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] See also the very funny post by Rabbi Kasher


[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.


Yet many things to say

On their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Merle Marie and Tom sat alone on the couch at the end of the day paging through their wedding album. Looking at the beautiful young couple they were, they smiled remembering how naïve they had been about the whole journey at its beginning. Merle Marie remembered feeling like a princess walking down the aisle on her dad’s arm. Tom remembered seeing her coming toward him, her face half-hidden behind the veil, and that was all he could recall, her face, her lovely face; the rest of the ceremony was a blur.

As they came to the final picture, he jokingly asked, “Should we tell them what we know now?”

“No,” she replied. “They’ll find out soon enough.”

We all know that it’s one thing to be told, and another to find out for ourselves. Every child knows this and every parent. Every friend knows this and every teacher – everybody, I suspect. When I was little I often watched when my mom was ironing the laundry. I was intrigued by the quickness of her motions and the magic of that shining thing she handled so skillfully; it looked like a silver boat plowing through water, turning choppy seas of wrinkles into fragrant smoothness. “Don’t touch it, it’s hot,” she had told me, I don’t know how many times, but one day I touched it anyway. I already knew hot from sitting in the tub and from playing in the sun and from sipping soup from my spoon, but I learned a whole new dimension of hot when I touched that shiny iron. It’s one thing to be told, and another to find out for ourselves. Words are very good for sorting through and processing experience, but we can’t use them to prepare one another for any and all circumstances we might encounter down the road. And so we tell our youngsters that there’s a difference between love and a crush, but they will still have to make their own way through the adolescent awkwardness and turmoil and find out how that is true.

Jesus said to the disciples, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” Some of the things he had to say to them had a weight they weren’t prepared yet to support with their lives, and he wouldn’t give them a word they couldn’t bear. Beginning with chapter 13, John tells the story of Jesus’ last night with his friends.[1] They didn’t know it would be their last hours together. They didn’t know that the very next day he would be arrested, convicted, and crucified. They didn’t know what was coming next, but Jesus did. And so he spent that last night with them preparing them for what they couldn’t even begin to imagine: how to follow him without seeing him in front of them; how to do his works without him there to teach and admonish them; and how to hear his voice in the noise of the world.

They were eating together, and during the meal, Jesus got up from the table, got a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash their feet, without saying much. When he was done, he asked, “Do you know what I have done to you?” Then he began to talk, and he talked for a long time – it’s more than three chapters, the longest conversation we know of between Jesus and his friends. It’s actually not much of a conversation, because he did all the talking; they listened the whole time, only occasionally did one or the other throw in a comment or a question.

And after he was done talking, Jesus prayed. He gathered up the life they had lived together and the life the disciples would continue to live without him. He prayed his life and work and their life and work together into one – one life, one mission, one movement of God’s love to the world and in the world.

That is how he prepared them for the difficult transition. That is how he helped them move from seeing in his life who God is to letting their own lives embody the love they had encountered in him. He washed their feet, down on his knees before each of them, teaching them to do to each other what he had done to them. And he prayed to the Father that their mission and his would be one. He served and he prayed, as he had for as long as they had known him, and between those two poles of service and prayer he wove a tapestry of images, promises, and commandments.

Two things he said over and over again. The first was, “I am with you only a little longer” (13:33). Fifteen times he told them, in one way or another, that he would be leaving them. And the other thing he said, and this also over and over again, was that he would not leave them comfortless, but send them another advocate, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth (14:16; 16:7). Two things he said over and over again, “I am leaving, I am sending; I am leaving, I am sending.” He would leave, but he wouldn’t abandon them. He would no longer be with them, but the Holy Spirit would be in them and among them and continue to connect their life and work with his.

Our calling is to become and proclaim the good news in a very messy and complicated world, and it’s a lot easier to imagine Jesus standing in a corner of the room listening to what we are saying to each other, than to know him standing among us and speaking the very word we all need to hear right now, in this messy moment of the world’s confusion.

I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” he told them. “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”

We are not left to our own strength and imagination, and we don’t have to make our own way into all the truth. Jesus is sending the Spirit to inspire, empower, and guide us, and the Spirit will not speak on his own authority but as one forever connecting our life and work with the life and work of Jesus. The Spirit allows all generations of disciples to receive the word of Jesus in the changing circumstances of our lives, and not just to recall the life of Jesus, but continue to live it.

There are words of Jesus that we need to hear in order to understand our mission in the current messiness of the world, and the Spirit helps us to remember faithfully what Jesus has said and receive obediently what Jesus is saying. What aspect of the mess we’re in should I mention? There is still some debate over whether or not we crossed  the threshold of 400 ppm carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere a couple of weeks ago, but an adjustment down to 399.89 really doesn’t change much.[2] Atmospheric CO2 levels are rising at unprecedented rates, driven largely by the burning of fossil fuels over the past two centuries, and today’s levels have not been seen since 3 million years ago, when sea levels were as much as 80 feet higher than current levels. Many scientists have warned that carbon dioxide readings must be brought down to 350 ppm to avoid severe climate impacts and stall feedback loops that will exacerbate the rise. This mess is unlike any humanity has ever had to face, but our response so far has been remarkably familiar. It’s like we don’t want to be told, we want to find out for ourselves – only in this case, a lot more is at stake than a burned finger or a few bumps in the early years of a marriage.

Don’t you wish Jesus were here? Don’t you wish he were here to tell us what to do? When he said, “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now,” he wasn’t being secretive but preparing us for this very moment. The Spirit of truth is here to guide us. The Spirit whom Jesus sends allows us to hear the things we couldn’t bear before. And the Spirit, the church declared with the Apostle Peter on the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh – men and women, young and old, poor and wealthy. The Risen One is speaking, and we who long to hear the word of God for this day must be attentive to all flesh – men and women, rich and poor, old and young.

We must listen for the word of God in the reading of Scripture and the proclamation of the churches, but not only there. We must listen for the word of the Lord in every word spoken, whispered, sung or censored among us.  The Spirit has been poured out on all flesh, and we must listen very carefully lest we miss the word the church can bear and must bear today to glorify the Lord.

The Lord said, “I am leaving…; I am sending…” and when he left he didn’t send a final word that would set the world straight once and for all. He poured out the Spirit of truth that draws us all into communion. He poured out the Spirit of truth who guides us to embrace the humble service of listening to each other, expecting to hear the Lord’s voice through the noise of the world.


[1] I'm following Eugene Peterson, The Story Behind the Story, Journal for Preachers Vol. 26, No. 4, Pentecost 2003, pp. 4-8



God's city project

“Now the whole earth had one language and the same words,” the story begins. That sounds intriguing to me. I could fly to China without wondering how to say Hello, Thank You, or Goodbye. Secretary of State Kerry could sit down with President Putin to talk about Syria, and there wouldn’t be a need for a translator. Every poem, every song and novel would have one global audience. Instead of some 6,900 languages spoken in the world there would be just one with countless regional and local accents. Men and women would probably still speak different languages occasionally, as would parents and teenagers, despite using the same words, but overall the potential for misunderstandings would be much reduced, one would expect.

But I wonder, what would happen to the great variety of human experiences around the globe if all of them had to be squeezed into a single idiom?You and I could perhaps come up with 5-7 words for frozen precipitation, snow, ice, slush, sleet, hail, and such, but boys and girls living near the arctic circle probably know something like twenty words for frozen water before they enter first grade. I imagine that a woman from the jungles of Brasil has many more ways to speak of shades of green in foliage than a man from the Arabian desert – but when he talks about the joy of seeing an oasis on the horizon after days of travel under the sun, she will have to listen very carefully to grasp what the horizon might be and to connect to the depth of an experience so far removed from her own.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words – doesn’t that suggest a very homogeneous world, and a very small one?

Our story from Genesis shows little enthusiasm for the possibilities of one language. People migrated from the east and came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” One people, one language, one city, one name. “A tower with its top in the heavens” sounds ambitious, as does “let us make a name for ourselves,” but this ambition is out of tune with God’s will and desire. God doesn’t want us to live in small worlds of our own making, but on God’s earth.

