education update for this week, “We often hear from visitors that our physical space is breathtakingly beautiful, serene, and conducive to prayer.”[1] Our adult education team invited us to gather in the back of the sanctuary this morning to learn more about Vine Street as sacred space and how to read it – the windows, the columns, the aisles, the chancel, the carvings at the end of the pews. I couldn’t help but smile at God’s exquisite sense of humor. Here we are learning about the architecture of the sanctuary and the organization of liturgical space just when in our gospel reading Luke paints a scene for us in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem.

Jesus and the disciples were there during the final days of his ministry. When Jesus heard people speaking about the temple, its breathtaking beauty, its magnificent size, and the splendor of all the gifts dedicated to God, he said, with great calm, I imagine, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”

The temple in Jerusalem was still under construction then. It was one of Herod’s biggest and most ambitious projects, begun in the year 19 B.C.; the temple itself was completed in less than two years, but work on the outer courts and decorations continued until 64 A.D.[2] The temple was enormous. Some scholars estimate that the outer court could hold 400,000 people, and that at festival times it frequently held crowds of that size. The temple was also magnificent. The first-century historian, Josephus wrote, “The exterior of the building wanted nothing that could astound either mind or eye. For, being covered on all sides with massive plates of gold, the sun was no sooner up than it radiated so fiery a flash that persons straining to look at it were compelled to avert their eyes, as from the solar rays.”[3] It was a glorious space, reflecting in its splendor the very glory of God. It was also a space that didn’t reveal at first glance how it was being funded. In the same chapter, just moments before this scene, Luke shows us Jesus looking up and seeing rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”[4] The church has long held up this impoverished woman as an example of generosity and complete trust in God, but she passes through this context, quietly reminding us that Herod’s grand project came with a price tag; she put in all she had to live on, but he still put his name on it. The beauty of the temple was fraught with contradiction, and the gospel text won’t let us get away with sight-seeing without noticing the tension. The Jewish people knew it was a house for the name of God to dwell, but they also knew that Herod had reasons for building it that had little to do with God’s name and a lot more with his own.

“As for these things that you see,” Jesus said, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” They asked him for a forecast, for details of time and circumstance, for knowledge that would put an end to the uncertainties of their days. But the response he gave them and gives us is a warning, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.” In every generation there are those who worry about the end of things, who are tempted to read the news about wars, earthquakes, famines and plagues like a train schedule or a chapter from the history cook book – do not go after them, he tells us, follow me. You will experience moments and hear stories that break your hearts and drain your souls, and inevitably somebody will tell you that it all makes sense because all those events are mile markers along the tracks to the great and final day, but they are not. Follow me, stay with me, don’t confuse the kingdom of God with beautiful stonework or with neat systems of thought that fit together seamlessly like blocks in the temple wall. The days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down. The sacred space you know and love, he says, will collapse. Where you stand in awe today will one day be ruins. The ideas you have of God and how the purposes of God are being fulfilled – pretty buildings, all of them, they will fall. Every structure and system for housing the holy name will wear out its use, will disappoint and die. Follow me, he says, and learn to trust the faithfulness of God more than your ideas. Learn to trust the creative possibilities of God more than the limits of your own imagination.

Follow me, he says and he points to the city without tears of which Isaiah sang:

No more shall the sound of weeping be heard in the city or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime. No more shall they build and another inhabit; or plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent—its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

Isaiah takes us back to the beginning of our story in God’s garden; his song carries echoes of the great promise of life in communion and how sin disrupts the blessed conviviality. He sings of the tree and the serpent, and we remember the lies and the curses and the fury that turn Cain and Abel from brothers into murderer and victim – but now the song is not the sad old tune of the fall but the older and forever new tune of God’s faithfulness: “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth,” says the Lord. A city without tears and without temple, where humanity and God are at home. Jesus points to this wondrous city of peace and says, “Follow me.”

But we all notice a little hesitation in our step. It’s not that we don’t like the song, it’s quite lovely – but a world without violence, terror and fear is just a bit much to wrap our skeptic minds around. In fact, we find it much easier to imagine the whole world burning up in violence, terror and fear.

Only the young possess the simplicity

To accept a truth transcending rote and rule,

So that, like star-led shepherds, children see

The fact of miracle.

But logic, the sophist, clouds the maturing life, 

Caution replaces the fearless face of youth,

Till the sceptic mind prefers a plausible lie

To a fantastic truth. [5]

Plausible lies are things that appear to be real, valuable, and permanent like the thick walls of a temple. They are designed to help us in the mastery of ourselves and our world.[6] Plausible lies are lies because they continue the illusion that life can be mastered and that we are its masters. And plausible lies are plausible because they leave the promises of God out of the equation.

God promises the creation of new heavens and a new earth, but we hesitate, despite the tug on our hearts. Walter Brueggemann suggests that the vision in Isaiah “is outrageous because the new world of God is beyond our capacity and even beyond our imagination. In our fatigue, our self-sufficiency, and our cynicism,” we remain convinced “that such promises could not happen here.”[7]

But Jesus points to that promise, tirelessly, and he embodies the fantastic truth of God’s faithfulness to sinful humanity and to all God’s creatures, all the way to the cross. That scene in the temple, that teaching about the collapse of our religious constructs was among his final teachings before his arrest. What followed were rejection, betrayal, denial, torture and political theater. Sin had its way with him. Every lie, every injustice, every self-righteous illusion, every hateful word and angry blow – we let him have it. And he died because he bore it all.

But God, on the first day of the new creation, raised him from the dead, putting an end to the reign of violence, terror, and fear. What a fantastic truth.

Follow me, he says.


[1] http://www.vinestreet.org/education-updates/2013/11/12/vine-street-as-sacred-space.html

[2] Six years later in a Jewish uprising against the Roman occupation the entire structure was razed, leaving only portions of the outer wall standing.

[3] Josephus, Jewish War 5.222

[4] Luke 21:1-4

[5] G. S. Galbraith, “Fact and Wonder” Christian Science Monitor, Nov 25, 1959, in Peter Gomes, The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2002) p. 116

[6] Ibd.

[7] See Lectionary Homiletics Vol. XV, No. 6, p. 61


The Bishop and Lazarus

You’ve heard about the bishop in Germany who’s been suspended? He’s now spending some quiet time in a monastery in Bavaria. Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst “was said to have let the cost of renovating his residence and other church buildings balloon to more than $41 million. The projects drew ridicule in the German news media for luxuries like a $20,000 bathtub, a $1.1 million landscaped garden and plans for an 800-square-foot fitness room — as well as a cross to be suspended from the ceiling of a personal chapel, which necessitated the reopening of a renovated roof.”[1] The bishop has been suspended by his brother in Christ from Argentina who took the name of St. Francis when he became pope; and the expensive residence in Limburg may be “turned into a refugee centre or a soup kitchen for the homeless,” according to several European news outlets. Jesus needs better PR, some say, and the pope is doing a fine job.

I thought about Franz-Peter the bishop of Limburg, imagined him reading the gospel for All Saints day, Jesus looked up at his disciples and said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” I imagined the bishop reading this beatitude in his lavish personal chapel with the cross suspended from the ceiling and I wondered what happened in his heart when his lips formed those words. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” – did he think about his own hunger and how different it was from that of the members of his flock who were waiting for the soup kitchen to open? “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” Did the bishop weep? I hope the bishop is weeping now after he had some time to think about how he turned from a servant of Christ into a prince of the church.

When Jesus spoke these words to his first disciples he was looking at a group of men who had left everything – house and land, nets and boat and kin – they had left it all behind for the sake of God’s reign, for the sake of a family big enough for all, for the sake of him who brought good news to the poor, for the sake of a promise that life was meant to be different from the poverty, the hunger, and the tears they knew. When the bishop learns to weep, will he be counted among the blessed again?

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.[2] And Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Those who heard him were astonished and said, “No one has ever spoken like you. How can you call him blessed? He has no house, he has no family, he is sick, he must beg for food, and dogs are licking his wounds. Certainly he is the most cursed of men.” And again Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

Jesus’ life and words turn most available wisdom on its head. To some of us, Jesus sometimes sounds like he is completely out of touch with the way things work around here—and then there are moments when we notice that he is entirely in touch with a reality more promising and desirable than what is “around here.” Jesus flips our world upside down and shakes things up until we begin to see that it is not necessarily the top of the ladder that touches heaven.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

It is obvious what the bishop could do to offer mercy and justice to the poor man at his gate, but what gift has blessed Lazarus to offer the bishop? The more I think about it, the more I believe the gift is the same for both: the mercy and justice of God’s reign, the blessings of a family big enough for all, the peace of community redeemed and restored, the joy of heaven in the valley of tears.

Jesus spoke these beatitudes, the words of woe, and many other teachings while standing on a level place. Not from a mountain, but standing on a level place. I like to think of is as the level place where every valley has been filled and every mountain and hill has been made low, where the crooked has been made straight, and the rough ways smooth.[3] The level place where the powerful have been brought down from their thrones, and the lowly lifted up.[4] On the level place; face-to-face with us, all of us, the whole company of saints and sinners, hungry beggars and weeping bishops.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

It may be important to point out that Jesus didn’t say that poverty is blessed, or hunger, weeping, hate or defamation. He said, Blessed are you who are poor now, for the logic of the world does not apply in the kingdom of God. Everything is turned upside down and mercy reigns.

“God has a preferential love for the poor,” says theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, “not because they are necessarily better than others, morally or religiously, but simply because they are poor and living in an inhuman situation that is contrary to God’s will. The ultimate basis for the privileged position of the poor is not in the poor themselves but in God.” [5]

In the world the poor and hungry are pushed to the margins of attention and influence, but Jesus embodies and proclaims God’s reign in the world. The good news proclaimed to the poor is that the kingdom of God is theirs, and not the property of those who think they own everything worth owning in the world. The good news proclaimed to the poor is divine solidarity, the assurance that God is for them and with them, and not some day, but now.

The good news is not just a word spoken with conviction, but a word lived, a word lived by the community of saints who bear the name of Christ. The good news is a word lived by those who have gone before in faithfulness and hope, and by you who follow Christ today. The good news is lived by you who understand that Room in the Inn is not just an emergency winter shelter program, but blessed moment after blessed moment of Christ the host welcoming Christ the stranger, and in each encounter a seed is planted for a different kind of city, a family big enough for all. The good news is lived by you who begin to ask why so many individuals and families are homeless and why it is so difficult for so many of us to see our brother Lazarus at the gate and not just a poverty statistic.

Speaking of brothers, what about Franz-Peter, or as some have begun to call him, “the Bishop of Bling”? Is “Woe to you” Jesus’ last word for him or is he blessed?

He is blessed. How?

He is not alone in his episcopal palace, sitting in his $20,000 bathtub all by himself like some rich fool, thinking about what kind of wall to erect around his million dollar garden. He is not alone but has a brother who told him to take a sabbatical and go on a prayer retreat in Bavaria. He has sisters and brothers who remind him that the church is about power of a different sort.

He is blessed and we are blessed, every last one of us, in that we are not alone but made for communion, made for each other. We have a brother and Lord who will not leave us alone until God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. He speaks to us on the level place where those from the top of the ladder and those from the bottom of the heap meet face-to-face. He speaks to us on the level place where together we can imagine a future no longer shaped by greed and arrogance but by divine solidarity and compassion. He speaks to us on the level place where the weeping bishop and Lazarus come face-to-face and mercy builds a house and both are blessed.

What might Jesus say to them? “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”[6] Thanks be to God.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/24/world/europe/vatican-suspends-german-bishop-known-for-spending.html

[2] Luke 16:19-21

[3] Luke 3:5

[4] Luke 1:52

[5] Quoted in Culpepper, Luke (NIB) 145

[6] Luke 19:9-10


Brothers, perhaps

Two men went up to the temple to pray. It’s another story about prayer, after last Sunday’s about the very persistent widow. We’re told that this parable is particularly for people who trust in themselves that they are righteous and regard others with contempt. In Luke’s entire gospel, the word for regarding others with contempt is used only twice; here and again later when Herod and his soldiers ridicule and abuse Jesus. It’s a subtle reminder that the people we judge and regard with contempt are in the blessed company of Jesus.

This story about the two men going up to the temple to pray is quite dangerous. Some of us have heard it many times and we may be inclined to dismiss the Pharisee as a self-righteous, religious hypocrite, but then we leave this place of prayer with contempt in our hearts – which is not what Jesus has in mind for us. He keeps telling us this story, because he wants us to go home with mercy in our hearts and a more complete knowledge of God.

Two men went up to the temple to pray. Some of you may remember that years ago, I decided to name the two, Phil and Max. Phil is a Pharisee and Max a tax collector. Phil is a good man, and he knows it. He takes his religion seriously. He observes the prayer times diligently, he studies scripture daily, and he gives generously to help the needy. Phil is the kind of dedicated person of which every congregation and every community needs a few. He has taught Sunday school, he has been an Elder for several years, and when you talk to him about giving it doesn’t turn into a sales-job. Phil gets it. He is committed to his congregation; people like Phil hold any community together with their leadership and their example. Phil knows what is right and he does it.

Max, on the other hand, is not at home at the heart of the community. He collects taxes, and that doesn’t mean he got an accounting degree and started working for the IRS. Max works for the Romans. He has crossed the line by collaborating with the occupying power, helping to squeeze the local population in the name of the empire.

The Romans created a fairly simple and effective way of collecting taxes through a franchise system. Rome auctioned off the office of tax collector to regional brokers who then employed locals to do the dirty work. The local tax collector was given his quota, and nobody really cared how he managed to raise the amount. He set his own rate, and from whatever he was able to collect, he skimmed off his profits.

That’s what Max does for a living. You can imagine he doesn’t have many friends. He has betrayed his people by collaborating with the Romans, and to make matters worse, he profits personally from his neighbors’ suffering under pagan rule. Max walks down Main Street, and as soon as people see him, they cross to the other side of the road. Nobody wants anything to do with him. They view him as outside of all that is honorable, honest, and holy. Max is a sinner, and he knows it.

So the two went up to the temple to pray, and Phil, standing by himself, thanked God that he was not like other people but a good man. He recited two short lists, one telling of his great faithfulness in tithing and fasting, and the other naming the thieves, rogues, adulterers and this tax collector whose behavior was a disgrace and undermined faithful life in the community.

Max, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven. All he said was, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” This man, rather than the other, Jesus said, went down to his home in righteousness.

But for all we know, Max returned to his old life. The next morning he would get up again, collect a little more than his quota, hand over to the Romans what he owed, and use the rest to pay the bills and save for retirement. Max was not a good man and he knew it. And Phil was a decent man who, for all we know, returned to his life of religious observance and civic responsibility. Nothing really had changed, except of course some of our assumptions about what constitutes righteousness.

Jesus hasn’t been telling us this outrageous story so we would walk away saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like Phil, but rather quite humble in comparison.” Jesus is not a teacher of contempt, but one who will always stand with those whom we regard with contempt, whether it’s Max or Phil. He draws our attention to God’s mercy. He steps across the boundaries of what we consider honorable, honest, and holy, not to shame honorable, honest, and holy people or even those who like to think they are; he steps across to help us see that God’s righteousness does not exclude the sinner but overcomes sin for the sake of communion with all who live under the power of sin.

Phil’s prayer is short, and it begins beautifully, “God, I thank you.” If he kept his heart’s attention on the hands of God and on the gifts of God, he would never run out of things to name with gratitude. But his eyes are on his own hands and all he has to offer, and so the only gratitude he knows is for not being like other people. He looks around and compares himself to those who cannot measure up, and he is pleased with the difference, but he has lost sight of the hands of God.

Max doesn’t look around at all. His eyes lowered, gazing at his toes, he stands far off to the side, but his heart’s attention rests on God alone. When we pray with a sideward glance, comparing ourselves to others, finding those whose brokenness seems worse than our own and quietly saying, Well, at least I’m not like her, not like him, not like them; I may have my faults and failings, but compared to them … Thank you, God – when we pray with a sideward glance, Max becomes our teacher. Standing outside all that is honorable, honest, and holy he has no one to look down upon. All he sees is God and his need for God’s mercy.

Jesus dares us to imagine a different kind of community. Instead of a community of righteousness whose boundaries we negotiate with mercy given or withheld, he dares us to imagine a community of mercy that changes how we think about holiness and righteousness.

I named these two men many years ago, Max and Phil, but only recently have I begun to  think of them as brothers. It’s because of another story Jesus tells, in response to people who were grumbling about his habit of eating with sinners. It’s a story about a father who had two sons; the younger went to a distant country and burned through his inheritance while the older stayed at home and did everything he was supposed to. You know the story and how it ends with the father standing outside, pleading with the older son to come in and join the banquet. It’s Phil, and in his righteous anger he can’t see that mercy has prepared a banquet for all. He thinks that righteousness is something he possesses and his brother Max doesn’t, and he can’t see yet that righteousness is the new relationship the God of mercy is creating between them and between all whose lives have been fractured and divided by sin.

“We are saved by grace. That means that we did not deserve to be saved. What we deserve would be quite different,” said Karl Barth in a sermon. “No one can be proud of being saved. Each one can only fold [their] hands in great lowliness of heart and be thankful (…). Consequently, we shall never possess salvation as our property. We may only receive it as a gift over and over again with hands outstretched.”[1]

With hands outstretched not only to God, but to one another. Only mercy can teach us to pray, with empty hands outstretched, with our hearts’ attention resting on the hands of God, “God, we are all like other people, far from home and far from who you made us to be. Thank you for reconciling us in your righteousness.” Much of our salvation is about learning to say we again, standing on the common ground of our need for God’s mercy, standing in the company of sinners, knowing that Jesus is standing with us. None of us enter the kingdom of heaven, because we deserve to be there, but because Jesus has joined us in our lonely exile to heal what sin has torn asunder. He brings us together in the beloved community of forgiven sinners where we recognize each other as brothers and sisters.

Two men went up to the temple to pray. It’s another story about prayer, about Phil and Max and the rest of us. I’m making this one up, but not really. I see them going up together and stopping right by the gate. There, between the tall, massive columns the women and men hang out who long to come home but hesitate to enter, wondering if the rumors are true that the holy assembly is a place for sinners, wondering if the rumors are true that a banquet has been prepared for them.

“It’s true,” says Max, and Phil says, “Come on in!” and on the way to the table they pray, and all of us with them, as the Lord has taught his disciples, saying, Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

[1] Karl Barth, Deliverance to the Captives (Harper, 1961), p. 39



In the psalms we encounter voices of exuberant praise, voices of confident teaching, but also voices of lonely lament and questioning. The psalms give voice to the most trusting prayers and to the human soul’s wrestling with the silence of God.

How long, O Lord?

Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

this sorrow in my heart day and night?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

How long? How often has the question risen from the heart to the heavens, and there was no answer, only this outpouring of a longing to be noticed, to be remembered, to be heard and answered? How long, O Lord? How long until once again I can sing songs of joyful praise?

The psalm is in the holy book not just to give voice to our plea, but to let us know that God’s people, generation after generation, have let their questions rise, seeking answers, waiting for answers, day and night. “We have waited and prayed for justice so long, our knuckles are bloody from knocking on that door,” an old preacher sang from a pulpit in Montgomery some fifty years ago. Bloody knuckles from praying. Praise, of course, flies up like a bird on wings of joy and gratitude, but when prayer is little more than a heart’s cry for an answer, the night can be long.

You pray fervently that your friend will be cured of cancer and live; you pray like a warrior and the battle is fierce, but the longed-for moment doesn’t come and she dies, too young.

You pray for an end to violence and war, but how often is your hope snuffed by yet another news story about an attack on a village in Syria, a mall in Nairobi, or a school in Connecticut?

You pray, and sometimes you wonder if perhaps you should not be so bold in your prayers: lower your expectations so the stories of what human beings are capable of doing to each other don’t hit you quite so hard.

Why not stop longing for the world’s redemption and instead ask only for the strength to take whatever life throws at you? Or stop praying altogether?

Jesus knows our worries and he tells us a story about a judge and a widow. Widows in Jesus’ time weren’t necessarily old nor were they necessarily poor, but still they were in a very vulnerable position. When a man died, all his belongings became the property of his sons or brothers, and the widow depended entirely on them for her survival. You know what families can be like. The male survivors had certain responsibilities, based on law and custom, but that didn’t necessarily mean they took them seriously. Disputes involving widows and orphans were quite common, and it was the judges’ responsibility to help resolve those disputes in the community. Jewish law and tradition were quite clear about what was expected of a judge:

Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging: hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s.

Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the Lord’s behalf; he is with you in giving judgment. Now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God.[1]

It wasn’t just the part about the fear of the Lord this judge in Jesus’ story habitually ignored. He was a man without shame. Didn’t want to hear the widow’s case. Ignored her plea for justice. Pretended she wasn’t there. Pretended he wasn’t in the office. Wished she would just go away. But she had nowhere else to go. No friends in high places. No judicial complaint hotline. What she did have was this remarkable capacity to make a scene, and she made good use of it. She didn’t go away.

She knocked on his door, “Give me justice.” She camped out on the steps of the court, shouting, “Give me justice.” She followed him on the street on his way to lunch, “Give me justice.” She called several times a day and left messages on his voice mail, “Give me justice.” Even on the golf course she found him, shouting, “Give me justice.” She was unrelenting, untiring, insistent and shameless.

And she finally wore him down. No, the judge didn’t suddenly discover that he had a conscience, nor did he suddenly develop a reverence for God and respect for others, no, he just wanted to get her off his back. He finally did the right thing – for the wrong reasons, but still, he did the right thing. Now, Jesus said, if the worst judge you can possibly imagine will respond to the persistent plea of a widow, how much more will God grant justice to you, God’s children, who pray night and day? Will God delay long in helping you?

Luke says, the story is about our need to pray always and not to lose heart. To pray boldly and tirelessly. To pray trusting in God’s faithfulness and in God’s desire for justice. To pray as if the coming of God’s reign depended on nothing but our prayers. To let our longing for the kingdom rise from our hearts, to ask, to seek, to knock with unrelenting persistence like Sheldon outside Penny’s door.

There’s a story about Mother Teresa and a legendary Washington attorney who was the lawyer for Frank Sinatra and Richard Nixon, among others. He was an influential member of the Knights of Malta, a Catholic lay order dedicated to serving the sick and the poor. Mother Teresa was on a fundraising tour for an AIDS hospice, and she had made an appointment to ask for a contribution. Before she arrived, the attorney and his partner quickly rehearsed a polite refusal; they agreed that they would hear her out but say no.

Then she came in. The little nun in front of this enormous desk, solid mahogany, heavy as a rock. Behind it, the man to see. She made her pitch, with urgency and kindness, and the famous attorney apologetically, but firmly, declined.

“Let us pray,” said Mother Teresa and bowed her head. The attorney looked over at his partner, and the two men bowed with her. When she was done, she looked up and made exactly the same appeal. People were dying of AIDS, many of them had been pushed out by their families, many of them were poor, they needed a place where they could die surrounded by love. Again, the Washington lawyer politely declined. Again, Mother Teresa said, “Let us pray.”

“All right, all right,” he said, perhaps he knew the story, and he opened his checkbook.[2]

Do you know what they say about the bulldog’s nose? It is slanted backward so it can breathe without letting go. Pray like a bulldog. Pray with the unrelenting insistence of this little nun. Pray with the doggedness of the widow. According to Luke, that’s what the story is about. Pray always and don’t lose heart.

But that’s not all. It’s quite a privilege to reflect on the state of our prayer life while many a widow is struggling to have enough to eat and a place to call home. The widow in the parable is not just an illustration for good prayer habits, she’s also a human being crying out for justice, and she’s alone. Yes, she keeps coming, she keeps shouting to move a judge who cares nothing for God and neighbor, but her persistence also moves you and me. She is making a scene to remind us that God’s reign of justice is among us, and that we are to allow God’s compassion to rule our actions. She invites us to pray like her, but she also urges us to pray with her, to join her in wrangling justice from broken institutions that reflect no fear of God and little respect for the dignity of human beings.

We must be persistent in prayer because the night of waiting can be long, and because in prayer we engage with the living God whose promises we trust and whose purposes we want to serve. Prayer keeps the flame of hope alive. In prayer we let the priorities of God reorder our own priorities. We ask how long, we seek with honesty, we knock on heaven’s door, and we keep at it until the questions come back to us.

I walked with that little story, I sat with it, I meditated on it, I turned it round and round in my heart, and then it turned my heart around and God came to me in the widow – persistent, unrelenting, determined to get my attention, asking, seeking, knocking on my door.

“How long will you hide your face from me,” she asked. How long must children in this city go to bed hungry? How long must old men wander homeless in the streets? How long must I bear this sorrow in my heart day and night and you, you do not know? Look on me and answer.

Sometimes we pray just to try and keep our head above water and breathe while the world is flooding in on us. Sometimes all we want from our prayers is the assurance of God’s love in a world that’s going nuts. But Jesus reminds us of our need to pray always so the promises and purposes of God can reorder the priorities of our lives. We lift up our prayers for justice, for the coming of God’s reign, for daily bread and forgiveness, and as we knock on heaven’s door we hear the knocking from the other side, God’s persistent, unrelenting, and redeeming presence that calls us to work and pray with Jesus.


[1] Deuteronomy 1:16-17 and 2 Chronicles 19:6-7

[2] Evan Thomas, The Man to See: Edward Bennett Williams (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1992) p. 390


See you, see me

On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.

In geographical terms that region between is hard to find, so hard that you have to make it up. It’s like trying to drive through the region between Tennessee and Alabama – there is no region between, but there is a line, and in the case of Samaria and Galilee, it runs between two groups of people who haven’t been friendly with each other for longer than anyone alive can remember.

Why would Luke write about a region where there is none? Some of his readers suggest with an apologetic tone that the author wasn’t from around those parts, wasn’t familiar with the land between Galilee and Jerusalem. Others notice that Luke’s odd geography serves a theological purpose. That line between the two groups is not as clearly drawn as the state line between Tennessee and Alabama, but it nevertheless defines memories and habits of interacting and imaginations. It’s a line not so much on the land as it is one in the heart.

Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross, and we know that’s more than a journey across a piece of Middle Eastern geography. He’s on his way to be crucified, condemned by every earthly power, from Rome’s imperial interests to religious traditions and public opinion. He’s on his way to die a terrible death, pushed outside all the lines we use to define the boundaries of human community. Jesus is on his way to be completely excluded through betrayal, denial, ridicule, torture and silence. On his way to Jerusalem he travels through the region between, letting his feet trace the lines that divide us, with his hands stretched out to either side in the most vulnerable gesture of reconciliation, all the way to the cross. The region between is the place of Jesus’ ministry.

By making up a region between Galilee and Samaria Luke also subtly reminds us that there are people in that no-man’s-land, people who belong neither here nor there, people who would disappear altogether if mercy didn’t have eyes. The region between is the invisible land where invisible people live, untouchable people, unmentionable people – or perhaps I should not say they live there, but rather that they long for life there.

Jesus comes through the region on his way to Jerusalem and ten men with leprosy approach him. It doesn’t matter anymore what side of which border they once came from; if they had been poor or wealthy, pious or irreverent, highly educated or illiterate. It doesn’t matter who they used to be or who they could have been; their skin shows marks that isolate them completely by rendering them ritually unclean. Whoever they used to be, now they are untouchables. They have been pushed out for fear of pollution and contagion and left to wander in the region between. Jews and Samaritans had been unfriendly neighbors for many generations, but both groups honored the law of Moses that declared,

Persons who have the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of their head be disheveled; and they shall cover their upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” They shall live alone; their dwelling shall be outside the camp.[1]

These ten whose dwelling had been outside the camp for who knows how long approached Jesus, crying out his name, crying out for mercy. Jesus, we read in Luke, when he saw them, said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus saw them, which is no small thing in a world where so many people and things cry out for mercy, and yet remain invisible, their cries swallowed by silence. Jesus saw them, and he told them to show themselves to the priests. It was the priests’ responsibility to examine the skin of those who thought that the rash had healed, the spot vanished, the blemish disappeared. The priests were the gate keepers who determined who could be restored to life in the community. Go, said Jesus, show yourselves to the priests. And as they went, they were made clean.

The ten, after their encounter with Jesus, returned to life, no longer invisible and untouchable. Imagine, one of them walked through the door, hugged and kissed his wife and they didn’t let go till the cows came home. Another picked up for the first time the child that was born while he was gone. Yet another walked across the market to the synagogue where he hadn’t been able to pray for years; he stood on the threshold, tears in his eyes. More than one of them danced around the bonfire in which the torn clothes of their exile went up in flames. They were alive, they were at home.

Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. All ten cried out for mercy, longing for life; and all ten were made clean. But one of them saw something the other nine didn’t. One of them didn’t simply return to the life he once knew; he returned to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice. One of them returned to the region between where life cries out for healing and fulfillment and where God’s kingdom is present in the person of Jesus.

He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.

You remember that other story of a Samaritan who saw what others didn’t or wouldn’t see, don’t you? The one about the man who fell into the hands of robbers who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead? You know the story. First a priest happened to come down that road, and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Next a Levite came to the place and saw the man, and he passed by on the other side. And then a Samaritan came near, and when he saw the man, he was moved with pity. Three men saw a wounded man by the side of the road, but only one saw a human being crying out for mercy, and that one was a Samaritan.

Jesus tells us two stories where the despised outsider sees what the insiders do not see, do not want to see, or perhaps cannot see. It was one from the other side of the line who grasped that love of neighbor doesn’t stop at the line. And again in the story of the ten it was a Samaritan who saw and recognized the meaning of Jesus.