Even a casual glimpse at God’s creation shows us that monoculture is a foreign concept to life – and human life is no exception. Small worlds of one people of one language, living in one city, with one name, that is how most of us become familiar with life in community, but it doesn’t end there. Monoculture is not God’s vision for humanity.

The first part of the story is all about us and how we use our best skills to build communities that give us a sense of belonging and accomplishment. The second part of the story is about God looking at what mortals have built. “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do.” This is only the beginning. Human culture that is not in tune with divine purposes threatens the communion of life God desires. What does God do? Like a guerilla gardener who throws hand-fulls of wildflower seeds into the bland sameness of suburban lawns, God introduces linguistic diversity, saying, “Let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. It wasn’t the city God had in mind.

We have long listened to this story as the curse of Babel, as though it was a story of tragic failure, a story of the loss of the unity God intended for creation; we have long listened to this story imaginining that the fantastic variety of cultures we see in the world is at best a necessary evil rather than a reflection of God’s delight in creating countless colours, shapes, and sounds. But isn’t it a blessing of mercy that God intervenes creatively to keep our dreams of unity from turning into totalitarian nightmares of sameness? Isn’t it a blessing that God counters our desire for homogeneity with the songs and stories of thousands of tongues from all over the face of the earth?

God has a different kind of city in mind. In the chapter following the story of the linguistic revolution of Babel, God speaks to Abram and tells him to become a stranger in a foreign land, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”

The baptistery window at Vine Street on Pentecost 2013The story of Babel begins with the human project of unity and greatness, “Come, let us make a name for ourselves.” And Abram’s call to a life of faith is the beginning of God’s project of unity after Babel.

Today we celebrate Pentecost, and Pentecost is all about the kind of city God has in mind. Jesus had told the disciples to stay in the city and to wait to be clothed with power from on high. They stayed and they waited, although they weren’t exactly sure what it was they were waiting for. Power from on high? How would they know the moment had come? Would they suddenly feel holier than usual? Would it tickle? Would it hurt?

And then it happened – but how do you describe what happens when God is in the house? What language do you borrow to talk about the moment when a group of timid Jesus-followers become witnesses of the risen Lord, become men and women with a testimony of life? Luke writes of a sound like the rush of a violent wind, filling the house, and of tongues, as of fire, everywhere, and resting on each of them. Something like wind, like fire, something powerful and beyond control. Not a word about how they felt when they were filled, only about what came pouring out of them: testimony about God’s deeds of power, testimony in every language spoken in all the cities of the world. People from as far away as Mesopotamia and Rome heard them speak in their own native language.

It was a festival day, Jerusalem was already humming with the songs and stories of God who gave the torah at Sinai and made a covenant with Israel, and amid those happy sounds the disciples began to talk about Jesus whom God had raised from the dead. They spoke of the righteous one who died for love, for us; and they spoke in ways the whole world could understand. Luke mentions about fifteen different ethnic groups and languages, representing the entire known world of his first readers. But the story of Pentecost is not about a group of Galileans receiving the gift to speak fifteen languages, nor about what a great foreign language teacher the Holy Spirit is. What we celebrate today is the miracle of communication that translates the good news of Jesus across barriers of language, custom, and culture. What we celebrate on Pentecost is the power of the Holy Spirit to transcend our differences without eliminating them.

This is not about one people, one language, one city, one name – not in the way we imagined it, anyway. We celebrate the gift of the Spirit who creates unity without coercive sameness.

We celebrate the Spirit who gives us a vision and foretaste of one humanity where we no longer desire to make a name for ourselves because we all know ourselves and each other as God’s own. We no longer need to make a name for ourselves because the name of Christ has been written on our hearts.

Pentecost is not the anniversary of something that happened centuries ago in Jerusalem, though. Pentecost is what began when God looked at Babel and mercifully said, “No, not like that.”

Pentecost continues whenever and wherever God inspires men and women, young and old to participate in the mission of Jesus Christ as ambassadors of reconciliation and messengers of peace. Pentecost continues whenever and wherever young people have visions of a city of righteousness, and old people still dream dreams about love transforming all things. Pentecost continues whenever and wherever we hear the call to leave country, kindred, and father’s house for the sake of the city where all our differences no longer divide us but are recognized as manifestations of the glory of God.

Pentecost is God’s city project that began after Babel. It is a city where grace is spoken in ten thousand dialects and community is gated no more. It is a city of songs where praise is every creature’s native tongue. It is a city that is, in the words of John, home to a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. It is a city whose gates are never closed and where, at last, God is at home.


Songs in the Night

The girl was a psychic. Or that’s what we’d call her today; in ancient times they would have called her a mantic or a Sibyl. For a fee, she would tell her clients what the future might hold for them. Young people with romantic concerns would turn to her, anxious parents troubled by what might become of their children, or just about anyone who had woken up from a strange dream or had difficulty falling asleep at night because all kinds of worries were keeping them awake – they all came to see her, or at least the ones who could afford her fortune-telling services.

This girl wasn’t just a psychic, though, she was also a slave; she was somebody else’s property. And that’s why she wasn’t putting her gift to use at the temple of Apollo like her respectable colleagues, but on the sidewalks of Philippi where she made her owners a great deal of money.

Paul and the others were on their way to the place of prayer outside the city when they first met her; it was the very place where on the sabbath day they had met Lydia, the independent woman from Thyatira who ran her own business and was head of a large household. The contrast between her and the nameless sidewalk psychic couldn’t be more striking.

This slave girl followed Paul and the others, and she wouldn’t be quiet, and this went on for days. “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation!” she would yell, day after day, all the way from the house to the place of prayer.

Who do you think she was addressing? Nobody in particular because she was babbling in a psychic trance? Every pedestrian within earshot? Or – and how intriguing that would be – just her own clients?

I appreciate that Paul didn’t slip her a fifty and ask her to take her message to the market place so even more people would hear her. I appreciate that he didn’t use her like a billboard and pay her owners a handsome price for the publicity. I appreciate that he noted her bondage, her being possessed, and that he addressed her circumstance in the name of Jesus – but I wish I could ask him why he waited until her presence had become an annoyance he couldn’t stand any longer; and I wish I could ask him if he acted solely because she had become too irritating to ignore, or at least in part because Jesus had come proclaiming liberty to the captives; and I wish I could ask him what her name was.

She had spoken the truth when she declared that Paul and the others were slaves of the Most High God, and they knew that no earthly power could enslave them because they belonged to God. Did they ever tell her that she was nobody’s property because she was a child of God? And why did Paul exorcise the spirit of divination and stop there? Why didn’t he cast out the spirit of exploitation from her owners when they dragged him before the magistrates? The little story raises lots of questions.

Luke is painting a very large picture with very few strokes: The followers of Jesus come to the city. The good news of Jesus they proclaim finds receptive hearts and minds among some women who gather for prayer by the river, outside the city. Nobody else is really paying any attention to their presence. But as soon as they confront one of the spirits that hold the city captive, as soon as they interfere with the subtle and not-so-subtle economic and political arrangements that keep a girl in dual bondage to her masters – as soon as they do that, the principalities strike back. “These men, being Jews, are disturbing our city!” we hear the owners shout. Anti-Jewish rhetoric is not a modern invention, nor are xenophobic demogogues. There are enough of them in Philippi to stir up the rabble. It doesn’t take long for the magistrates to bend to the demands of the crowd, and the men are stripped, severely beaten, and thrown into prison.

Luke not only tells us that they ordered the jailer to keep them securely, he shows us the innermost cell where they sit with their feet in shackles; that’s maximum security. That’s Give up all hope all ye who enter here. The slave owners can sleep without a worry now because the people proclaiming the foreign God’s way of salvation in the name of Jesus are locked up in the innermost cell.

Luke is painting a very large picture with very few strokes: The city is captive to the powers of greed, fear, ignorance, and violence. And the people proclaiming the reign of God in Jesus’ name are locked away in the deepest dungeon. What now?

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

Luke tells the church to have faith in the God who raised Jesus from the dead. We will find ourselves at the point where the whole world appears firmly in the grip of powers we can only call demonic. We will find ourselves surrounded by walls too thick to break and too high to scale, and it will be midnight. And some of us will be praying and singing hymns to God, trusting that God will make a way where there is no way, trusting that the way of salvation doesn’t end in the pit. Luke is painting a very large picture for us, large enough to contain our hope and the hope of all captives.

Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.

There are mighty powers that hold human beings captive, but whatever they attempt to build on these foundations cannot stand. Whatever they do to keep human beings from living in the glorious freedom of the children of God cannot last. Any systems built on fear and oppression will collapse. In Luke’s picture, all the prison doors are flung open and everyone’s chains are broken.

I find it very interesting that at the beginning of this week when we are making final preparations for a Saturday conference to discuss the churches’ response to slavery and mass incarceration, we are reading and listening for God’s word in a text that addresses these issues in the larger context of our shared captivity under powers we somehow create together and yet we cannot control.

The picture Luke has painted for us directs our attention to the faithfulness of God and to two beautiful closing scenes. In the first, the doors have been flung open and the chains have dropped from the prisoners’ feet, but they are all still there. Paul and the others didn’t just take off and run. It is as though they are waiting for the jailer to wake up, as though they don’t want to be free without him; and when the jailer asks them what he must do to be saved they tell him to trust the God whose songs they sang at midnight. Believe in Jesus. Believe in the power of compassion and forgiveness. Believe in the reign of God.

In the final scene we see just how different life in the kingdom of God is compared to the empire of fear and oppression. We see the jailer washing the prisoners’ wounds and they in turn washing him with the baptism of Jesus. We see them all gathered at the table, sharing food and rejoicing in the power of God who makes all things new. We see a scene of life redeemed and renewed, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine a young woman walking into the room – she’s no longer anybody’s property, and behind her her former owners, finally free as well.

As followers of Jesus we are called to trust in God who raised him from the dead, and in that trust and in his name to address every circumstance that keeps the lives of God’s children from flourishing. We are called to speak the word of the Lord to them, to show them kindness and mercy, and we are called to do so knowing that every small act of liberation will awaken the powers hostile to God’s reign – but they will not stand. Even at the point where the whole world may seem firmly in the grip of demonic powers, the faithfulness of God will prevail. Even when we find ourselves surrounded by walls too thick to break and too high to scale, our prayers will remind us that we are God’s own and our songs will rise on wings of hope.

Several of us have been at Riverbend recently for visits with groups of prisoners, and some of us will be talking about our experiences on Saturday. We were surprised by what we learned – about them, about our courts and prisons, and, perhaps more than anything else, about ourselves. And “surprised” may not be quite the right word. “Surprised” is almost too superficial to describe an experience that broke our hearts open like an earthquake.

It is as though doors have been opened we didn’t even know were there. It is as though chains have been broken, chains that have kept us from being in community with the men on the other side of the gate, chains that have kept us from even considering being in community with them; and now we are beginning to witness how grace drives out the demons of ignorance and fear. This is the awesome faithfulness of God.


Abide with me

When our son Miles was a little boy – years ago when we lived in Virginia – Nancy went away for a long weekend to attend a continuing education workshop. On Thursday morning she walked out the door from the kitchen to the garage, and Miles waved her good-bye with a happy smile. He didn’t quite understand that she’d be gone a little longer than usual. When I took him to bed that night, he asked, “Where’s my mommy?”

“She’s in Maryland; she’s there to learn new things.”


“Yes, Maryland, it’s far away, but she’ll come back very soon.”

That was all he asked. In the kitchen the next morning, just when I was pouring some milk over his cereal, he looked at me and said, “Where’s mommy?”

“She’s in Maryland, only for a little while.”

After finishing his cereal, he went to the frontdoor and started calling “Mommy!” across the street. Our neighbor Mary lived in that house, so in his mind Maryland wasn’t really that far away. “That is Mary’s house,” I told him. “Maryland is far, far away, but mom will come back, not tonight, but just one more day.”

When I put him to bed that night, just before I left his room, I turned around and said, “Good night, Miles, I love you.” He pulled the blanket halfway over his face, giggled, and said, “Love you too, Power Ranger.” That was a great compliment in those days. Minutes later he was sound asleep.

My colleague Caroline wrote about developing a fear of the dark when she was eight or nine years old. I know that feeling, most of you probably do. I remember well how I often ran up the steps from the basement where my mom had sent me to get something for her – and I know that I didn’t run because of my youthful exuberance but solely because I couldn’t get away fast enough from that darkness at the bottom of the stairs. It was much more difficult for Caroline who had a very active imagination that kicked in at night time. She would lay in her bed and imagine all kinds of scary things that might happen after dark – from monsters in the closet and under the bed to hidden intruders behind the curtain and strange shadows cast on the bedroom ceiling and walls by strange creatures lurking outside her window. Caroline had a hard time going to sleep because the only way she knew how to guard against the scary unknown was to sit up all night and keep a lookout. Eventually, her mother would come sit with her until she could fall asleep. Over time, she became less afraid of going to sleep at night, but only if her mom was in the room with her.[1]

We all know those words we utter at the edge where day turns into night:

“Please leave the door open.”

“Can you and dad talk so I can hear you?”

“Don’t turn off the light in the hallway.”

“Just hold my hand.”

I read a poem with friends on Tuesday. It was written by Jane Kenyon who died of leukemia when she was only 47.

Let Evening Come[2]

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving   
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing   
as a woman takes up her needles   
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned   
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.   
Let the wind die down. Let the shed   
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop   
in the oats, to air in the lung   
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t   
be afraid. God does not leave us   
comfortless, so let evening come.

I read those lines, and I heard echoes of the gospel. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. Let evening come. Do not let your hearts be troubled. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. Let evening come. I will not leave you comfortless, so let evening come. Let it come, as it will, and don’t be afraid. The words continued to do their wondrous work, and every day since Tuesday, at one time or another, I found myself humming, Abide with Me.[3]

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

From our first breath we learn to let evening come, trusting the love that holds us and all things. On the border where life’s little day turns into night we learn to let go, trusting that we are being held.

Letting go doesn’t come easy, and we get to practice it all the time. Some of our youth are graduating this month from high school and preparing to enter college after the summer. There’s so much excitement about that transition, but you also know that it means saying good-bye to friends, to families, to a couple of teachers that have meant so much to you.

Some of our parents are saying goodbye to their eldest child, still remembering the day you dropped her off at Kindergarten like it was yesterday. Other parents are watching with a smile and a tear as the last one leaves the nest. Just yesterday, a dad walked his daughter down the aisle, and it’s been only days that another daughter followed her father’s casket down that same aisle.

Every day, it seems, we are saying goodbye – goodbye to childhood, goodbye to high school, goodbye to friends, goodbye to jobs, goodbye to dreams – goodbye, goodbye, and the little litany of farewell even sounds like the book we read to our littlest ones at bed time,

Goodnight room
Goodnight moon
Goodnight cow jumping over the moon
Goodnight light and the red balloon
Goodnight bears
Goodnight chairs
Goodnight kittens and Goodnight mittens
Goodnight little house

On the border where life’s little day turns into night we learn to simply let evening come, trusting the love that holds us and all things. We whisper and sing, Abide with me, because we are afraid of facing the unknown by ourselves; we don’t want to be left comfortless.

Jesus spoke very kindly with his friends on the eve of his betrayal and arrest. In John, it’s column after column of words printed in red, and all of them are about how Jesus’ presence with us will not end but change. He tells his friends that he’s not going away, but rather ahead of them.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”

He tells us that he’s not abandoning us, but going ahead of us to make tomorrow a homecoming. He is going ahead of us, and we can continue to follow him by keeping his word and loving one another as he has loved us. He tells us how he will be present with us in a new way,

“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit will comfort and empower us, just as Jesus did, and abide with us forever. Now the unknown is no longer occupied by fear but has become the abode of promise, and our anxious hearts are filled with peace. Now we are prepared to hear another, rather astonishing word of Jesus.

“Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

It is not only Jesus who goes to prepare a place for us, we also are meant to go and prepare a place: keeping the word of Jesus and loving without fear we become a dwelling place for God in the world. It is not just us who have that deep and often painful desire to be fully at home, it is God’s desire too. And without the Holy Spirit’s work among us, teaching us and reminding us and comforting us and empowering us, without the Spirit’s work God would remain homeless in the world.

We whisper and sing “Abide with me” because we feel small and helpless, because our hearts are troubled, because we are afraid of facing the unknown by ourselves, because letting go doesn’t come easy at all. God also whispers and sings, “Abide with me,” but with different lyrics. God invites us to let the love of Christ be the true word that keeps us and all our goodbyes of a lifetime. God invites us to let the love of Christ be our morning praise and our evening rest. God invites us to make the love of Christ our home.


[1] Caroline M. Kelly, I Am Still With You, Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2002, p.39-41


[3] Henry Francis Lyte


Table of peace

What a week this has been. We need to give our souls a little time to catch up, don’t we? I thought I’d be preaching this morning on the curious story of Peter and Tabitha or reflect on the tension in Solomon’s portico between Jesus and the temple leadership, but not after a week like this. “What is the word, Lord, you want me to preach?” I asked, and the Lord said, “Breathe, just breathe.”

The cruel attacks in Boston, the terrible accident in West, TX, the grotesque theater of NRA funded politicians, the righteous fury of Gabrielle Giffords, the sigh of relief when the second suspect in the Boston bombings was caught – what a week this has been, and that’s only considering the national news.

On Wednesday, I wrote the prayer for our bulletin, and I found myself drawn to the Psalm for this Sunday, or rather drawn into its world of complete trust; I was grateful for the table of peace God has prepared for us, grateful for the house mercy has built for us to dwell in.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

The first book of religious instruction I ever read was given to me when I entered first grade. Our teacher told us we would use it in class for four years of Elementary School, but the first weeks of the first year were all about the pictures.

On the front cover is a man dressed in a white robe carrying a lamb; and gathered around him are more sheep than we could count at age 6. On the book’s back cover is another picture of that man. There’s a round corral in the background with sheep in it and more sheep still going into it, and in the foreground is the man in the white robe, holding a long staff in both of his hands, the pointed end raised against a snarling wolf.  To my six-year-old eyes, the wolf looked very dangerous, almost like a dragon, but I could tell that the man standing between the wolf and the sheep would do anything to keep the foe away from them. The title of the book is “The Good Shepherd.” When they gave it to us we couldn’t read or write yet, but we learned a song, and the words in English go something like this, “Because I am Jesus’ little lamb I always rejoice in my Good Shepherd who takes good care of me, who loves me, who knows me and calls me by name.”[1]

“Jesus’ little lamb” – to my grown-up ears that sounds just a touch too sweet and cute, but when I was 6, I had also seen the back cover of the book; I knew this shepherd was a determined fighter who would protect his own. In the first week of first grade, with a picture and a song, the church taught me the truth at the heart of our faith: I am known, I am loved, I belong to Jesus, and no wolf can snatch me.

In Israel’s imagination the shepherd is a rich and complex figure. Moses was keeping the flock when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush, and he received God’s call to go to Pharao and to lead God’s people out of Egypt.

Young David was keeping the sheep when Samuel came to anoint him.

The prophets accused corrupt leaders with powerful poetic words, drawn from the world of shepherding, “Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.” The prophets knew that God would always hold Israel’s shepherds accountable for their lack of attention and action, because God was the Shepherd of Israel and God’s people the sheep of God’s pasture.

What is striking about Psalm 23 is that it is written entirely in the first person, “The Lord is my shepherd.” The poem speaks of trust in God in the most personal voice and tone. The Lord is my shepherd, therefore I shall not want, fear no evil, and dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

The poem offers words to all; to the leader who wants to depend completely on God’s guidance, as well as to the widow and the orphan on the margins of power who have learned that to trust in human leaders often means to build on sand. “The Lord is my shepherd” has a polemical thrust against rulers who fail to lead according to God’s purposes.

Nothing is asked of the Lord in this psalm, no requests are being made. It begins with statements about God and God’s actions, and it is never far from the intimacy of, “This is who you are to me, Lord, and who I am to you.” You are with me. You prepare a table before me. You anoint my head. I shall not want. I fear no evil. My cup overflows. I shall dwell in your house all my life. You are my shepherd – and nothing else matters. You know me, you love me, you call me by name, I am yours.

Learning to sing, “I am Jesus’ little lamb” I may not have learned everything there is to know about God, but I began to know who God is. I began to trust in God who is with me.

God said to Isaac, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.”

When Moses asked, “Who am I that I should go to Pharao, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.

When Moses passed the mantle of leadership to Joshua, he said to him, “Be strong and bold, for (...) it is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

And when Israel was in exile, the prophet Isaiah gave God’s word to an anxious people, “Do not fear, for I am with you.”

The promise has been given to every generation of God’s people, and in this psalm a response rises from the depth of human trust, “I fear no evil, for you are with me.” The words invite the king and the Senator to lead from that depth of trust; the words urge the widow whose cry for justice might go unheard at court to stand firm in that depth of trust; and the words teach every child of God to remember in every circumstance, You are with me, I am not alone. You are my shepherd. You stand between me and the wolf. You are stronger than the terror going after my soul. You restore my life. You lead me in paths of righteousness. In the darkest valley, you are with me. In the presence of my enemies you prepare a table.

For you and me the divine shepherd has the face of Jesus. “No one will snatch my sheep out of my hand,” he said, and he died like a lamb in the jaws of the wolf. God’s answer to our helplessness in the face of evil and sin is not a divine warrior with more or bigger guns, but the Lamb who knows the shepherd psalm by heart. He lays down his life for the sheep, and he conquers because he trusts in God. He conquers because he refuses to act out of fear or vengeance. He conquers because he refuses to let his actions be rooted in anything but the love that sent him, even when the path of righteousness leads through the darkest valley. The table is his.

Ever since I first heard and learned the words, “you prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies” I have wondered why – why a table in their presence? To defy their arrogance and violent threats? To give me a place not defined by their wickedness but by mercy? To remind me even when enemies surround me on every side, that the place where I belong is a place of grace and freedom? Or is it because in the end the table is also for them? Is it because in the end the gracious hospitality of the divine shepherd will disarm and befriend them? Because that table of mercy is the only place where all of us are at home?

I asked the Lord for a word and the Lord said, “Breathe, just breathe,” and invited me to take my seat at the table of peace.


[1] Weil ich Jesu Schäflein bin, freu’ ich mich nur immerhin
über meinen guten Hirten, der mich wohl weiß zu bewirten,
der mich liebet, der mich kennt und bei meinem Namen nennt.


Stormy Questions

As the 2013 event in the Wayne H. Bell Lectureship on Ministry, Vine Street Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ Historical Society invite the public to a forum wrestling with the historical issue of the church and slavery, the modern parallel of mass incarceration, and ways in which the church can recover its prophetic voice by forming communities with those condemned by the criminal justice system.

Saturday, May 18
9 AM - 2 PM

Vine Street Christian Church
4101 Harding Pike
Nashville, TN 37205

Box lunch provided

To reserve your free space & box lunch, call or email
Vine Street Christian Church 615-269-5614

150 years have passed since the Emancipation Proclamation. By examining the church’s response - or lack thereof - to slavery, we can see more clearly the oppression resulting from a war on drugs that has spanned four decades and resulted in unprecedented numbers of people, mostly minorities, being incarcerated. Informed by the past, the church must discern how to respond in the present to systemic injustice.

As Michelle Alexander has pointed out in her book, The New Jim Crow, we have an analogous evil in our midst today, which is the mass incarceration that has resulted from four decades of a drug war that has almost exclusively targeted poor communities of color, and a punitive, adversarial criminal justice system that defines justice in terms of process, not outcome, and provides little opportunity for healing and reconciliation. If the church is to take seriously the gospel of following a condemned criminal who proclaimed freedom for prisoners, we must acknowledge that we are failing in the same way as our nineteenth century predecessors did.