Ten cried out for mercy. Ten were made clean. Nine went home and lived happily ever after. One returned and praised God because he had seen the presence and reign of God in Jesus. One returned, glorifying and praising God for what he had seen, much like the shepherds who had found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger, just like the angel had told them. Good news of great joy for all the people. A Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord has come to the region between not to pass through, but to heal, restore, and fulfill life for all the people.

The story of the one in ten is probably not a story about statistics, claiming that only 10% of all the people who have encountered Jesus actually get what his presence and actions mean. But it is another story indicating that the meaning of Jesus is better seen on the margins, from the perspective of shepherds, tax collectors, and Samaritans, the perspective of those whom Jesus sees but who are otherwise ignored, scorned, untouched. This story and others invite us to look at the people who live on the margins of our communities and who are treated as invisible, and to see them through the eyes of mercy, the way Jesus looks at them.

But not only that; the stories also invite us to look at Jesus from their perspective; to discover the fullness of salvation with them, with their stories, their experiences, their songs and prayers of thanksgiving.

And there’s yet another dimension: the line that divides us and keeps us cut off from life in fullness is drawn not just between us and them or around memories, imaginations or habits of interacting with others. The line runs through our own souls. There are parts of ourselves that are being pushed to the margins of attention by others, perhaps even by ourselves. There’s the region between the glory of who we ourselves can accept ourselves to be and that other side of us, that other person, the stranger inside we’d rather not have in our story – the man with the imperfection, the woman with the blemish. How tempting to think that God only wants to see the side of us that shines, the moments that make us proud, and not the parts we would rather keep invisible.

But the good news of great joy for all the people is that Jesus has come to the region between not to pass through on the road to glory, but to heal and reconcile what sin has broken, to bring wholeness to what we can only see as divided, within and around us. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the cross, and we know that’s more than a journey across a piece of Middle Eastern geography. On his way to Jerusalem he travels through the region between, with his feet following the lines that divide us, with his hands stretched out to either side in the most vulnerable gesture of reconciliation, all the way to the cross, erected outside the city gates, outside the camp, any camp, outside all that defines the boundaries of human community – and there God’s faithfulness prevails. There divine mercy sees us in all our violent pride and helplessness, sees and receives the whole ugly and painful truth of sin and heals us. So, yes, make a joyful noise, all the earth; sing the glory of God’s name. Amen.

[1] Leviticus 13:45-46


Thank God for the Table

We Disciples are people of the table. Anytime we gather for worship, we gather around the table of Christ. That’s not to say that we aren’t people of the book who listen carefully for the word of God when Scripture is read. Nor is it to say that we aren’t people of the cross who see the mercy of God revealed in the life and death of Jesus. Nor is it to say that we aren’t people of the living word whom we follow and obey. Nor are we saying that other traditions within the church aren’t people of the table. Rather our particular Disciples witness among our brothers and sisters is that all of us are indeed people of the table. Our unity in Christ is not reflected in a book of confessions or a book of common prayer, a catechism or a list of fundamentals, a hymnal or a bishop. Our unity is embodied in our coming to the table where Christ is the host and the gift. Our unity is lived before it becomes a matter of belief and division and labor for reunification.

When Disciples are asked about our particular witness within the one church of Jesus Christ, we point to the table. More than by any particular doctrine or set of doctrines, we are people shaped by this meal we call the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, or Communion. And we proclaim the gospel of salvation in terms of God’s desire to heal our sinful divisions with the radical hospitality of God’s mercy. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” Jesus’ opponents grumbled, and we gladly make their angry complaint our grateful confession.

World Communion Sunday was first celebrated by the Presbyterian Church in this country, but it was quickly adopted by other traditions and by the body which later became the National Council of Churches. World Communion Sunday is a special Sunday in many churches around the globe, but for us Disciples, it has become one of our high holidays. We remember and give thanks that the table is not ours, yet entirely for us; the table is not the church’s but God’s for all the world’s peoples. It is a table of reconciliation, set for us right on the lines that divide us from God and from one another, in the shadow of the cross and in the light of the first day.

We come to the table with thanksgiving for the ministry of Jesus Christ who restores and renews all of creation; with thanksgiving for the church’s witness in worship and service around the world. We come with deep gratitude for the tangible assurance of forgiveness the table represents; for the solemn proclamation of the Lord’s death until he comes; for the joyful celebration of God’s new creation in the midst of the old; for the foretaste of the heavenly feast on earth. It’s World Communion Sunday and so we come to this moment primed to explore the fullness of joy and fellowship of eating at the welcome table. Until the gospel is read and we have heard Jesus’ “who among you” question and all that follows.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’” Do you cringe when you hear this question? I do. At one level Jesus is talking to the apostles, asking them to imagine themselves to be masters, slave-owners, small landowners who have just one slave to do all the work in the field and around the house. Is he also asking you and me to pretend for a moment that we are masters whose slave is coming in from a hot day of plowing or tending the sheep? Is he also asking you and me this rhetorical question whether we would say to our slave, “Come here, get some rest, get something to eat”? If that’s what’s going on here, he better be ready for me to say, “Well, yes, I think I would fix some dinner for the two of us and the rest of the household, and then we’d all sit down and eat and drink.” But Jesus insists that I stay in character, hard as that might be, and perhaps it wasn’t quite as hard in the first century when the entire economic, political, and social reality was organized around master/slave relationships. He insists that you and I stay in character and know that our role requires that we say to the slave, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink.”

And then Jesus asks, “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” You may want to say yes, but by now you know that you’re probably supposed to say no; you’re a slave owner, after all, and the slave only did what was expected. Perhaps you caught the end of that question where Jesus speaks of doing what was commanded. That’s the point where the whole thing flips.

You can stop trying to pretend you’re a slave owner, because now Jesus addresses you as a disciple who knows the commandments, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.”

Now this short scene is nobody’s favorite Jesus story, but it’s part of his teaching whether I like it or not. It is good for us to think about our obligations as servants of God and what motives we have for doing what God commands. Do I expect to be recognized for doing what is my job as a disciple of Jesus? Will there be a disciples hall of fame in the kingdom? Do I expect God to be grateful? What does that even mean? Those are good, important questions to ask.

We have heard the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and we understand that God’s commandments call us to see the great chasms between us and to reach across them with kindness. We know that Jesus commands us to forgive again and again, it’s what disciples do. Fred Craddock says in his commentary,

There is no place or time, therefore, at which the disciple can say, “I have completed my service; now I want to be served.”[1]

Yes, we are called to serve, and our service is not a part-time job or a hobby, but an essential aspect of how we live our days in relationship with God and with one another. Service is not just something we do but at the heart of who we are; we are servants.

All the more important then, how we think about the master of all these servants. Is he a master like the slave-owner in the scene Jesus describes in his teaching? Is he one who sits and commands and waits to be waited on and waits for us to say, “We are worthless slaves”?

Worthless. In some of the early gospel manuscripts the word has been erased from the text, probably because the scribes who copied them understood that no one for whom Jesus died can be called worthless, no matter if it’s another person who does the calling or they themselves. Worthless doesn’t sound like lowly or humble which certainly belong in the gospel vocabulary. Worthless triggers echoes of replaceable, disposable, expandable, useless, throwaway. Worthless is a terrible word when used for a human being, or for anything else God has made, for that matter.

The master/slave relationship defined life in the Roman Empire in significant ways; it was so commonplace that it found its way into many of Jesus’ stories. It was a reality his audience was familiar with, but it wasn’t a reality he sanctioned.

Thank God for the table where the imagery of master and slave is shattered. Thank God for the table where the conventional arrangements of who eats first are overturned. Thank God for the table where the master and his servants gather, and the cross is not far, and they eat and drink together. “Who is greater?” the Master asks, “the one who is at the table or the one who serves?” We have all been taught well in the school of power and status, and we’re all ready to shout the right answer; it’s how the world works after all!

But Jesus speaks before we can repeat again the answer the masters of the world have taught us to give, and he says, “I am among you as one who serves.”

In the kingdom he proclaims and lives, there is no upstairs and downstairs. His kingdom isn’t an empire of masters and servants. His kingdom is one in which we learn how to serve one another by following the master who is among us as one who serves. The table is his and he invites the nations of the world to come from east and west, from north and south, to eat and drink in the kingdom of God, and the master, the Prince of Peace waits on us.


[1] Luke (Interpretation), p. 200


The Man with the Hammer

Numbers can be numbing. 870 million people in the world do not have enough to eat. 3.1 million children under five die each year because of poor nutrition. [1] 783 million people in the world are without access to clean drinking water. [2]

Numbers can be numbing. Years ago, Annie Dillard wrote,

On April 30, 1991 – on that one day – 138,000 people drowned in Bangladesh. At dinner I mentioned to our daughter, who was then seven years old, that it was hard to imagine 138,000 people drowning.

“No, it’s easy,” she said. “Lots and lots of dots, in blue water." [3]

Numbers can be numbing. Who can imagine 138,000 people? Somewhere in the United States there’s a city with a population of 138,000. Who can imagine an entire city washed away in one day?

Annie Dillard wrote,

There are 1,198,500,000 people alive now in China. To get a feel for what this means, simply take yourself – in all your singularity, importance, complexity, and love – and multiply by 1,198,500,000. See? Nothing to it. [4]

But we cannot multiply singularity, importance, complexity, and love with a simple mathematical equation. In order to get closer to the reality of a life lived or barely lived at all, we must look into faces, we must learn names, hear stories, hold hands, look at pictures, stay in touch. Quick multiplication won’t do it, only slow, attentive addition will, one plus one plus one…

I’m intrigued by the fact that the poor man at the gate in Jesus’ story has a name. We live in a world where the rich have names and the poor are statistics. The rich have their names listed in Fortune magazine and written on buildings on college campuses. Tour busses drive by their homes and the guides point to the gates and speak their names and everyone on the bus knows who they are. The poor are nameless and countless, but Jesus tells a story of a nameless rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. A rich man dressed in purple and fine linen, feasting sumptuously every day, and Lazarus, covered with sores, lying at the rich man’s gate, longing for crumbs from the rich man’s table. Ever since I first heard this story as a child, I thought of the dogs licking his sores as kind, caring creatures, kissing poor Lazarus’s boo boo to make him feel better. The scholars tell me that I might be mistaken about the motives of these half-wild scavengers who search the streets for something to eat.

Lazarus died, and Jesus doesn’t tell us if he died of starvation, or if one of the sores got infected, or if it was one of those nights when temperatures outside the gate dropped into the upper 20’s. Lazarus died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died, but no angels came to carry him away. He died and was buried. Period.

Both died, and at the moment of death a surprising reversal took place. Lazarus’ suffering was over, and the rich man was in agony in the flames of Hades. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,” the rich man called out. You have to wonder how long he had known that name – Lazarus – and if he had ever spoken it before. And when had he last spoken of mercy? And why didn’t he say, “Lazarus, would you come over and help a brother out?” Why did he ask Abraham to send him? Had he been shaped by a life of privilege to such a degree that still he could think of Lazarus only as a servant to be sent?

Abraham responded to his cry, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Who was it that fixed the great chasm? It had been there all along, only now the opportunity to reach across it with a helping hand was past. Now the time to bridge the great chasm with kindness and mercy was over. Abraham is stating the terrible fact that opportunities to overcome the great divide between comfort and agony once abounded, but now it is too late.

In Anton Chekhov’s story, Gooseberries, Ivan remembers something his brother had said,

“Apparently those who are happy can only enjoy themselves because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and but for this silence happiness would be impossible. It is a kind of universal hypnosis. There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, catastrophe will overtake him – sickness, poverty, loss – and nobody will see it, just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortunes of others. But there is no man with a hammer, the happy man goes on living and the petty vicissitudes of life touch him lightly, like the wind in an aspen-tree, and all is well." [5]

We don’t know if Lazarus bore his burdens in silence. We don’t know if the rich man ignored the poor man at his gate, stepped over him on his way to work, or if the poor man’s poverty and need had blended into the background of the rich man’s life, as much part of his world as the sun by day and the moon by night. We don’t even know if the rich man was happy. All we do know is that he was well-dressed and well-fed and that Lazarus was neither, and when the great reversal came it was too late to do anything about it.

The rich man said to Abraham something like, “There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of each of my five brothers, to remind them by his constant knocks that there are people in great need. Send Lazarus that he may warn them.” And Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”

The commandments are clear: Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. [6] The prophets’ words are constant knocks at the gate: Share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. Alas for those who (…) lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, (…) who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of my people. [7]

“No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

Will they? Will we? Jesus who told us this story, Jesus who lived and died for the kingdom of God, was raised from the dead. The question is, are we listening to the man with the hammer? Are we making the best of the time given to us to bridge the great chasm that separates us one from the other? Are we grieved enough over the existence of that abyss to do what we can to reach across? Are we in tune with the vision that sees every valley lifted up and every mountain and hill made low? [8] Are we lending a hand to help build bridges of mercy, bridges of reconciliation, bridges that bring us back together or are we sitting idly by on the rim of the great abyss, numbed by the numbers or happy enough with the way things are?

I listen to myself, and my hand goes up and I say, “Preacher, you are talking about some very complex issues. Poverty, hunger, homelessness – those are problems with muliple layers, and we need to study them carefully and consider all the possible ramifications of our actions. We can’t just do something.” True. Poverty is not a simple matter of the rich are blessed and the poor are not. The things that separate us one from the other are multilayered clusters of histories, causes, motives, and visions. But lying at the gate is not a bunch of issues and problems; lying at the gate is a human being with a name. Lying at the gate is a person with dreams and needs, a person of singularity, importance, complexity, and love.

This story Jesus tells us is not an invitation to speculate on the nature of heaven or hell, nor is it a call to go and solve the world’s problems. It’s a call to repent. It’s a call to refuse to sit in the loneliness of our wealth and our poverty, and to walk instead the path of reconciliation God cleared in Jesus. It’s a call to discover building beloved community as the work of Christ and as our way of life.

One of America’s saints wrote in a letter from jail,

I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. [9]

His name was Martin, and we remember him because he was grieved over the ruin of the people and refused to sit idly by. He responded to Jesus’ call to repentance and reconciled community, and his first step turned into a movement of tens and hundreds of thousands of bridge builders. Because we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality every step of courageous love one of us takes toward another moves us all one step forward; and because we are tied in a single garment of destiny no act of kindness is ever lost. So imagine a sunny morning with the rich man stepping out of his gated life and saying, “Good morning, Lazarus. Come on in, tell me your story. I just made a fresh pot of coffee.”


[1] http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats

[2] http://www.unwater.org/statistics_san.html

[3] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 46

[4] Annie Dillard, For the Time Being, (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), p. 45

[5] Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries, 1898 http://www.online-literature.com/anton_chekhov/1290/

[6] Deuteronomy 15:7

[7] Isaiah 58:7; Amos 6:4-6

[8] Isaiah 40:4

[9] Martin L. King, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963



What an economy

JPMorgan Pays $920 Million to Settle London Whale Probes was the headline on Bloomberg News on Thursday.[1]

Senior executives had evidence by late April 2012 that traders in the chief investment office in London were pricing a derivatives portfolio in a way that reduced reported losses (…) The losses at the unit, which was supposed to help reduce risk and manage excess deposits, forced the bank to restate results for last year’s first quarter.

It was a loss of over six billion dollars. Didn’t anybody notice? Executives at the biggest U.S. bank engaged in what watchdogs called a “pattern of misconduct” by maintaining poor internal controls, failing to keep their board informed and allegedly misleading regulators. 

There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.

God obviously has a great sense of humor. The London Whale is on the news, we’re meeting in Sunday school to talk about business ethics, about honesty, respect, stewardship, and fairness, and Jesus tells us a story that has puzzled his disciples for as long as records of disciple puzzlement have been kept.

Charges were brought to the rich man that his manager was squandering his property. So he summoned the man and said to him, “What is this I hear about you? Show me the books, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

It starts like a story about holding management accountable, but who would use it as a case illustration in a class at the business school or the law school? Or who would dig it up in Sunday school in a class on business ethics? Jesus does. He loves this kind of stuff. Messing with our expectations. Flipping over the tables. Changing the conversation.

We know he can be quite clear and directive in his teaching, saying things like,

When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Love your enemies.

Turn the other cheek.

Sell what you own. Give it to the poor. Follow me.

His stories, though, are different. His parables look like small fry at first glance, two verses, eight verses long, but every time you turn them, they grow bigger. Big as whales, and very playful whales at that. They invite us to talk, to consider, to reason together, to look from this angle and that, to keep wondering, and – perhaps most important of all – to resist the urge to wrap things up neatly with a simple moral.

Charges had been brought, and the rich man asked for the books. That’s all we’re told. Jesus doesn’t tell us if the charges were true or who brought them. He doesn’t tell us if the manager had been charged for being inept or corrupt. Squandering could mean he had missed his earnings goals for five consecutive quarters or that he had been quietly lining his own pockets with what belonged to the master.

“What will I do, now that my master is firing me as his manager?”

Perhaps you’re alarmed that this is a world in which a manager can simply be sacked on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, but that’s not the story Jesus wants to tell us. He wants us to see a man running out of time, making urgent decisions under the pressure of a world coming apart.

The manager doesn’t have the back nor the arms for manual labor. He’s ashamed to beg. He worries, he agonizes, he thinks, his options are very limited, but suddenly he has a bright idea. He makes a few phone calls. One by one he meets with each of the rich man’s creditors and writes off their debts of olive oil and wheat. Again, Jesus doesn’t tell us if we’re looking at lease agreements or loan documents, but the rates are awesome. If you’re trying to renegotiate your mortgage because home values have plummeted, a 20% adjustment of the principal is pretty significant, and a 50% cut is, well, hello sweet Jesus Hallelujah it’s Christmas.

“How much do you owe my master?”

“Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.”

“Take your contract, sit down quickly, and write four hundred fifty gallons.”

Some who have read this story have suggested that the manager was cutting the interest, others that he was cutting his own commission, and again others that he spent his final day on the job doing what he had done before, squandering his master’s property. Plenty of angles to look at this scene, but whatever it was he did, one thing is clear: he scratched some backs; he feathered his nest; he made sure there would be some open doors when the door to his office closed behind him. He may have been a crook, but he sure knew how to make the best of a critical situation! Only that’s not the end of the story; there’s one more line:

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Now the cat is out of the bag, he was dishonest – but he’s being commended by his master! Now if you want to tell stories to encourage honesty and accountability among managers, the last line should probably go something like,  “And when his master found out, he threw him in jail until he had payed back every ounce of olive oil and every grain of wheat he owed.” And if you want to tell stories that stick it to the man and bring smiles to the faces of share croppers, the last line to wrap things up nicely would be, “And the rich man in the city never knew that the books had been cooked.” But this is Jesus’ story and he ends it with a master praising a crooked manager for acting cleverly. And then he takes a half step out of the story and says, “I wish the children of light were as clever with things of the kingdom as the wheeler-dealers in the world who get up every morning scheming for a buck, focusing every ounce of energy on scrambling to the top of the heap. I wish God’s people would be just as focused, creative and energetic for the beloved community.” And he adds, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

What is he saying? Use dirty money for godly causes? Some people, and not just in London or New York, made a lot of money with mortgage-backed securities in the years before the collapse, so now they are to make friends with it by building shelters for the homeless so they may welcome them into the eternal homes? What does he mean by dishonest wealth? And why would he encourage his followers to use it?

“Dishonest wealth” sounds too much like money made by cheating, and it is not a good translation of the Greek. A better translation would be “the money of this unrighteous age.” Jesus is not talking about “dishonest money” versus “honest money,” but about the currency of this age versus the currency of the kingdom. When we ask questions about management or business ethics, he talks about kingdom ethics and a whole new economy of righteousness.

The gospel helps us see that we are standing on the threshold between the age of unrighteousness and the age to come where righteousness is at home. The manager in Jesus’ story had just been shown the door, was standing on the threshold, realizing that the world as he knew it was coming to an end, and he jumped into action. Cleverly he used the tools his master had put at his disposal to make friends among the master’s creditors. He invested in the world to come.

And that is, Jesus hopes, what the clever ones among the children of light will do. This world and all of its glory – and unrighteousness – is dying right before our very eyes, and God’s new creation, the kingdom of rightousness, the city of peace is at hand. The clever ones among the children of light realize that a new wisdom, a new ethic, a new economy is being summoned, and they invest all they have in the world to come.

What might that look like in our daily life? Tom Long, for several years now has loved to tell the story of one of his students, and I have retold it before. It has a pay phone in it, and I want to tell it one more time while a good number of you still know what a pay phone is and how it works.[2]

Tom’s student was the son of a city pastor. One Christmas vacation, he was at home with his family and spent an afternoon talking to his father about ministry. They talked about seminary and about the challenges of ministry in the city and the struggle for justice. As the conversation continued late into the day, father and son decided to get some fresh air by taking a walk around the neighborhood. As they walked, they continued to talk together until they started to get hungry. The father said, “Let’s call the pizza place and order a pizza. If we’re lucky, it’ll be there by the time we get home.” So they walked over toward the nearest pay phone, only to encounter a homeless man blocking their way.

“Spare change?” the man asked.

The father reached deeply into his pockets and held out two handfuls of coins.

“Here, take what you need,” he said to the homeless man.

“Well, then, I’ll take it all,” said the surprised man, sweeping the coins into his own hands and turning to walk away.

Before he had gotten far, though, the student’s dad realized that he no longer had any change to make the phone call.

“Excuse me,” he called after the homeless man. “I was going to make a phone call, but I have given you all my change. Could I have a quarter?”

The homeless man turned around and walked back toward father and son, extending his hands. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

A glimpse of the kingdom, if you will squint to see it. A view of the old world passing away, and the world to come emerging. Strangers making friends for themselves, each saying to the other, “Here, take what you need.” What an economy that is.


[1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-09-19/jpmorgan-chase-agrees-to-pay-920-million-for-london-whale-loss.html

[2] Long, Thomas G. “Making friends.” Journal For Preachers 30, no. 4 (January 1, 2007): 52-57.


Sabbath Peace

How long does it take for a woman to bend under the weight of her life?

I saw the picture of a teenage girl carrying an enormous bundle of branches on her back. The bundle looked like a solid column, eight feet long; it reminded me of the rolls of carpet I have seen sticking out of the backs of trucks. Only this wasn’t a truck, it was a girl. I read the caption: “My name, Amaretch, means ‘the beautiful one.’ I am the youngest of four children in my family. Today, I spent from 3 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon collecting the branches of eucalyptus trees which people use as firewood. I will sell this big bundle at the market and with the money we can buy food for my family for a couple of days.”

Amaretch, ‘the beautiful one’ lives in Ethiopia, and every day, girls and women like her from the shanty towns of the capital Addis Ababa climb the mountain to gather firewood and carry it back to the city. Even the younger ones have little time for school. How long does it take for a girl to bend under the weight of her life until she is quite unable to stand up straight?

I once sat in a circle with a group of colleagues, at a nice conference center, far from anything resembling a shanty town. We sat in a circle, all of us facing to the middle, where a young woman sat alone on a chair. We were to name the spirits that bend human beings, and we were supposed to do it not in the abstract with names like poverty or colonialism. Instead, we were to recall words we had heard and images we had seen over the years, some blunt, others very subtle; we were to recall the small, daily things that cast shadows on the divine declaration that we are creatures made in the image of God.

There were baskets with shawls, and every time one of us named one of the spirits that bend us, he or she placed a shawl over the young woman’s head. The shawls were light as gossamer, almost weightless, but there were many. Layer upon layer covered her head, her arms and shoulders, and soon she began to bend under the weight, unable to see and breathe. She disappeared. We could barely hear her voice from behind the thick veil. She was no longer present as a person, but as a barely visible body, bent by crippling spirits.

The woman who appeared in the synagogue where Jesus taught that day had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. We don’t know how old she was, if she was in her 20’s, 30’s or 50’s. We don’t know if she was married or not, if she had children or not, if she came from wealthy home or if she had to beg for food. All we know about her is that for eighteen years she was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Whatever it was, it controlled her; it burdened her, bent her double, and blocked her. She could not walk upright. Her horizon had narrowed. She could direct her gaze only to the ground below. She knew people not by their faces, but by their feet. Had her neighbors gotten used to her being bent? Did they take notice of her or did she always stay below their line of sight? What nicknames had the children made up for her? Did they tease her from across the street or whisper behind her back? Was she in constant pain? Eighteen years of this had redefined normal for her, perhaps she could not even imagine any other way of seeing or being in the world.

But Jesus could and did. When she appeared in the synagogue he saw her and called her over. Perhaps you wonder why he called her to come to him rather than going to her. Did he do it to make sure everybody took notice? How long did it take her to make her way through the congregation, shuffling all the way from where she was to where Jesus was sitting? Did the crowd part before her, or did she have to say, “Excuse me” again and again? And Jesus, did he get up from his chair or did he get down on his knees so he could see her face?

I can’t imagine him standing there and declaring above her bent body, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” He could have done that from across the room. Everything I know about Jesus tells me that he looked into her face when he spoke to her; that he held her hands in his when he declared her free from her crippling bondage; that he rose slowly, raising her up with him until she unbent and stood up straight – and immediately she began praising God. Her lips spoke words of wonder, perhaps she shouted, perhaps she sang, her whole being became praise – but none of her words were remembered, no part of her witness to God’s liberating grace in Jesus was written down. Not one syllable.

Instead of the joy of life restored we get an argument. Joy must wait. Not that the objections of the leader of the synagogue are more important than her witness, but they are serious. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” The seventh day was set aside by God for rest, and keeping it holy meant refraining from work. The sabbath day was a day of rest for human beings and even for their farm animals. For one day each week, God’s people were to live not by the work of their hands, but solely by the gifts of God. For one day each week, God’s people were to experience the freedom of complete dependence on God. Thus we must not assume that the leader was an obstinate contrarian; he had the holiness of God’s commandment and the holiness of God’s people on his mind and in his heart.

It was fine for Jesus to study and teach on the sabbath, but healing was a more complicated topic. The common understanding of the sabbath commandment was that medical emergencies could be and even had to be attended, but that chronic illnesses were a different matter. Non-emergencies could wait. In the leader’s mind, Jesus could have said, “Woman, come and see me tomorrow.” After eighteen years, what’s one day, after all?

But Jesus didn’t wait. And that doesn’t mean he became an advocate for a more relaxed attitude toward the sabbath and for opening the day of rest for business. He added his voice to the ongoing debate about sabbath observance: Who wouldn’t untie their ox and donkey from the manger on the sabbath in order to lead them away to give them water? Untying farm animals and leading them to the water on the sabbath was common practice, and not only was it considered permissible but necessary for the animals’ well-being. If we can see the need to untie a thirsty animal, how can we not see the need for a human being to be unbound and released? Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

At the beginning of his ministry, in his hometown synagogue, Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). Today, he said. His coming marked the beginning of the today of fulfillment. It was time for every child of Abraham to taste the sweetness of sabbath. It was time for every daughter and son of Abraham to be set free from bondage: releasing the captives doesn’t taint  the holiness of the sabbath day – on the contrary, it finally brings the sabbath peace to the bound and the bent.

The sabbath is a day of rest and remembrance, but also of promise. The sabbath is a foretaste of that seventh day when humanity is at peace in God’s creation. The sabbath is day of rest for the weary and forgetful, but also a day to immerse ourselves in God’s promise.

The sabbath is a day to stand up and raise our heads and lift up our eyes and lift every voice and sing – in the great company of those from whose shoulders the yoke of oppression has been lifted. To sing, even though our own lives are still weighed down with worries, cares, and fears. To sing even though lovelessness and injustice still bend the world into oppressive structures. To sing with the woman whose name and witness never became part of our sacred tradition, but whose healing and redemption is also ours.

Jesus held her hands in his when he declared her free from her crippling bondage, and rising slowly, he raised her up to her full stature and dignity as a daughter of Abraham and a child of God. We sing, our hands in his, rejoicing because he lifts up all who are bent by unbending ways. With her we sing of the One who bends toward us with great tenderness and the power to make whole.


Paul's Appeal

David Walker was born in Wilmington, NC, in 1785. His father was a slave, but since his mother was free, he also was free in the eyes of the law. In 1829 he published the first thoroughgoing critique of slavery written by a black man. He called his book Walker’s Appeal … to the Coloured Citizens of the World.

Man, in all ages and all nations of the earth, is the same. Man is a peculiar creature – he is the image of his God, though he may be subjected to the most wretched condition upon earth, yet the spirit and feeling which constitute the creature, man, can never be entirely erased from his breast, because God who made him after his own image, planted it in his heart, he cannot get rid of it. The whites knowing this, they do not know what to do, they know that they have done us much injury, they are afraid that we, being men, and not brutes, will retaliate, and woe will be to them. (…) See your Declaration Americans! (…) Hear your language, proclaimed to the world, July 4th, 1776 – “We hold these truths to be self evident – that ALL men are created EQUAL!! that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!!” Compare your own language above, extracted from your Declaration of Independence, with your cruelties and murders inflicted by your cruel and unmerciful fathers on ourselves on our fathers and on us, men who have never given your fathers or you the least provocation!!!

According to a biographical sketch accompanying Walker’s Appeal, the little book produced more commotion among slave holders than any volume of its size that was ever issued from an American press. A year after its publication, the author was killed, apparently a victim of murder.[1]

We cannot read Paul’s letter to Philemon without remembering the long struggle in this country for black slaves to be freed from bondage, and for their descendants to finally be free citizens among free citizens.

“What, to the Slave, Is the Fourth of July?” asked Frederick Douglass in 1852, assailing American Christianity,

The church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. … It is … a religion which favors the rich against the poor; which exalts the proud above the humble; which divides mankind into two classes, tyrants and slaves; which says to the man in chains, stay there, and to the oppressor, oppress on; it is a religion which may be professed and enjoyed by all the robbers and enslavers of mankind; it makes God a respecter of persons, denies his fatherhood of the race, and tramples in the dust the great truth of the brotherhood of man.