  • The Churches and Antebellum Slavery
  • The New Jim Crow: The War on Drugs, The Prison Industrial Complex/Mass Incarceration
  • Visits with people who have experienced and are experiencing injustice firsthand
  • The Response of the Churches Today – What Can We Do?

Panel discussions, workshops, and question and answer sessions featuring church historian and archivist Sara Harwell, former prosecutor Preston Shipp, former death row inmate Ndume Olatushani, minister Thomas Kleinert, prison chaplain Jeannie Alexander and community organizer Janet Wolf.

Moderated by Glenn Thomas Carson, President, Disciples of Christ Historical Society.

To reserve your free space & box lunch, call or email
Vine Street Christian Church


Disruptive Presence

Sometimes you wonder what it is we affirm when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Sometimes you wonder if you can be a Christian if you have trouble grasping the resurrection. If you have talked with me about it, I probably told you not to worry. Christians aren’t the people who have grasped the resurrection, but rather the community of those who have been grasped by it and are being drawn by Christ into fullness of life.

We like to think that we are the ones who find Jesus, but the Gospel tells us it’s the other way round. The Risen One finds us. The Risen One shows up, breaks in, intrudes, interrupts, no one knows when or where.

We just heard again about Paul’s famous encounter on the road (Acts 9:1-19). He was a man with a mission, a man of unshakable certainty and unquestionable authority, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, when suddenly he found himself thrown to the ground, surrounded by blinding light, and questioned. He was helpless and blind, had to be led by hand like a toddler into the city, and after three days – his eyes were opened and he realized he had a very different mission in the world.

The Risen One finds us, shows up unexpectedly, breaks into locked rooms, intrudes the party, disrupts the deadly routines, no one knows when or where or how. Peter was fishing with his friends when Jesus found him. How much more everyday could it possibly be for a bunch of fishermen? He found them at work.

What these stories tell us is that Jesus is neither safely buried in the grave nor safely gone to heaven never to be heard of again. They tell us that we live in a world perpetually disrupted by the presence of the risen Christ. They tell us that he used to be somewhere, somewhere in Nazareth or Capernaum, Bethany or Jerusalem, somewhere on the lake or on a mountain or in somebody’s house. You could have tracked him with GPS and traced his movements on a map. But now, the stories tell us, now his astounding intrusions can be and must be expected anywhere and anytime.

We know lots of stories, of course, and we love listening to, reading, or watching them. They all begin when something interrupts the ordinary flow of things. Say, a jogger finds a body floating in the river and a crime novel begins. Or a young man on his way to work decides to take the train going North instead of the one going South he’s taken every morning for the last three years, and we have the beginning of a romantic comedy. Then there are clues and unexpected twists and turns, a smart inspector, mistaken identities, conflict and confusion, until in the end the crime is solved and the young couple finally realize that they are meant for each other. All is well. Nothing else needs to happen. Roll the credits.

The question is, is the Gospel a story like that? The world’s in trouble. Jesus descends from the Father and reveals God’s glory in wondrous ways; there’s conflict and rejection, and Jesus dies. He goes back to where he came from, ascending to the Father. Mary has seen him, the disciples have seen him, even reluctant Thomas has finally confessed, “My Lord and my God!” Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. Nothing else needs to happen. Roll the credits. No, no, no says John. Not so fast. You may be done watching, but this story doesn’t end until you’re in it.

The resurrection of Christ is not just something radically new God did with Jesus – and it is that, something as radically new as creation itself. But the resurrection is not a just a moment, say the instant when God overruled the verdict of death; the resurrection is this new reality of the continuing, disruptive presence of Christ. Yes, chapter 20 of John’s Gospel wraps things up nicely in a house in Jerusalem, but then chapter 21 opens with a view across the Sea of Tiberias: we’re in Galilee, where it all began. Peter is here and Thomas, the sons of Zebedee and two others of Jesus’ disciples, and Nathanael – Nathanael who hasn’t been mentioned again since Jesus promised him in chapter 1 that he would see greater things. And now he sees them, along with the other disciples, after a long night of hard work for nothing.

“Children, you have no fish, have you?” the stranger said before telling them to cast the net to the right side of the boat – and then they hauled it in, or rather tried to haul it in and stopped because they couldn’t manage the abundance of fish that filled their heavy nets. Wow! Enough fish to feed the whole town and then some! How many of the seven do you think were remembering that wedding day in Cana at the beginning of their journey with Jesus when the guests had finished the last drop of wine and then the surprise on the chief steward’s face when he tasted the good stuff and then the size of his eyes when he realized how much of it there was? Wow! Talk about joy in the presence of Jesus!

The beloved disciple was the first one in the boat to recognize what he saw. “It is the Lord!” he said and Peter responded with now familiar eagerness: he was caught between his desire to greet the Lord with proper respect, that is with his clothes on, and his unbridled excitement to do so immediately – and jumping into the lake while putting on his clothes he ended up providing plenty of comic relief!

Coming ashore they saw a charcoal fire with fish on it and bread, it smelled delicious, and Jesus said – and they knew it was him – “Come and have breakfast.” Bread and fish in abundance – how many of them do you think were remembering that day by the lake when a boy’s lunch of five loaves and two fish fed a crowd of five thousand? Jesus took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish.The world in which Jesus has been raised from the dead is a world where the feeding of the multitudes is not a one-time miracle but an economy of grace rooted in divine generosity.

When Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” it brought back memories of another charcoal fire where Peter had come to warm himself and before the cock crowed, he denied Jesus three times. Three times the risen Christ asked Peter, “Do you love me?” – but not because accounts had to be settled properly. The Lord didn’t come to tie up loose ends. The risen Christ found Peter in the hour of need and lifted the heavy weight of guilt and shame. Three times he asked him, “Do you love me?” – not because only three heartfelt affirmations of love could make up for the three-fold denial, but because Jesus wanted Peter to continue to live in the generous and merciful love of God by feeding the sheep and lambs of the Good Shepherd.

The risen Christ finds us and feeds us and sends us to feed others in his name. The risen Christ sends us as he has been sent. He commands us to love one another as he loves us, and through him we participate in God’s mission.

On Monday morning some fifteen of us, mostly clergy met in a downtown office building. We filled small baskets with loaves of bread and fish, and carefully tied a name tag on each basket. Then we each carried a dozen or so baskets down to Legislative Plaza to give them to our legislators. We were concerned about a couple of bills in the House and Senate having to do with healthcare for the uninsured and financial assistance for needy families. And so we took a basket of loaves and fishes to every member of the House and Senate and to Governor Haslam, encouraging them to approach debates and decisions about the wellbeing of our communities with a spirit of gratitude for the abundant gifts of God. In halls and offices, stairwells and elevators we gave testimony to the economy of grace rooted in divine generosity. It was a beautiful Monday morning Easter sermon. We heard echoes of the Lord’s words, “Children, you have no fish, have you? Cast the net to the other side of the boat, and you will find some.”

This afternoon, many of us will participate in the Nashville CROP Walk, and it will be another beautiful Easter sermon: we live in the world in which Jesus has been raised from the dead, in an economy of grace rooted in generosity and mutual love, and so we do what we can to end hunger and poverty.

Sometimes you wonder what it is we affirm when we proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. We affirm the faithfulness of God. We affirm that Christ is alive and present. We affirm the power of forgiveness. We affirm the wells of hope Christ has opened for us in the desert. We affirm that love drives out fear. We affirm that God loves the world and all who live in it. We affirm that the living Christ has found us again and again and continues to draw us into fullness of life in communion with him and each other. Thanks be to God.


What about Adam?

This reflection was first published in the April edition of our monthly print newsletter, The Vine. I post it here to make it easier to share.

On Sunday, December 16 last year, we lit a candle in worship. Two days earlier, a young man had entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. He was heavily armed with several guns and dozens of bullets. He killed twenty children and six teachers and staff. We know the story.

Two days later, we lit a candle in worship, in memory of one of the teachers, Victoria Soto, who was 27 when her life ended so violently. Since then, we have lit a candle every Sunday, lifting up one name each week, remembering one precious life at a time. Charlotte, Daniel, Rachel, Olivia, and Josephine, Ana, Dylan, Dawn, and Madeline, Catherine, Chase, and Jesse.