In his biography, Douglass tracked the scandal of slavery all the way to the sanctuary, the pulpit, and the offering plate:

Revivals of religion and revivals of the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. [2]

We cannot read Paul’s letter to Philemon without remembering how Paul’s writings were read, how Scripture was read in the years before the Civil War. According to Henry Ward Beecher, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, and the North’s most renowned preacher, the biblical witness was clear. In a sermon delivered on a national day of fasting on January 4, 1861, he declared that the evil for which the nation most desperately needed to repent, “the most alarming and most fertile cause of national sin,” was slavery.

Six weeks earlier, at a day of fasting called by the state of South Carolina, the South’s most respected minister, James Henley Thornwell, spoke before his Presbyterian congregation in Columbia, reassuring them that slavery was the “good and merciful” way of organizing “labor which Providence has given us. … That the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God, we have long since settled.”[3]

All read the same Bible and claimed to surrender to the authority of scripture, but the conflicting interpretations did nothing to end the public deadlock, or worse, helped deepen and maintain it. We know how it ended. The preachers along with their congregations “effectively handed the business of the theologians over to the generals to decide by ordeal what the Bible meant.”[4]

Brother Thornton, a Baptist preacher from Richmond, correctly stated in 1860 that “when Jesus ordered his gospel to be published through the world, the relation of master and slave existed by law in every province and family of the Roman Empire, as it had done in the Jewish commonwealth for fifteen hundred years.”[5] Did Jesus say anything against slavery? No. Did Paul or any of the Apostles say anything against slavery? No. Did Paul not send the slave Onesimus back to Philemon, thus showing that the relation betwixt the slave and his master is not inconsistent with the word of God? Yes he did, but he had more to say about that relation, revolutionary details that the proof text collectors for slavery conveniently ignored or simply didn’t catch.

Owning and using men and women as slaves was commonplace in the ancient Mediterranean world. Some estimates put the number of slaves in the Roman Empire at 35% to 40% of the population. The practice was so much part of daily life that it rarely became an object of reflection. No government ever thought of abolishing the institution that was such an essential element of the economic and social reality. Yes, there were slave-rebellions in the ancient world, but none were caused by the desire to abolish the institution as such.[6]

So Paul did not turn his letter to Philemon into an abolitionist treatise. Instead he sent Onesimus back to Philemon; and though there are hints in the text that Paul desired freedom for Onesimus, he did not say so explicitly. He did however give the church an example and a lesson for how our being in Christ transforms our relationships, even the relation betwixt master and slave.

Paul writes that Onesimus has been separated from Philemon “for a while so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but . . . a beloved brother.”  It is not entirely clear how Onesimus came to be separated from Philemon, if he was sent to be of service to Paul or if he was a run-away.We only hear just enough to suggest that Onesimus is estranged from Philemon, and from a legal stand-point, Philemon can do pretty much anything he wants with respect to Onesimus, it is his right.

But Paul’s perspective is different. I see him standing between Onesimus and Philemon. With one arm he embraces Onesimus, “Here he is, my child, my very heart. I have become a father to him in my imprisonment. I would much rather keep him with me, but I send him back to you.” With the other arm he embraces Philemon, saying, “You are my dear friend and co-worker in Christ’s mission, and while I could command you to do your duty, I much rather appeal to you on the basis of love. Welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account.” Paul says without stating it explicitly, at least not here, “Look at us, Philemon, all of us, you, me, my dear Onesimus, your fellow leaders Apphia and Archippus, the church gathered in your house, look at us. We are one in Christ, and in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, only sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. I won’t tell you what to do, but look at us and think about it.”

I’m afraid this is the part Brother Thornton and his fellow proof text collectors missed. Reading scripture is not just a matter of what we read, but how we read – and as Christians we only read scripture well with the cross in view and Easter morning in mind. Pauls brief letter challenges Philemon and us with him to consider the radical transformation of all social relationships through our baptism into Christ. Philemon is a master in the world of Roman law and tradition, he is a man of power and privilege – and in the church, he’s a brother among brothers and sisters, and one of them is a man he may still be thinking of as his property. Paul doesn’t tell Philemon what to do, but he reminds him who he is and trusts that he will learn to act accordingly.

We can of course continue to treat scripture as a quarry for proof texts to bolster our interests, but we cannot do so as people whom Christ has drawn into reconciled community with God and with each other. Faithfulness now requires that we read scripture together with all, especially with those whom the laws of state, society and market push to the bottom and the margins. We are one in Christ, by the grace of God, and that puts into question all the ways in which we define relationships along lines of our own making. Christ whom we crucified like a rebel slave has made us his own.


[1] See Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2003), p. 59-63

[2] Hughes, p. 80

[3] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006) p. 2

[4] Noll, p. 160

[5] Cotton is king, and pro-slavery arguments: comprising the writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on this important subject, by E. N. Elliott, Augusta, Georgia: Pritchard, Abbott & Loomis 1860, p. 506-508

[6] See S. Scott Bartchy, Mallon Chresai: First Century Slavery and the Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:21. Dissertation Series, Number 11 (Missoula, MT: The Society of Biblical Literature, 1973), p. 116-117


The fool in the flame

There’s fire flashing through the speech of Jeremiah and Jesus, holy fire, dangerous fire. Fire is bright and warm, a symbol of hearth and home, and fire is uncontrollable, uncontainable, unquenchable. What fire do you see when you listen to the words of Jesus and Jeremiah?

Moses saw the fire before he heard any words. He was keeping the sheep of his father-in-law Jethro when something caught his attention: the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. “I must turn and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up,” he said. But then God called to him out of the bush, saying, “I have observed the misery of my people and I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” God sent Moses to Pharao to bring God’s people out of Egypt. For Moses, the curious fire of the burning bush became a fire within as he set out to serve God in the struggle for liberation of God’s people.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, angels and shepherds saw the fire. “Glory to God,” the angels sang, “and peace on earth!” Both heavenly and earthly voices praised God for sending the one who would “guide our feet into the way of peace.”

We have to admit we’re more than a little shaken by Jesus’ own words that come to us from further down the road to Jerusalem, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” he asks, “No, I tell you, but rather division.” What happened to peace on earth?

We shouldn’t be surprised, though. When his parents took Jesus to the temple to be dedicated, old Simeon, holding the baby in his arms, said to Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Division was part of his life from the beginning. Perhaps you remember his first sermon at home in Nazareth, when people were ready to hurl him off the cliff after hearing what he had to say.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Yes, we do, because we long for harmony, but we easily forget that it’s a costly peace that disturbs the status quo and awakens the powers that oppose God’s reign. Not everyone welcomes God’s peace in the person of Jesus, and even the ones who do, don’t do it all the time. Jesus’ ministry triggers resistance and rejection. We easily forget that Jesus didn’t come to validate the social realities we have constructed, but to set them on fire with his life of compassion and justice. “Five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; father against son and daughter against mother.” Jesus’ mission results in disputes and divisions as people are either embraced or repelled by what God is doing through him.

Perhaps he sounds extreme because he has to push back against the meek and mild projections of our religious imagination – we rather like a nice Jesus who is kind to us and a little stricter with others. But the peace of God doesn’t make nice with the power of sin. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, on the way to the ultimate confrontation between God and sin.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” What kind of fire is that? Is it the fire of judgment that rained out of heaven on Sodom and Gomorrah? Or is it the fire after the final harvest when the wheat is gathered in and the chaff is burned?Is it the fire that purifies, the fire that burns “thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine” as the hymn puts it? Or is it the fire on the mountain, the fire of divine presence and revelation that sets the bush ablaze without consuming it? Is it the fire of the word that burned in the hearts of the prophets? Or is it the fire of deliverance, the pillar of fire by night which led the Hebrews from slavery to freedom? “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” John the Baptist said of Jesus, and we are left wondering if perhaps the fire Jesus came to bring was the wildfire of Pentecost. I’m not sure we have to choose one or the other. Actually, I think it is very good for us to hear all those fiery echoes when we listen to Jesus, and to hear them anew in light of his life, particularly in light of his cross and resurrection.

“I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” Jesus is speaking of the baptism of costly peace in which God swallows sin’s deadly, destructive power for the life of the world. He is speaking of the fire of judgment and deliverance, the fire of purification and of the Spirit. The fire we encounter in Jesus is the fire that lit the bush where Moses took off his sandals; it is the fire that illumined the path for the Hebrew slaves on their way to freedom; it is the fire that burned in the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; it is the fire that God kindles for the sake of life and peace. There’s a fire burning in the world, a fire that heavy blankets of oppression cannot smother and even the shroud of death cannot snuff. The fire is the whole life of Jesus revealing the heart of God.

We call them cool 
Those hearts that have no scars to show 
The ones that never do let go 
And risk the tables being turned

These are the opening lines of a song Garth Brooks co-wrote with Jenny Yates in 1993.

We call them fools 
Who have to dance within the flame 
Who chance the sorrow and the shame 
That always comes with getting burned

This is not what’s commonly called a Christian song, but with just a little twist in your listening you can hear it sing of the fool who dances within the flame, chancing the sorrow and the shame of the cross for love’s sake.

We call them strong 
Those who can face this world alone 
Who seem to get by on their own 
Those who will never take the fall

But we know that the ones who seem unable to resist love’s pull and who forsake it all for love’s sake, draw strength from a source that is closer to life. The chorus ends with the lines,

Life is not tried, it is merely survived
If you’re standing outside the fire.

I know it’s not everybody’s cup of tea to think about Jesus between the lines of a country song, it certainly isn’t something I’d want to do on a regular basis, but I admit that I like the image of Jesus living his life dancing within the flame and drawing us in so we can stop pretending we can get by on our own, so we can find life in fullness with him.

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus knows that the invitation to live with him in expectation of God’s coming kingdom creates divisions. They are not the purpose of his mission but the consequence of decisions we and others make in response to his proclamation and his call to follow him: We must decide whether to remain standing outside the fire or to dance within the flame; whether to pretend that we can face this world alone or to give ourselves in love to God and neighbor; whether to shield our eyes from the world’s brokenness, or to trust in God’s promise and power to redeem and renew the world; whether to play it safe in our own little worlds and survive, or to live at the dawn of God’s kingdom. There will be divisions between those who consider Jesus an unwelcome disturbance of what they like to call peace and those who follow him in order to live in God’s shalom, the peace that includes all of creation and surpasses all understanding.

The Gospel of Thomas is an early Christian collection of sayings of Jesus, and one of them sounds very similar to what Jesus said in today’s passage from Luke: “I have cast fire upon the world, and see I am guarding it until it is ablaze.”

Jesus came to bring fire to the earth, and in many places the flames are burning brightly: Fires of compassion, fires of courage, fires of truth-telling, fires of patience, fires of reconciliation, fires of hope. In other places, the flames are low, small and blue, barely visible until you get very close – but Christ is guarding them. The little flames are fueled by faith, and the angels are holding their breath and watching us – and every time one of us takes one step closer to one of the little blue flames, they sing. They sing because Jesus is guiding our feet into the way of peace. They sing because once we step into the flame it will burn a little brighter.


Faith in the City

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Some of us know that line by heart. We’ve seen it written on greeting cards, cast in plaster, cross stitched on sofa pillows, and printed on coffee mugs.

It sounds like a definition, but it’s a door in a house with many rooms. The writer of Hebrews has already written about confidence and assurance, about the confessing of our hope without wavering, about provoking one another to love and good deeds and not neglecting the habit of meeting together, about endurance and not shrinking back – all of which are doors to the reality of faith.

Faith is about trust and obedience, loyalty, faithfulness and belief, and faith does things, it hopes, it sets out, it dares, it waits, it shapes our thinking, speaking, and doing. Yes, faith is something we have and do, but because it is what keeps our hopes from being empty and vain, it is also something that has and holds us. The writer of Hebrews wants to encourage us to live with our eyes open not just to current circumstances, but to the future, always trusting that God will keep God’s promises.

Reading chapter 11 of Hebrews, is like finding yet another door open and stepping into a kind of Hall of Fame with plaque after plaque reminding us of the heroes and heroines of faith who have gone before us. We read about Noah, Moses and the Israelites, Rahab, Gideon and Samson, David and Samuel and the prophets, and all they did and suffered. Faith, we understand now, is not captured by definitions but in lives faithfully lived.

I was still studying for my final exams at the university, when my friend Monika was preparing for her ordination. We had been in a study group together, and she asked us each to choose a passage from Scripture that we would read and briefly comment on during the service. I chose a passage from Hebrews:

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

I chose that passage because it spoke to our sense of not quite being at home where we were; it spoke about our desire for a better country, and about servants of God and a church ready to live in tents, as it were – prepared not to settle down as long as God was calling us out, and never to settle for a faith that trades looking forward for looking inward. Faith gives substance to our hope. For me faith continues to be the tenacious longing for the city that has God’s name written all over it, the city whose architect and builder is God.

The cities dotting the biblical landscape, much like our own cities, contrast starkly: Babel, Sodom, Bethel, Corinth, Rome, and Jerusalem. Our own history of suspicion about cities and their harmful potential often leads us to assume that the landscape of faith is composed of ‘green pastures’ and ‘still waters,’ but that rather romantic view is woefully one-sided. The Bible has more to say about cities than it does about the countryside.[1]

One of the major tensions in Scripture is presented as a contrast between two cities, Babel and Jerusalem, because the problem with the city, according to biblical tradition, is the problem of power. I’m painting in very broad strokes here, but Babel is biblical shorthand for a city whose architects and builders are human beings with great ambitions, great technological capabilities, and a limitless capacity for idolatry. Jerusalem is not the golden city, not by its own merits anyway; it is the city that kills the prophets, but it is also the city where God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead, and where the Risen One told the disciples to stay and wait until they had been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). A better power for a better city. The way I read it, Jerusalem is Babylon redeemed. Jerusalem, the holy city coming down out of heaven from God, is the human city redeemed and renewed, the beautiful bride of Christ. All of the pilgrims of faith, we read in Hebrews, “all of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them.” From a distance they saw and greeted the city that embodies the consummation of all history. The story of humankind begins with a garden and ends with a city.

The prophet Zechariah declared (Zechariah 8:3-6),

Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets. Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me?

Faith is the tenacious longing for the city that has God’s name written all over it. Now I want to talk about Detroit for a moment. I hear the news out of Detroit, and I pray. I am reminded of a passage from on of T. S. Eliot’s poems:

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
And the Stranger will depart and return to the desert.
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.[2]

I hear the news out of Detroit and many a city in this country and around the world, and I pray that in them there are men and women who are looking forward to the city whose architect and builder is God, men and women who are ready to answer the Stranger, “This is a community. And even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, our hope is founded in God who keeps promises.”

Babel is biblical shorthand for a city whose architects and builders are human beings with great ambitions, great technological capabilities, and a limitless capacity for idolatry.

In his novel World’s Fair, E. L. Doctorow takes us to the 1939 World’s Fair in New York:

We rode across the Bridge of Wheels and got out, of course, at the General Motors Building. That was everyone’s first stop … In front of us a whole world lit up, as if we were flying over it, the most fantastic sight I had ever seen, an entire city of the future, with skyscrapers and fourteen-lane highways, real little cars moving on them at different speeds. … This miniature world demonstrated how everything was planned, people lived in these modern streamlined curvilinear buildings, each of them accomodating the population of a small town and holding all the things, schools, food stores, laundries, movies and so on, that they might need … It was a toy that any child in the world would want to own. You could play with it forever … it was a model world.[3]

In the 1920s most Americans moved by rail. Two hundred fifty thousand miles of heavy rail were in use across the nation in addition to extensive inter-urban lines that served regional travel needs. Within the cities electric streetcars were the principal form of transportation. Alfred P. Sloan was president of General Motors in those days, and automobile sales were stagnating. Only one in nine American households owned a car at that point, but few people considered purchasing one, since American public transportation was second to none. In 1922 Sloan formed a special task force within GM dedicated to replacing the local and regional passenger railways with cars, trucks, and buses. By 1936 GM had acquired New York Railways and run it into the ground. In the same year it formed, together with Firestone and Standard Oil, National City Lines, a holding company that proceeded to acquire and dismantle one hundred urban rail systems in forty-five cities across the country. In 1949 GM was found guilty of criminal conspiracy for its actions, but its “model world” of Tomorrow Town continued to shape urban development in the U.S.  Under President Dwight Eisenhower, an Advisory Committee on a National Highway System was formed and retired general Lucius D. Clay was appointed to chair it; he also had a seat on the Board of Directors for General Motors. In 1956 Eisenhower signed the National System of Interstate and Defense Highways Act, authorizing the construction of 41,000 miles of roadway, the largest peacetime public works project in the history of the world.

It may still be too early to grasp the full impact of those decisions for America’s cities, but we know that the suburbs boomed; and the sad irony is that Detroit became the poster child of urban abandonment.

The problem with the city, with every city, is the problem of power – but in faith we trust in the power of God and the divine promise to redeem what the power of sin has destroyed. The story of humankind begins with a garden and ends with a city, the heavenly Jerusalem, the beautiful city of God.

Ellen Davis compares Jerusalem to an icon: a holy, healing image that invites us into a different experience of the world and our place in it.[4] It is an icon that prepares our soul for the coming of the Stranger who knows how to ask questions. When he says, “What is the meaning of this city?” We will answer, “This is a community. We’re all at home here.”

[1] See William P. Brown and John T. Carroll, “The Garden and the Plaza: Biblical Images of the City,” Interpretation (January 2000), p. 4

[2] T. S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock (1934)

[3] E. L. Doctorow, World’s Fair (New York: Random House, 1985), p. 252-253

[4] See Ellen F. Davis. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Kindle Locations 2420-2426). Kindle Edition.


Your new life

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” It sounds like the beginning of fairy tale, but it’s the first line of Anne Tyler’s novel, Back When We Were Grown-ups. The woman is Rebecca Davitch, a 53-year old grandmother asking herself, “Am I living my own life, or is it someone else’s? How on earth did I get like this? How did I ever become this person who’s not really me?”

Have you ever looked at your life and wondered, “Is this me?” It’s a mid-life question, very different from the “Who am I supposed to be?” of our teenage years and the “Who am I?” of young adulthood. We all constantly try to find that line between fitting in and being accepted by others on the one hand and remaining true to ourselves on the other. Some of you may remember the very moment you looked at your life and said to yourself, “Is this the person I was supposed to become?” There’s an underlying suspicion that we might lose ourselves in the daily routines and demands of life, and we wonder what it might be like for a woman or a man to miss themselves so completely that they feel like they are living someone else’s life.

In Ladder of Years, another Anne Tyler novel, 40-year old Delia Grinstead is acutely aware that she is living her own life, but it is one she loathes. While on vacation at the beach with her husband and three almost-grown children, Delia is out on a walk by herself and she decides to keep walking. The beach stretches ahead of her, and she keeps walking, alone with her thoughts and the wide horizon of the sea. Eventually, she settles in a little town and invents a whole new life for herself: an unencumbered woman with no responsibilities, no past, no relationships. She likes the thought of beginning again from scratch.

Don’t we all; life with an undo button. To be able to point the cursor to an earlier chapter of our life story and rewrite things from there.

“You have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self,” Paul tells his readers[1] and for a moment we are tempted to believe that we can leave the old life behind like a pile of clothes on the beach and put on the new self like a new pair of designer jeans. Bag those old rags, find a new self that suits you better and put it on! Changing your life as simple as changing your clothes – you could re-invent yourself every season! You will like the way you look, I guarantee it.

The Apostle Paul does indeed speak of a profound change of who we are, but he also insists on reminding us repeatedly that we are not the authors of that change. When we look at our own life as enfolded in the life of Jesus, when we hear the story of Jesus not just as another man’s story but as the story of our redemption, we begin to grasp that we are indeed living a stranger’s life unless we live fully who God made us to be. Scripture tells us, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.”[2] Again and again we tend to forget that we are created and loved, and that our being created and loved is the most important part of who we are. “Our highest perfection and blessedness is to bear the image of God,” is how John Calvin said it.[3] Our true self is not what we make of ourselves or what has become of us – for better or worse – but whom God has made us to be. We are made to be in love with the One who made us and to know ourselves and each other as bearers of the image of God.

You may not have read any of Anne Tyler’s novels, but I trust that every last one of you has watched Shrek at least once. Not one of the sequels, but the first one that introduced us to the fairy tale world of Shrek, the ogre, and this sidekick, Donkey. They have been drafted by Prince Farquahr to go rescue Princess Fiona from the big, bad dragon who keeps her locked in a tower. Prince Farquahr needs a perfect bride because he wants a perfect kingdom, but he is not quite brave enough to make the dangerous journey himself. Fiona is a sleeping beauty, but she is living with a curse: for as long as she can remember, she has been under the power of a spell that makes her beautiful by day and ogre-like at night. She hides this from everyone because she has been told she will be freed by “love’s first kiss” and she doesn’t want to blow her chance; her true love might be put off by what happens to her every night! Shrek and Donkey, after a fierce battle with the fiery dragon, rescue Fiona, and on the long journey back the ogre falls in love with the princess. Donkey discovers her secret, and she vows to tell Shrek the truth but it is too late. One misunderstanding leads to another, and in the end Fiona stands at the altar with Prince Farquahr. At the last minute, though, Shrek steps in and declares his love just as the sun goes down and Fiona turns into an ogress. It’s a big surprise, but all ends well and the two live happily ever after.

What does the princess have to do with living your own life or someone else’s or with Paul’s contrast of old self and new self? Fiona believed the beautiful princess she presented during the day to be her true self, who she really was. Fiona believed she had to speak in the stilted fairy-tale language she had absorbed. Fiona believed she could only act according to what she believed her role to be. But then she discovered that her daytime self was actually her curse, that she had been locked into the life of a stranger, and that for as many years as she could remember she had been safe to be herself only under the shelter of  night.

When we create an image of ourselves solely from the expectations of others or from our own ideas, we lose our highest perfection and blessedness and live under a curse. Our redemption is to remember who and whose we are, created and loved, made for communion, bearing the image of God. Our highest perfection and blessedness is not to be who others want us to be but to bear the image of God.

Jesus tells us the story of a very successful man. He was rich for his land had produced abundantly, and at night, before he went to bed, I imagine he sang, “All I have needed my hand has provided. Great is my life’s success; all this for me.” And he thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’”

He had all his heart desired, and it never occured to him that he could gain the whole world and lose his soul.[4] Didn’t he have a family? Didn’t he have neighbors? Didn’t he hear the news we hear of droughts, floods and war that destroy farms and crops and leave so many neighbors facing famine? He thought to himself. He spoke to himself. He lived by himself. He lived for himself. He had completely forgotten that he was made for communion, and nothing in the story indicates that he had even noticed, amid all his abundance, how he had cut himself off from life. Once upon a time, there was a man who discovered he had turned into the wrong person; but it was too late. “You fool!” God said to him.

Jesus tells us the story because it’s not too late for us to remember who we really are and what the true purpose of our life is. All of us have turned into the wrong persons, or in the words of Paul, all of us fall short of the glory of God[5] because we forget or ignore the most important part of our identity: we are created and loved, we are made in the image of God, we are made for communion with God and with each other. But becoming who we really are is not a simple matter of re-inventing ourselves and choosing yet another costume for yet another season. Paul, in Colossians and elsewhere, reminds us that it is a matter of death and resurrection. “You have died,” he tells us, “and your new life is hidden with Christ in God.”[6] The wrong person we have become dies with Christ, and our new self is being renewed in Christ, according to the image of its creator. When Christ who is our life is revealed, then we also will be revealed with him in glory.[7]

Renewal in Christ – what might that look like? “In that renewal, there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” Circumcision and uncircumcision were among the dominant identity markers in Paul’s day; Greek and Jew the most influential cultural scripts in the early church; slave and free the polar opposites in describing socio-economic reality in the Roman empire. We have other terms today but similar patterns of claiming or assigning identity based on ethnic background, wealth, gender, education, or language. All that makes us who we are in a world where we have forgotten who we really are.

And all that, in our renewal in Christ, is no longer what defines us. We are instead beginning, finally, to become who we were created to be: human beings bearing the image of God, in all our wondrous variety.


[1] Colossians 3:9f

[2] Genesis 1:27

[3] Commentary on Colossians 3:10

[4] Luke 9:25

[5] Romans 3:23

[6] Colossians 3:3

[7] Colossians 3:4, 10


Praying with Jesus

One of Jesus’ disciples asked him for a prayer lesson. Apparently praying doesn’t come naturally like eating or sleeping, or so this disciple thought. Why ask for a prayer lesson? Does one take prayer lessons like some people take dancing or fencing lessons? Is prayer like an art or a sport, or is it more like already knowing how to talk but wanting to learn what to say? Or are prayer lessons all about learning when and where, eyes open or closed, hands folded or stretched out, standing up or sitting down?

Jesus prayed quite often, sometimes for hours; in Luke’s gospel, prayer marked significant moments in Jesus’ ministry like his baptism (3:21), his choosing of the 12 (6:12), Peter’s declaration that he was the Messiah (9:18), and his transfiguration (9:28). Jesus prayed that night on the Mount of Olives (22:41ff.), and his last words on the cross were a prayer (23:46).

“Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciple said, perhaps sensing a connection between who Jesus was and his habit of prayer. In response, Jesus spoke words very similar to what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The words we speak come from the gospel according to Matthew and the long tradition of use in the church. We still say the prayer in the King’s English with ‘thou’ and ‘thy’ and ‘thine,’ thoroughly in love with the old sounds that elevate these words from ordinary speech. The words in Luke are, in comparison, utterly simple, like the meetinghouse of a Reformed church next to a Baroque cathedral. Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. There is no ornament, no please, no filler words – just the bare imperatives of give us and forgive us, and don’t bring us to the time of trial. God’s holiness and our need are spoken side by side, and while the language sounds almost brazen, it puts into words our complete dependence on God. This prayer is no meek, religious act of uttering sacred words, but the bold communication of human beings who know how hard it is to be human without food, without forgiveness, and without faithful belonging. 

Anne Lamott famously wrote in Traveling Mercies, “Here are the two best prayers I know: ‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’”[1] Her words reflect her trusting reliance on God, and something we call familiarity or intimacy. Jesus’ prayer, which he invites us to make ours, is also rooted in intimacy, but it is communal throughout: Give us each day our daily bread.

The petition marks a threshold: in the first part of the prayer, God’s cause is foremost – your name, your kingdom. The second part is about us – our bread, our sins, our trials. But the prayer isn’t really changing themes from the sanctification of God’s name and the coming of God’s reign. Bread, daily bread for all of us, is God’s holy will and God’s daily gift. The God whom Jesus invites us to address as Father is concerned about our stomachs and our livelihoods. When we pray with Jesus, we don’t fly away into the weightlessness of spiritual realms, but rather pray with our feet firmly on the ground. We pray with our feet touching the soil out of which we were taken and to which we return, the soil in which the grain of wheat is buried and on which we labor and eat bread by the sweat of our face.

What is bread? Depends on whom you ask. A source of complex carbohydrates, says the nutritionist. Bread is seed and soil, sun and rain, sweat and toil, says the farmer. Bread is flour and water, yeast and salt, skill and fire, says the baker. Bread is the sweet memory of my grandmother’s kitchen, says the old man. Bread is expensive, says the worker. Bread is power, says the politician. Bread is reconciliation and community, says the priest. Bread is cheap, says the rich fool. Bread is God’s gift, say those who pray with Jesus. Give us each day our daily bread. Farmers prepare the field and sow the seed, take care of the plants and bring in the harvest. Millers grind the wheat, the rye, the barley, and sift them to make the finest flours. Bakers blend the ingredients and turn them into beautiful, fragrant loaves of bread. Truck drivers deliver the seed, the fertilizer, the crop, the flour, the bread. Workers stock the shelves at night at the store. And we see so little of it until we notice the cashier whose wrist hurts from pulling tons of groceries across the scanner, and finally the kid who asks, ‘Paper or plastic?’ and puts the loaf in our bag. Some people call this a supply chain, but to me it will always be the poetry of human labor and the grace of God. Bread is a communal product, and no bread is eaten alone. There really is no such thing as my bread, there is only our bread, and every loaf contains our whole life together. When we pray with Jesus, we pray for bread and our life together, we pray for the land and all who live on it, for justice and compassion, and for the love that breaks bread even with the enemy.  

We can and we often do consume bread without thanksgiving, without remembering how it brings us all together and that we all need it; we can eat bread without memory or gratitude and without sharing, yet while it will still nourish our bodies, it will not nourish human life, which is life in community.

Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism as a resource for children and their parents to study the basics of the faith. In the chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, he asks, “What, then, is meant by daily bread?” And the answer he wants us to consider is,

Daily bread includes everything that we need for our bodily welfare, such as food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, land and cattle, money and goods, a godly spouse, godly children, godly workers, godly and faithful leaders, good government, good weather, peace and order, health, a good name, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.[2]

Our prayer for bread is indeed our prayer for everything that we and our neighbors need for our bodily welfare. We say bread, because there isn’t a more beautiful word for the dailiness of our needs, the fragile nature of our lives, and our dependence on God, the earth, and one another.

And because we can and do eat the bread of life without memory and without sharing, we need forgiveness. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. When we pray with Jesus we are reminded that just like there is no such thing as my bread, forgiveness cannot stop with me. Forgiveness is for our sins, for all that we have done or have failed to do – in disobedience, in lovelessness and in self-absorption – and forgiveness becomes a way for us to participate in the flow of mercy in the world wounded by sin. We’re not asking God to forgive us our sins because we’re so eager to forgive each other’s debts; we know we’re not. We pray for both dimensions of forgiveness in one breath because Jesus does so; he teaches us to see and remember that mercy is not a quid pro quo transaction but a healing flow freeing us from being held hostages by a past we cannot undo, a healing flow that cannot stop with us.