I’m writing on a sunny Thursday morning, knowing that this coming Sunday we will pray for the family and friends of James, and on Palm Sunday it will be Grace, and on Easter, Anne Marie. We speak their names in the name of Jesus, hoping and praying and affirming the resurrection: that violent death will not end the promise of life; that terror will not hold our hearts in its cold grip; that God knows and transforms our pain; that our anger and rage will become passion for healing; that the promise of life will be fulfilled in beloved community.

But what about Adam? You may pause here for a moment and consider that the young man who took so many lives on that Friday had been named with the first name given to humanity, Adam. And now I ask that you think and pray with me how we might speak Adam’s name in the name of Jesus. I have carried that thought and prayer with me for many weeks now. Just before Christmas, I made the list of names, and the last name I added was that of Adam’s mother, Nancy Lanza. And then I wrote myself a note on a short list that I look at and read through daily, “What about Adam?” At the time I knew nothing about him other than that he had shot and killed twenty-seven people, including his own mother, before taking his own life. I was hoping that with time I would get closer to an answer and be able to add this name to our prayer concerns.

Can we imagine a memorial where the twenty-eight names are connected by something other than the violence of that Friday? I pray we can and will, in the name of Jesus.



Six Words

I was listening to Michele Norris on the radio the other day; she was talking about the Race Card Project. I had never heard about it. Norris had written an autobiographical book about race relations in the United States, and she was making plans for a book tour. She wanted to find a simple and creative way to get the conversation with the audience started, and what she came up with were little black postcards she handed out to people. She asked them to think about their experiences, hopes, dreams, laments, or observations about race and cultural identity. Then they were to take those thoughts and distill them down to one six-word sentence and write it on the little black postcard, ready for sharing.

Once Norris hit the road on her book tour, she quickly realized that she didn’t really need that kind of incentive. All over the country people who came to hear about her story wound up sharing their own. “Despite all the talk about America’s consternation or cowardice when it comes to talking about race,” Norris said, “I seemed to have found auditorium after auditorium full of people who were more than willing to unburden themselves on this prickly topic.”[1]

That’s how the little black postcards became the Race Pard Project with its own website. People took the cards with them and mulled over the assignment. Norris hoped that a few might send them back to her via email or put a stamp on them and mail them. But it didn’t take long, and dozens of those little postcards started arriving in the mail every week and bit by bit, more and more of those little six-word “essays” piled up in her inbox and via twitter. The submissions posted on the website are thoughtful, funny, heartbreaking, brave, teeming with anger and shimmering with hope. Some will make you smile. Others might make you squirm.

Listening to the story on the radio, I thought about Maya Lin, the artist best known for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.  I remembered hearing her once in an interview talk about a very common question people ask. She was born in Athens, Ohio, but when people would ask her, “Where are you from?” and she would say, “Ohio” there would be, all too often, a follow-up question that just happened to consist of six words, “No, where are you really from?” Maya Lin is Chinese-American, and I found several very similar postings on the race card project website from Korean-Americans, Pakistani-Americans, and others.

Six words tell a story. In some of the posts, you immediately feel the sting: “No, I am not the nanny.” Others come with a hint of resignation: “I really wish it didn’t matter.” And a few offer wise suggestions for how we might change our conversations and relationships for the better. One six-word essay said, “Ask who I am, not what.”

Six words tell a story. The idea isn’t new, it’s been around for some time. Smith is a web magazine that is home to six-word memoirs by whoever wants to submit one. “I still make coffee for two,” wrote somebody recovering from a difficult break-up. And screen writer Nora Ephron penned another great one, “Secret of life: marry an Italian.” (I’ll have to ask my sister about that one.) Ernest Hemingway is said to be the one who first challenged writers to tell a story in six words, but who knows. He certainly wrote one of the best ones: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

This heartbreaking sentence strikes me as one of the many stories human beings have written on that long day after the darkest of Fridays. Life is so fragile. Sometimes our worst fears become reality. Promises are broken. The phone call confirms the dreaded diagnosis. Trust is betrayed. The friend is executed. Joy is gone and hope is buried.

The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee saw the tomb and how he was laid. And then they sat that long day after Friday, small jars of ointment and bags of fragrant spices in their laps; they just sat waiting. Luke says they rested, but we know they didn’t. They were waiting for the world to turn so they could go to the tomb and anoint the body, so at least he would have a proper burial.

At early dawn they came to the tomb and nothing was like it was supposed to be. The stone was rolled away, and when they went in, they did not find the body. Now, what kind of six-word memoir would you distill from a morning like that? Something like, “What did they do to him?” or “Please, no, I can’t bear this.”

The women were much too confused and upset to think about words that might capture that moment; but they didn’t have to find their own words because angels spoke to them. There are countless ways to imagine how that might have happened; to me the point seems to be that the words that transformed the shock of complete loss into good news for all, those words were given to the womemn by messengers from heaven.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you… !” they said, and the women remembered Jesus’ words. I’m almost certain the angels didn’t ask, “Remember how he told you…?” as though it were just a matter of putting two and two together. The angels said, “Remember how he told you that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again,” and the angels’ words triggered the women’s memory, and finally Jesus’ own words and teachings helped them begin to unfold the wondrous thing God had done: The world of sinners had had its way with Jesus of Nazareth, but God raised him from the dead.

God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s our story in six words. That’s the story we received, the story we proclaim.

Do you think the stone was rolled away so Jesus could get out? I don’t think so. The stone was rolled away so the witnesses could get in and then come away from that place of heartbreak and buried hope with the story of God’s death-defying doings. The stone was rolled away because God wants witnesses, women and men who continue on the way of grace in a world with so little room for it, and such a deep thirst for it.

God raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection wasn’t just a for-example-display of God’s limitless creative power; God didn’t just raise somebody, but raised Jesus. God raised Jesus who had proclaimed good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor to us all. The resurrection is God’s response to Jesus’ violent death at the hand of sinners; it is God’s vindication of Jesus who had been convicted by the powers of the state, of religion, and of the crowd. The resurrection is God’s confirmation of Jesus’ way as the way of redemption.

God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s our story. Now that astonishing news was beginning to unfold in the women’s hearts and they rushed to tell it to the eleven and all the others. Their response? Every preacher’s nightmare. The translations vary, just pick one. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, empty talk, a silly story, a foolish yarn, sheer humbug, utter nonsense.”

Some have suggested that the first Easter proclamation was poorly received because the messengers were women, and you know that’s a pretty strong possibility, not just for the first century AD. You might think that the eleven and all the others should have been prepared for the glorious good news and eager to receive it, given that the women were confirming what Jesus himself had told them several times on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem. But their words seemed like a silly story to the apostles and they didn’t believe the women.

God raised Jesus from the dead. Six words that change everything. Six words that reflect a reality that is too much to take in for any of us. But it’s not all up to us; that reality has a way of taking us in:

The gospel reading from Luke for this day ends with a curious verse. But Peter got up and and ran to the tomb, it says. Now why would he do that after they had all just dismissed the women’s witness as utter nonsense? You know it won’t be long and this same Peter will be one of the most visible witnesses of the early church. We heard one of his testimonies this morning in the reading from Acts. We know this was a critical moment for him. So what was it that made him get up and not walk, but run to the tomb?

Anna Carter Florence asked a group of people that question, and they each put themselves in Peter’s shoes and responded.[2]

I went because I was curious.

I wondered if the women might be right.

I hoped they might be right.

I wanted to see for myself.

I went because I felt guilty.

I had to apologize.

The Holy Spirit drew me.

I wondered if I was the reason Jesus was alive.

The good news of Jesus Christ finds us where we are and draws us closer. The living Christ himself finds us and heals our brokenness, forgives our sins, and gives us new life. The resurrection of Christ isn’t something we can take in; but it is a reality that takes us in. It is a new creation where we live as a people transformed and renewed for the purposes of God.

God raised Jesus from the dead, and God wants witnesses, women and men who continue on the way of grace in a world with so little room for it, and such a deep thirst for it.