A disciple asks Jesus for a prayer lesson, and Jesus, rather than focusing on when, where, how and why, directs our attention to bread and forgiveness, to the relationships we have with each other that are inseparably woven into the relationship God has with us.

Jesus invites his disciples to call upon God as children call upon a loving parent, trusting that we belong to God and that God desires fullness of life for us. He invites us into the intimacy he has with God, encouraging us to address the Holy One of Israel using the same name he uses – Father.

Across cultures and generations, fathers relate to their children in very different ways, and the name does not by itself and necessarily characterize God as a caring, nurturing, compassionate, and responsive parent. The name by itself will stir in some memories of absence or distance or hurt. Father is an ancient name with many reverberations, not all of them life-giving, and what are we to do with those resonances in this prayer? We will notice that when Jesus speaks this name, it echoes deeply with mutual love and unwavering trust. Perhaps we can remember that Jesus invites us to pray with him, and not just like him. Perhaps we can remember that it is Jesus the Son who reveals who the Father is, and not our experiences with fathers, good or bad (Luke 10:21f.).

When we pray with Jesus, we speak of our need and the world’s needs in the presence of God whose kingdom we seek and whose name is revealed in the story of Israel, Jesus, and the church. We speak with honesty and held up by the faith of Jesus when our own faith is shaken.

Do not bring us to the time of trial is the final petition in this prayer, and it is good for it to be the last word, as it were. We ask for deliverance from any circumstances that would threaten our trust in the God who found us in Jesus with forgiveness and compassion, and who opened our eyes to see the dawn of a new creation where all of life is finally at home. We ask for deliverance from anything that might tempt us to believe that we are not God’s beloved sons and daughters, or not meant to live in the glory of this love forever.


[1] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (Random House 2000) p. 82

[2] Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, The Lord’s Prayer: Fourth Petition

http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/martin-luthers-small.html#LORD and elsewhere online


Hand in hand

Mary is a pastor in Chicago, but she grew up in the South, and in a magazine article a few years ago she shared her thoughts on southern hospitality. Southern women, she wrote, are Marthas and proud of it. The ones who have southern hospitality refined to an art never sit—they hover. At Martha’s table, plates are never allowed to go empty, and the serving dishes are passed around at least three times. You know how it goes, “Some more iced tea? Have another yeast roll? Do try the jello salad, it’s my aunt Sara’s recipe, and the squash casserole is a favorite at every church potluck supper. My grandmother gave me the recipe, and I never use the cheap crackers.” The hostess keeps circling the table and shuttling between the kitchen and the dining room; she gives herself completely to serving her guests and misses all dinner conversation. “When does the hostess eat?” Mary and many others wonder. The answer will forever remain one of the South’s great mysteries.[1]

Then there is, of course, the other Martha, you know, the former queen of home and garden. She made it all look effortless with her little army of helpers that no one ever laid eyes on. This Martha would greet the guests at the door as they arrived; her dress unwrinkled, her make-up perfect, and the table beautifully set with the finest china, spotless crystal, and immaculate, starched table cloth and napkins. Everyone would admire and comment on the gorgeous center piece the hostess had made herself, a creative arrangement of fruits and flowers from her own garden, in a basket she had woven herself in a summer course at the Appalachian Center for Craft. Martha would sit with her guests, smiling graciously at their many compliments, enjoying the appetizers with them, sipping the perfectly chilled chardonnay, and keeping the conversation going with her witty remarks. At just the right moment, wonder woman would excuse herself, disappear briefly in the kitchen, and soon return with large trays and deep bowls of delicious food. Everything was effortless. Martha was the embodiment of home-making perfection and hospitality – and she still haunts many of her sisters in their dreams.

Luke’s Martha doesn’t have a staff. She has a house full of guests who didn’t call to let her know they were coming, but she opened the door to her home and welcomed them in. She offered them washbasins, filled with fresh water, and towels, so they could refresh their tired, dusty feet. And she made sure they had plenty to drink before she disappeared in the kitchen.

Jesus sat with the disciples, telling stories about the kingdom of God and talking about his journey to Jerusalem. It was quiet in the room, except for the sound of his voice. No one noticed that the clatter of pots and pans in the kitchen was growing steadily louder, but finally Martha, who we suspect had been making all the noise to get a little attention, could no longer contain her frustration. She stood in the door, wiping her hands on her apron, and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Martha had a sister, Mary, and Mary sat with the other disciples, also showing hospitality to Jesus, but in a way that seemed to bother Martha. In a sonnett by Gioacchino Belli, the poet imagines Martha saying a few more choice words:

I’m tied up day and night. I’ve never complained,
but I’m getting tired – I’m always on my feet;
you can’t find this painted doll of a saint
except, of course, when there’s something to eat.”

It’s easy to sit and listen, when somebody else is doing the cooking and the dishes, isn’t it? You know the feeling, don’t you? You do something because it needs doing, and you don’t mind doing it – parts of it you even enjoy; but when you begin to suspect that nobody seems to notice or that your work is being taken for granted, you grow resentful. ‘Jesus, do you not care? My sister has left me to do all the work by myself! Would you mind telling her to help me?’ And you know she said it so her sister would overhear every word of it. [Vanessa from the Counseling Center would love to help them sort through that tense triangle!] “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, scolding her like she was some little girl, “you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” And with that, the story in Luke just ends, and it sounds a lot like a good sister/bad sister story: You, Martha, are worried and distracted. Your sister has chosen the better part.

In Gioacchino Belli’s poem, Martha doesn’t just swallow it; she snaps back at Jesus,

So says you, but I know better.
Listen, if I sat around on my salvation
the way she does, who’d keep this house together?[2]

She has a point, doesn’t she?

Jesus taught that one does not live by bread alone, but he gratefully depended on the hospitality of many a Martha and their bread while teaching the word of God in the villages of Galilee and all the way to Jerusalem. After Pentecost, believers gathered in homes for meals and worship, always depending on the generous hospitality of those who opened their doors to itinerant missionaries and the first congregations. Here in Nashville, in 2013, Martha has a career, she is a wife and a mother, and a deacon at her church, and everybody gladly depends on her to keep things together at home, at work, and at church. I don’t know about you, but I kinda expect her to snap back.

Every time I sit with this gem of a story, just five verses long, sooner or later I write the same kind of question in my notebook: Why isn’t Jesus in the kitchen? I imagine Mary walking through the door and seeing all of them around the kitchen table, listening to Jesus and talking about the kingdom of God and the challenges of discipleship, while chopping tomatoes and zucchini, frying the chicken and slicing the bread – I think Mary would post a quick picture on Facebook, “Great evening with Jesus and friends,” and then she’d lend a hand setting the table for dinner. At the end of the evening, all of them, except for the littlest ones who had fallen asleep on the couch, would be doing the dishes together. Jesus washed the feet of the disciples during a meal as an example of mutual attentiveness and service – wouldn’t a dish towel in his hands also make a great discipleship lesson?

I don’t read this story as a tale of sibling rivalry where Jesus takes the side of one against the other. We know about being worried and distracted by many things, and Jesus tells us that there is need of only one thing. We know about working hard and giving ourselves to serving others and resenting those who don’t. We know about endless expectations, and the voices that demand perfection, and schedules that make us sick. We know about being worried and distracted and way too busy, and Jesus tells us that Mary has chosen the better part – the better part, but still only a part of the one thing necessary. What is the one thing?

Last Sunday we heard the story of a lawyer who asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He already knew the one thing necessary: Loving God with your whole being and your neighbor as yourself. Jesus helped him to see that life doesn’t depend on knowing but on loving, and he told him the story of the Samaritan who became a neighbor to the victim lying by the side of the road. “Go and do likewise,” he said to the lawyer.

The story of Martha and Mary follows that story; the two belong together and neither is complete without the other. The lawyer was skilled in scripture, but he had trouble seeing the need for active, generous neighborliness. Martha knew self-less service like no other, but she was so busy doing that she lost her focus on Jesus and didn’t even notice how she had replaced it with her bitter frustration.

The first story ends with Jesus saying to the lawyer and to us, “Go and do likewise.” And in this story he says, “Stop and sit likewise.” The two together are the one thing necessary. As love of God and love of neighbor are two and one, so are doing and listening, studying and serving. The one thing necessary is the integration of the two, the integration of our service and our study, of our worship and our work, of our action and our reflection. Jesus doesn’t envision a community where some stand around the kitchen table and work while others sit around the dining room table enjoying inspiring conversation. The faithful community is one being shaped by its hospitality to the living Christ – Christ who comes to us as the word of God and the fellow human being. The faithful community is one where listening to the Lord and serving the Lord in his sisters and brothers go hand in hand.


[1] See Mary W. Anderson, “Hospitality Theology (Living by the Word),” The Christian Century, July 1-8, 1998, p. 643

[2] From a sonnett by Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli (1791-1863), translated by Miller Williams, in: Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, ed. by Robert Atwan, George Dardress, and Peggy Rosenthal (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 209; my emphasis


The power of the Lamb

Jesus didn’t send them off on a summer vacation by the lake. If he had, he would have told them to make sure they had their swimming trunks, perhaps a hat, plenty of sun screen, and a stack of summer reading in their bags.

I love a trip where I don’t need to worry about packing socks or anything more formal than t-shirts and shorts. But Jesus didn’t send them off to camp or a week on the beach. It was a different kind of trip, one that wasn’t just a break from their daily routines, but rather more like a whole new routine.

It had started in the towns of Galilee where at some point he called together the twelve, gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and then he sent them out to do what he had been doing – proclaim the kingdom of God and heal. Then again in Samaria, on his way to Jerusalem, he sent messengers ahead of him to alert villages of his arrival and to make preparations for his coming. And after this, he appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.

I suspect that he had to appoint and send them, because if he had asked for volunteers and waited for them to come forward after he had told them about their mission, he might have had to switch to plan B: There’s a lot of work to do, and there are few workers, he tells them. He sends them like lambs into the midst of wolves and adds, Do not to carry a purse or a bag or an extra pair of sandals. They would be his messengers and for their meals and lodging they would depend entirely on the kindness of others.

When Miles and I are on the road, we love to stop at Cracker Barrel and eat Momma’s Pancake Breakfast, no matter if it’s breakfast, lunch, or dinner, and Nancy will eat the hashbrown casserole almost any time of day. But as one of Jesus’ 70, you’d eat whatever is set before you. I read about a preacher’s kid who found that to be the most challenging part of Jesus’ travel instructions. His dad had been a pastor in rural South Dakota, in a very poor area with lots of small farms. The family was often invited for lunch after church on Sunday, and the young man recalled that he and his siblings were admonished to eat whatever was served. And he wasn’t referring to the countless varieties of cooked, leafy greens that very few children find delicious. Many of the farm families relied on whatever they could kill or catch nearby for food – occasionally it was chicken, sometimes it tasted like chicken, but on many a Sunday the preacher’s kid had no idea what he was eating. Reading about him, I thought about Stelma who grew up in rural Virginia during the Depression. She was the oldest of the girls, responsible for cooking, and she would fix whatever her brothers brought home from their hunting trips – mostly squirrels and rabbits.

“One day they came back with a raccoon,” she said.

“What did you do with it?” I asked.

“I skinned it and I cooked it. It was a little greasy, but we ate it.”

Jesus sent the 70 to proclaim the nearness God’s reign, but rather than telling them to pack enough food to feed the hungry, or extra outfits to clothe the naked, he told them to rely completely on the hospitality of others and to receive it with equal kindness. For most of us, I suspect, that’s an unexpected reversal. When we think of mission, we think of sharing our resources to alleviate suffering as a witness to the compassionate love of God. We glean fields and gardens and our pantry to prepare food for the hungry. We make beds in the fellowship hall and fill backpacks with mittens and scarves, chapsticks and toothbrushes, to protect the homeless from the elements and to make their life a little better. We write checks – beautiful, faithful checks for Hope Camp and Rooftop and Nashville Food Project and Week of Compassion and so many other agencies and programs here in Nashville and around the globe. We give – with glad and generous hearts as a testimony to the generosity of God who desires abundant life for all. And then we hear Jesus sending the 70 to proclaim the nearness of God’s reign with nothing but the clothes on their back, the word of peace on their lips, and the willingness to eat the food of strangers.

I don’t know who first noticed that in Luke’s telling of the gospel, Jesus is constantly either on his way to eat, eating with others, or just leaving the table. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but it does capture the prominent place of table fellowship in Luke. The whole story is built around shared meals, the heart of hospitality, and Jesus eats and drinks with all kinds of people in all kinds of settings, but – he never gives a dinner party. He is always a guest.

The way I read this, Jesus invites us to let go of the control that comes with having and giving, to let go of the power that comes with determining who gets what and when and why, and to trust in the possibilities of healing and wholeness that lie in depending on the hospitality of others. The one who had no place to lay his head invites us to share in his mission by sharing in his vulnerability.

“See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves,” says the Lamb of God. Throughout the generations of the church, there have been those who lived as if they had been sent like wolves into the midst of lambs, but it wasn’t the Lamb who sent them, no matter how loudly they kept declaring that they were acting in the name of the Lord. With all their power and might, they built empires, but they didn’t proclaim the kingdom Jesus brought near. Yet throughout those same generations, there have also been the followers of Jesus who took nothing on the journey but the word and promise of God, who didn’t take the path of control or coercion or vengeance, and who returned rejoicing in the fall of demons.

In every generation, Jesus is appointing and sending 70 who trust in the possibilities of healing and wholeness that lie in depending on the hospitality of others. To me, the number 70 is not a matter of counting heads, but of recognizing Jesus’ mission as global. In the Bible, the number 70 represents all the nations of the world, so in sending the 70 Jesus is sending his followers to all nations, not to conquer or assimilate them, but to live among them as witnesses to the power of the Lamb.

Very few among us will hear this as a call to leave our homes and possessions and take up an itinerant lifestyle of radical dependence on the hospitality of others, although I don’t think we ought to dismiss that possibility altogether. The circumstances of our mission as followers of Jesus have changed, significantly in many ways, but we also know and affirm that his call to us to live as messengers of God’s reign in our world has not changed. His commission of the 70 talks about characteristics of the church’s mission that aren’t bound to particular circumstances but can serve to shape its work and witness in each generation. I want to highlight just a few of them.

1. Jesus says, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

He affirms that there’s plenty to do for us in the world once we learn to look at it through the lens of grace, and there’s always a shortage of people with that particular vision. Surprisingly for many of our generation, this doesn’t call for greater effort or longer hours, but for prayer.

2. Jesus says, “Go on your way.”

Of course he wants us to go on his way, but he affirms that there’s a way for each of us to be on his way. This also implies that we are to begin where we are, not where we think we ought to be or wish we could be.