[2] See Anna Carter Florence, Journal for Preachers 2004, 35-37


The Scent of Love's Extravagance

Baby powder. All I have to do is say the word, and the memory of the scent arises in an instant, doesn’t it? It’s a clean and light smell, and to me it’s a happy smell. Baby powder. Another smell that makes me happy is summer air after a thunder storm. If I could capture and bottle that scent, I think I’d be a wealthy man. Proctor & Gamble would put it in their laundry detergents, and you’d have a flash of happiness every time you dry your wet hair with a fresh towel or pull a t-shirt from the drawer. I’d come up with a way to put it in a spray bottle you can keep in your purse or glove box, and with just a spritz you could have a moment of ‘Aaaah - fresh air’, even while sitting in traffic with that old gym bag on the back seat.

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

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

It is difficult to describe with words an aroma or an odor, but it is not difficult at all to evoke memories of a scent. All I have to do is say baby powder. Or hot cinammon rolls. Freshly brewed coffee.

John describes a scene of Jesus appearing to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. They had been out fishing, and coming ashore, they saw a charcoal fire, with fish on it, and bread. And Jesus said to them, “Come, and have breakfast” (John 21:9-12). We don’t know what the scene looked like in detail, but we easily catch a whiff of the aroma surrounding that breakfast on the beach, that blend of a cool breeze from the lake, smoke, grilled fish, and warm bread.

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

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

Jesus came to Bethany, just two miles outside of Jerusalem, knowing full well that his opponents in the city were making plans to put him to death. He knew that this might well be his last meal with his good friends. Martha served, Lazarus was one of those at table with him, and no one had noticed that Mary had gone until she came back, holding a small jar in her hands. Without a word she knelt and poured the content of the jar on Jesus’ feet, a pound of perfume made of pure nard, and she wiped his feet with her hair.

Judas objected, pointing out that a pound of ointment could have fed a worker’s family for almost a year. It sounded like the voice of moral outrage, the voice of thrift and good stewardship, the voice of advocacy for the poor – it sounded like all that, but it didn’t have love in it. It was just ugly noise.

Death was closing in, and Mary knew it, and without saying a word she responded with lavish love. She could have poured the fragrant oil on Jesus’ head, anointing him king of Israel, preparing him for a triumphal entry into the city, but she knew where he was going. And so she dropped on her knees and poured the precious balm on his feet, preparing his body for burial. “Leave her alone,” Jesus said to those who would have prevented her. “Leave her alone.” Mary knew what lay ahead for him, she knew that he would hold nothing back, and she acted on it. She responded with lavish extravagance, pouring out her love and gratitude, because in this man she had come to know the extravagance of God.

Just a few days later, Jesus would spend the last evening with his disciples in the city. During supper, in an act curiously reminiscent of Mary’s, Jesus would get up, take off his robe, tie a towel around himself, pour water into a basin, and begin to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel. And we would say to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet. You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as have done to you. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Mary of Bethany lived that new commandment, even before it was given. Her house, just outside the city where deathly plans were being plotted, had become a house of prophetic testimony. The stench of death was still a vivid memory there, but what lingered was the sweet scent of love’s extravagance. Mary reminds us that our talk about money for the poor is only chatter and clatter, unless the fragrant life of Jesus infuses our advocacy and our service. “Just as I have loved you,” he said, “you also should love one another.”

Babette’s Feast is one of my favorite movies, and it comes to mind often, especially when I think about the scent of generosity. In a small town in 19th century Denmark lived an old man and his two daughters. The man, called the Dean, was the pastor of a small Lutheran church, and he and his daughters led a puritanical life. After the Dean died, the sisters continued his legacy, keeping the church going and ministering to the poor.

Now, many years later, the aging members of the community are often bickering and rather fond of bringing up past wrongs. One day, a ragged-looking woman appears on the sisters’ doorstep with a letter from a friend. He explains that this woman, Babette Hersant, has fled Paris for her life. He hopes that the sisters will be kind enough to take her in as a maid, as she has nowhere else to go, having lost her husband and son in an uprising.

Babette assures the sisters that she will work as their maid and cook for nothing, and the sisters agree to the arrangement. At first, they are wary of their new maid. She speaks only French; she collects herbs in the fields and adds them to their food; and she’s Catholic. But as they get accustomed to her, they realize that she is strong and kind, besides being a talented cook who can work miracles with dried cod.

One day, just as the sisters are dreaming of planning a celebration of what would have been their father’s hundredth birthday, Babette finds out she won the lottery in Paris. She asks that they allow her to prepare the meal for the occasion, and the sisters reluctantly agree. Babette leaves for several days to purchase everything she needs, and after her return bottles, boxes, and strange ingredients begin arriving at the house.

Then the great day finally comes. The guests arrive, they chat and sing the Dean’s favorite hymns. And they sit down to the meal. Course after course, they eat food they never tasted before, they drink the finest wine, and around the table, frozen faces begin to melt, hardness softens, and the men and women of the congregation begin to make amends for their recent bickering and grudges. Arguments are dropped. Past misdeeds are forgiven. They laugh and embrace and sing under the stars.

After the guests have left, the sisters find Babette in the kitchen, surrounded by piles of dirty dishes, pots and pans. They thank her for the fine meal and for all of her work. She admits that she once was the chef at one of the finest restaurants in Paris, but when the sisters ask about her return to Paris, now that she has money, she tells them that she will never go back. The sisters are surprised but also relieved.

And then they realize that Babette has spent her entire lottery winnings on this one feast. She has given it all away—and yet something lingers. It’s a sweet fragrance, like the scent of nard on the Savior’s feet. Difficult to describe with words, but unforgettable.


[1] Quotes from Susan Adams, The Scent of Money 


Sisters and brothers

A little over a year ago, Julie Lee & The Baby-Daddies recorded a song by Carly Simon from her 1974 album, Hotcakes. The song is called My Older Sister, and it’s a quick snapshot of a little girl growing up with an older sister. I won’t play the whole song, just a few lines and the chorus.

She rides in the front seat, she’s my older sister
She knows her power over me
She goes to bed an hour later than I do
When she turns the lights out
What does she think about?
And what does she do in the daylight
That makes her so great?

Oh but to be,
oh but to be, 
oh but to be, 
I’d like to be
My older sister

She flies through the back door, she’s my older sister
She throws French phrases ‘round the room
She has ice skates and legs that fit right in
She’s wicked to all the beaming dreamers
Who’ll later boast of an evening
By her fiery side

Oh but to be, 
oh but to be, 
oh but to be,
I’d like to be
My older sister

And in her black gymnastic tights
She runs into some elastic nights
Sophisticated sister sings for the
Soldiers of the soccer team
Their silver I.D.’s and sororities
They tinker with love in their Model T’s
Oh lord, won’t you let me be her for just one day

wa wa wa waoooooo 
older sister, my older sister
oh but to be ....older sister 

She turns everybody’s heads
While I wear her last year’s threads
With patches and stitches and a turned up hem
Oh, but to be, oh but to be, I’d like to be, Just once to be
My older sister

The song triggers memories, doesn’t it? I know about wearing hand-me-downs, and I always wanted an older sister but had to share a room with my older brother; and then we both had to put up with a little sister who always seemed to sail effortlessly through situations where we remembered having to paddle hard against parental currents. Do I sound jealous, perhaps just a little? I wouldn’t be surprised, and if you grew up with siblings, none of this will sound foreign to you.

One reason I wanted to play this song today is that the Bible reflects throughout a deep awareness of the impact of sibling relationships on individuals and families, but most of the stories are about brothers. If you have a moment when your mind wants to wander a little, see how many stories you can remember with sisters in them whose names aren’t Mary and Martha.

The first story in scripture that mentions any humans is about the first man and the first woman, and the second story is about their boys, Cain and Abel – and we know how that one ended for the younger of the two brothers. If you continue reading through Genesis, all those stories about our deepest roots and our oldest wounds, you encounter Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and finally the sons of Jacob and their little brother Joseph. In each of these generations, the little brother turns out to be the one whose story we remember. Isn’t that curious?