3. Jesus says, “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.”

Proclaiming the peace of Christ arouses the hostility of powers opposed to God’s reign, no question about it. This doesn’t imply that we need to grow bigger teeth but rather that we trust in the power of the Lamb.

4. Jesus says, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.”

The purse is for money and the bag is for stuff. Money and stuff are what make things happen in any other kingdom. He tells us that we can do what we need to do without them. If nothing else, this puts money and stuff in proper perspective.

5. Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you.”

This humble word is a well of wisdom and truth. It’s not just about what’s for dinner. This word implies that when we enter the world of others, whether that’s a kitchen or a whole country, we are to do so without imposing our own cultural assumptions on them. Jesus encourages us to meet others with a willingness to receive what they offer and them with it. That’s what the preacher’s kid began to grasp at the Sunday tables in South Dakota. Every meal is a communion, or rather every meal is open to becoming recognizable as communion, as the sacrament of creation redeemed and fulfilled. Eating what is set before us, we can stop pretending that our mission as followers of Jesus is to give others a truth we have and they need. Instead, we can both discover that the kingdom of God has indeed come near and know it together.


The Procession of Life

One day, the prophet Elijah came to king Ahab and said, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The prophet and the king had been clashing over what kind of power was life-giving, and whose power it was – the king’s or God’s.

Ahab was angry, very angry, but the long drought began as the prophet had declared. God sent Elijah across the border, away from Ahab’s reach, to Zarephath, where a widow would take care of him. When he came to the gate of the town, he saw her; she was gathering sticks. Sticks for one last fire, to cook her last handful of grain with a little oil, one last meal for herself and her son.

Elijah, who had asked her for a little water to drink and a morsel of bread, said to her, “Go and do as you have said, but first…” First do this other thing, this rather odd thing to do on the verge of death, this incredibly generous and hospitable thing, first “make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” That last handful of grain, divide it by three instead of two, and feed me before you feed your child and yourself. And the stranger from across the border added, “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.”

And so it was. They ate for many days, and the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail. If this were a movie, you’d see smiling faces all around, perhaps heavy rain clouds on the horizon, and the closing credits with the sound of thunder in the background – a happy end. But the story continues. In a tragic turn of events, the widow’s son becomes ill, and the illness is so severe that there is no breath left in him. Death again comes very close, but God hears the prayers of Elijah, and the boy is miraculously revived and returned to his mother.

King Ahab and queen Jezebel have their names written in the royal archives and the chronicles of Israel, but nobody wrote down the names of the widow and her son. Their story is not for the history books, but for ordinary people like you and me and our neighbors, people who know life in dry times. It’s a story we have been telling for generations because it speaks of a hope and a power beyond what our drought-stricken hearts can imagine. It encourages us to put our faith in God, in hospitality, and in prayer.

Folks down in Coffee County are living through a dry season, but it’s not rain that’s lacking for life to flourish. On Tuesday night, the American Muslim Advisory Council, headquartered in Murfreesboro, had organized an event, called “Public Disclosure in a Diverse Society.” It was billed as an educational opportunity for the public to learn about American Muslims, as well as how the civil rights of all citizens are protected under the United States Constitution.

Many of you will have heard about Coffee County Commissioner Barry West posting a picture on Facebook a few weeks ago, many of you may have actually seen it.  It was a picture of a man pointing a double-barreled shotgun at a camera, and the caption read, “How to wink at a Muslim.” Commissioner West initially thought it was funny, but has since not only apologized for the post and removed it, but also met with Muslims who live and work in Coffee County.

Almost 1,000 people attended the event Tuesday night, and while some where there to listen and learn, a majority came straight from a preceding anti-Muslim and “free speech” rally, and they had other plans – to intimidate, undermine and disrupt the event. Their stated reason for being there was to protest what bloggers had called the government’s attempts to take away an individual’s First Amendment rights to post whatever he or she chooses on social media sites without repercussion.

The real reason, however, became apparent shortly after the presentation began. Wrapped in American flags and waving Bibles, the protesters shouted, “speak English” at a Muslim man who has been in the United States for three decades. They cheered and clapped at photos of a burned mosque in Columbia, Tennessee. They booed at photos of American Muslim soldiers killed while serving their country in the United States military. They accused all Muslims of being terrorists and yelled at them to “go home.”[1]

Some good friends of mine were there, Christians, Jews and Muslims, and they felt wave after wave rolling over them, hot waves of ignorance, fear, and rudeness. It’s a different kind of drought, one where the wells of wisdom and care are running very low. In dry times, it is good to have stories that speak of a hope and a power beyond what our drought-stricken hearts can imagine.

Luke takes us to Nain, a small town in Galilee. Jesus approached the gate of the town just when a man who had died was being carried out. A large crowd, probably the whole town, followed the stretcher with the body on it. Apparently the man had not been married; there was no young widow, no children – only his mother. A woman who had already lost her husband, and now her son, her only son. Without a husband or a son to take care of her, her future looked grim. Widows often had to depend on the kindness of their husband’s family to survive, and many ended up sitting in the gate or by the road side together with the blind and the crippled, begging neighbors and travelers for a little mercy.

Death is of course a biological reality and part of life, as all living things eventually die. But death is also a social reality, a moral and spiritual reality. Death invades our lives with different rules for boys and girls, for men and women, for people born in poverty and those born in wealth, for members of the majority and for minorities. Death has ways of making life smaller and poorer than it could be, and long before it comes to its biological end.

In a good funeral procession, people cry, but they also share stories and memories that make them smile. In a good funeral procession, people travel in grief and gratitude, with tears and smiles, carrying seeds of new life. A good funeral procession is a procession of life. But when people make that journey without a promise for tomorrow, they are in a procession of death. They are barely surviving, in a drought where it’s not rain that is lacking, but hope and courage.

So we’re watching a widow on the way to the cemetery to bury her only son and with him her own future, her own life. And traveling with her, all the women who still gather sticks for one last fire to prepare the last meal for themselves and their children. And behind them in the procession, the many whose hope vanished like smoke from a snuffed candle. And behind them, you notice your friends whose wells have gone dry, and perhaps you recognize yourself in that long procession of all those who have seen and felt death invading life and sucking it dry. They all pass through the gate, and there, outside of town, coming toward them, is another procession. When the two columns meet, the Lord of life sees the widow, and moved with deep compassion he says, “Do not weep.” Then he touches the stretcher and the bearers stand still.

And now the Lord says, “Rise!” and the young man sits up – and right there and then, it begins to rain: showers of hope and courage, of wisdom and care; the Lord speaks and it rains life and joy. The procession of death stops, and not just temporarily, it ends here where the Lord of life says, “Rise!” The procession of death stops, because with Jesus the reign of God has invaded the old dominion of death. The procession of death can go no further than to the cross, where God says “No!” to all that makes life smaller and poorer than life’s Creator intended, and where God says “Rise!” to a world where sin and death are no more.

“Praise the Lord who made heaven and earth, who keeps faith forever,” are the words that called us to worship this morning. The Lord keeps faith forever, bringing justice to the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting the prisoners free. The Lord keeps faith forever by redeeming all whom death has bound, by lifting up those who are bowed down, by watching over the strangers, and upholding orphans and widows. The Lord keeps faith through acts of judgment and redemption that bring to ruin the way of the wicked and stop the procession of death.

And we? We who have been called to follow Christ in the procession of life? We keep faith by doing the small things that never make the history books. Small things like listening to those outside our circles and to the stories they tell. Small things. Like practicing hospitality by entertaining ideas that are very different from our own. Small things like telling the bully to stop. Small things that are in truth huge because every small act of faith is an act of witness and a step in processionof life.


[1] See the editorial in the Tullahoma News, and the article by Andrea Agardy, “Hostile crowd greets diversity speakers”



Who comes to mind when I say Francis? Sir Francis Drake in tights? The medieval saint who talked to animals? Perhaps you think about your auntie who smelled like lily of the valley.

Mary DeTurris will hear the name and almost instantly turn into a junior high girl telling her friends about her newest crush. “I’ll admit it: It was love at first sight,” she wrote back in March. “I have got a crazy pope crush – … he had me at ‘Hola.’ Actually, he had me at ‘Francis.’ And so far I’ve still got stars in my eyes. … Some of my non-Catholic friends have joked about my Pope Francis obsession, but I think even they can sense that there’s something really special here, something outside the papal norm. From the minute he stood on that balcony shyly waving and then bowed and asked for the people to bless him, I was hooked. … And then came one thing after another — the lack of the usual red cape, the impromptu stop at the hotel to pick up his bags and pay his bills, the photos of him riding the subway in Argentina, … the unusual blessing for non-Catholics and non-believers at his meeting with journalists. With every new thing, I found myself thinking, ‘This is too good to be true.’”[1]

Too good to be true? It’s not just middle-aged Catholic women who have been getting all giddy over the new pope; many of my friends, men and women, young and old, have been praising his humility and particularly his statements about the poor and about people of other faiths or no faith. A Presbyterian colleague posted on Facebook last week, “It’s official. I now have a Pope crush. I <3 Francis.” My colleague had read the news about a homily during which the Pope said that all people are redeemed by Christ’s sacrifice, and he invited all his hearers, whether they identify themselves as believers or not, to meet at the place of doing good works.[2]

Pope Francis understands that working side by side changes how we talk about beliefs and doctrines. He understands that the witness of service is proclamation of the gospel at its best, because Christ is among us as one who serves (Luke 22:27).  The priest from Argentina has surprised many people around the globe by opening windows with a smile instead of slamming doors shut for those who don’t confess as the church of Rome teaches. At the Vatican, I imagine, the honeymoon is over and the various interest groups are busy discussing strategies for getting the pontiff back on message. But they can’t undo his actions and words that have filled so many with hope. They can’t undo the joy that rises after grace breaks in. They can’t undo the beautiful surprise of a pope “outside the papal norm.”

Luke tells us a story about a centurion that is full of surprises. Finding a centurion in Capernaum is not surprising, though. The Roman Empire occupied Judea and Galilee and maintained a sizable military presence there, including lots of centurions. They were mid-level officers in the Roman military who were in command over about eighty soldiers. Folks in Capernaum would have known this one to be the man in charge; the one who didn’t just tell the soldiers under his command what to do, but pretty much everybody else in town. He was used to a life of receiving and giving orders. The first-century historian Josephus describes the daily duties of Roman soldiers in this way:

Nothing is done without a word of command. At daybreak the rank and file report themselves to their respective centurions, the centurions go to salute the tribunes, the tribunes with all the officers then wait on the commander-in-chief, and he gives them, according to custom, the watchword and other orders to be communicated to the lower ranks.[3]

Reading in Luke’s story that the centurion had a slave whom he held dear is no surprise either; it was pretty common among officers. And there’s no surprise in his sending some Jewish elders with a message to Jesus since nothing is done, after all, without a word of command. So wouldn’t you expect him to tell Jesus to come to his house without delay? Wouldn’t you expect him to order Jesus to his house? Instead he asks.

A Roman historian described the qualities of a centurion as follows:

A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright.[4]

There’s a hint here why this centurion doesn’t tell Jesus to come and heal the slave. The man is “more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak.” He knows how to take orders before giving them. His world is the military, and he is confident that Jesus is in command of healing forces just as he is part of a chain of command, and his confidence informs his words and actions. He addresses Jesus as he would petition a superior officer.

Now that’s a huge surprise, especially in the world of the first disciples: an officer of the Roman Empire petitioning a Galilean Jew for a miracle! Wow! This is where the lights come on and instantly the mighty warrior becomes recognizable as a human being, as a man whose heart is heavy because a loved one is sick and he is helpless.

You may suspect that quid-pro-quo politics is still part of the picture when the elders tell Jesus that this man deserves his help because he loves their people and has built the synagogue in town. A great benefactor like that would certainly be worthy of his attention and a favorable reply! But the centurion himself responds to that suspicion, sending word through a group of friends, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed.” Only speak the word – the centurion’s world is defined by the chain of command, and it’s not surprising that he would imagine divine authority to be organized in similar fashion, with Jesus as commander-in-chief or at least lieutenant general.

What I find most remarkable in this little story is how it depicts the humanizing power of love and suffering. All the categories we so readily use to define ourselves and others as either Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, slave or free, believever or non-believers, insiders or outsiders – all these categories become less rigid and lose their defining power. The story captures a moment in which the ordinary human experiences of love and suffering allow the characters and us to look beyond all the simple dualisms and notice the complexities: this Gentile has built a synagogue for the Jews, despite our assumption that Gentiles are hopeless idolaters; these Jewish local elders speak well of the Roman officer, despite our assumption that Rome’s regime is brutal and oppressive and that the locals despise the occupiers; this representative of Rome’s might is caring and kind, despite our assumption that systems of power leave no room for such gifts.

Nobody was more surprised, according to Luke, than Jesus himself.  He was amazed. He hadn’t expected to find such faith, let alone in an outsider, and, yes, he called it faith, regardless of what we might call it because of our assumptions. The centurion didn’t ask to follow Jesus or promise to do so. He didn’t even seem particularly interested in meeting him in person. Maybe he did become a follower of Jesus, maybe not; we seem to be the only ones interested in these questions. Jesus enjoyed the moment of surprise and praised the centurion’s amazing faith.

I stumbled upon this quote by Gene Bartlett. It’s primarily about worship, but like everything we do in worship, it both reflects and impacts the entire context of our life with God.

What surprises there are! We are such planners! We decide how God must come into human affairs. We treat it all with a kind of public relations twist. We pick the time and the place. We insure that the right people are there to meet God. We get the news releases out as to what to expect. ... But God has an uncanny way of taking care of times and places and entrances. While we wait at the airport, as it were, with a representative committee of dignitaries, an escort waiting for the coming, God has a way of quietly arriving at the bus station, walking up the side street, and slipping, unnoticed, through the servant’s chambers.[5]

God shows up when we least expect it and in places few of us would associate with divine presence. Likewise, human faith has an uncanny way of quietly arriving on foot while everybody is waiting at the airport. We simply don’t know as much about these things as we like to pretend. It is wise for us to meet in the place of doing good works, drawn together by suffering and our God-given capacity for compassion – the best surprises await us there. And it is good for us, very good to have leaders who open windows with a smile.


[1] http://www.notstrictlyspiritual.com/2013/03/my-pope-crush-he-had-me-at-hola/ See also the very funny post by Rabbi Kasher http://hellogiggles.com/why-im-crushing-on-the-new-pope/#read

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/22/pope-francis-good-atheists_n_3320757.html

[3] Josephus, J.W. 3.98, quoted in Wendy Cotter, CSJ, The Christ of the Miracles Stories: Portrait through Encounter (Baker Academic Press, 2010), p. 106

[4] Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted in Cotter, p. 114

[5] Jones, Kirk Byron (2010-09-01). The Jazz of Preaching: How to Preach with Great Freedom and Joy (Kindle Locations 56-61). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

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