Today’s story from the gospel of Luke is similar in that regard. At some point in the past, somebody decided to add section headings to the text, and ever since this story has been known as the parable of the prodigal son, which is the younger of the two.

But it is of course just as much a story about the prodigal father as well as the son who resents his brother and his father. Jesus introduces the story as one about a man who had two sons, and that’s what it is.

Neither son is a particularly attractive character. The younger is disrespectful, self-absorbed, and reckless, perhaps manipulative. The older comes across as heartless, resentful, and jealous. But whether we like it or not, we can identify with each of them, at least to a degree, men and women alike, I presume. We wonder what it might be like to be so brave and just leave home to go and see the world. Sure, he is reckless, but he is young and we admire his adventurous spirit. Perhaps you were once just like him, or perhaps you find yourself humming quietly, Oh but to be, oh but to be, Lord let me be… Or do you find it easier to relate to the firstborn, the responsible one, the one who does what he says and shows up on time and takes care of the family business? “Doesn’t he have a point?” you say to yourself, and perhaps you know all too well what it’s like to make sacrifices every day and no one seems to care, let alone appreciate or celebrate what you do. Is it too much to ask to be treated fairly? The property had been divided, and each one had been given a fair share, and the younger chose to cash it all in and squander it. It may be good to give somebody a second chance, sure, give him work to do and food to eat, give him a roof over his head—but a party? That fatted calf they killed for the BBQ – whose was it after the property had been divided? Yes? How’s that for irony?

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

Only Jesus could come up with a story like this. In our version of the story, the younger son would have some explaining to do. In our story, the father would be waiting in the house, sitting in his chair, arms folded, with a stern look on his face.

He would listen to what the young man had to say for himself, and then, perhaps, he would look at him and say, “Well, I’m glad you’ve come to see the foolishness of your choices and the error of your ways; I hope you learned your lesson. Now I want you to go and help your brother in the field.” In our story, there wouldn’t be a party. But it’s not our story. It’s Jesus’ story for us. It’s the gospel.

Sinners felt at home in the company of Jesus; even notorious sinners who were shunned by everybody in town came near to listen to him, or just to be around him.

He did not avoid them. He didn’t turn them away. He didn’t mind being seen with them, and everybody knew he even broke bread with them, openly. People with a deep concern for what is right were grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. Couldn’t he at least wait until they have changed their ways?” Jesus’ actions were confusing to them, and their hearts were pulled back and forth between a genuine desire to understand and loudly demanding an explanation.

In response, Jesus tells his stories about the joy of heaven, God stories that help us see who he is and what he is doing. He tells us about a shepherd who lost one of his one hundred sheep, and worried out of his mind, went searching for it. And when at last he found it, he was overjoyed and called together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. He tells us about a woman who had 10 silver coins and one of them got lost. She got a lamp and a broom, and she swept the house from top to bottom and searched carefully until she found it. Then she called together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her.

Just so, Jesus tells us, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents. And then he tells the story about the father and his two sons. When he gets to the end, where the older of the two boys stands outside the house, light, music and laughter pouring through the windows, the father pleading with him to come in and rejoice with him – when he gets to the end of the story, Jesus looks at us. “Come on in,” he says, “come on in where mercy has prepared a feast that fairness cannot host. Come on in, for only love can heal what lovelessness has wounded.” The story, it turns out, is not about who is the golden boy and who is the other one. The story, the gospel is about God’s reckless extravagance in bringing about our reconciliation, overcoming the deep rifts within us and between us, and healing the wound of sin.

In the end, it doesn’t matter if we got lost wandering off to a distant country or if we got lost never leaving at all. It doesn’t matter how we forgot that we are not strangers or each other’s keeper, but rather each other’s brothers and sisters, all of us members of the family of God. What does matter is that God delights in looking for us and calling us, in finding and reminding us, in pleading with us, waiting with us, rejoicing with us. What does matter is that God does not treat the wound of God’s people carelessly but with great compassion and power to save, until there is peace and all sit at table in the house of laughter and light. Until each and all of us hear these words and never forget again, “Child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”


Christian Identity

This is the manuscript of a sermon Shelly Tilton gave at Vine Street on March 3. Her text was Acts 17:22-32


I attend Vanderbilt Divinity School. I mention it because, along with all the perks of the place, there are a few drawbacks. One of these drawbacks visits regularly in the form of a man dressed in a billboard gown of epithets, toting a megaphone and a nasty temper. He stands at the corner of the street right in front of the school and throughout the day informs us generally that we are going to hell, sometimes telling each of us individually as we pass him. This typically produces a couple of results. The first is that he is ignored. The second is that plots are devised by some of the more outspoken students, who go down en masse to pick apart his logic. Neither of these are what you would call constructive dialogue.

Not even accounting for content, I believe if Paul were alive today, he would take issue with this man’s approach. Though I don’t think VDS would be his first stop in preaching the gospel, if Paul really wanted to promote his message, he would have come to our weekly coffee hour, which the entire community attends, and where, under the influence of massive amounts of caffeine and pastry, everyone is inclined to listen. If Paul had a motto – besides take a pair of sunglasses on every road trip, just in case – it would be “Meet them where they are.” Here’s where the Athenians were. During Paul’s day, there were two lines of idol worship going on. What we usually think of is the old Greek Pantheon – you know, Zeus, Hera, goats playing harps. But after Aristotle’s time, another, more philosophical paganism had taken hold – that of the unmoved mover, the god that set the world in motion but by definition couldn’t be bothered to take care of it. So, working with the assumption that there are gods out there that might or might not care, the Athenians had done the pragmatic thing: made another idol to worship, another altar to visit. Where’s the harm, right?

Now, we know that Paul wasn’t a big fan of idols, and from his letters, I would guess he wasn’t thrilled about the Unmoved Mover theory, either. And yet, here he is, at the top of the Areopagus, having an informed conversation about both. He knew exactly where the Athenians were, and he went out to meet them. He starts with what the Athenians know about God: that God made everything. He even quotes Greek poets and philosophers – “For in him we live and move and have our being…We are his offspring.” This is the God that animates all life, that acts through every movement, that sings through every voice. And this the Athenians could agree with. And this is when Paul starts to really preach. Coming from the Jewish tradition where iconoclasm is written into the most fundamental text of the law, Paul tells them that the human race cannot create God, cannot mold God into statues of gold, cannot make God into what they want God to be. God is more than that and cannot be controlled through human mechinations. But neither is God untouched, a transcendent being above all knowledge and contact. This is the God they name Unknown, but the unknown is not unmovable.

Here is where Paul makes his masterstroke, where he offers them a revolution, a path between paths: God has a face, but not one made of gold. And God is not portable, but neither is God unmovable, for here is the proof: God came, died, and was resurrected. This God, we hear Paul say – the God that gives you life and is present even in your living bodies – this God is the one who has spoken through Jesus, who was resurrected.

Now, the Athenians are quiet during Paul’s sermon, but this is where one of my friends from school would speak up. “That’s all fine,” she’d say. “Beautiful. But why are we hearing about this? Why are you even talking?”
There is a kind of stigma that exists at VDS that can be summarized with a story. On some days, our reading room at the school is invaded by an undergrad prayer group. An amusing pastime of some of the grad students is to watch other grads walk into the reading room, see the prayer group, and begin to become visibly uncomfortable. And these are grad students that, in the main, believe and confess their faith in God. There’s something going on here that Paul would have to adjust himself to. He may have had an inkling of the issue – that what we worship speaks more to our identity than it does the identity of God – but his Christian identity was under a different kind of duress than Christian identity today. Christians during his time were in danger of being stoned; Christians of our day are in danger of quietly slipping away.

In a society in which identity is the most lauded and sought-after aspect of an individual’s being and – paradoxically – the most readily diffuse and contingent concept that we can talk about, we must face the question of Christian identity. Even within Christianity itself, divisions – denominations – indicate many issues, but the most fundamental is the question of who we are and where we take our stand. The Christian must ask herself what makes her different from her neighbor, in order to have any idea of how to act toward that neighbor. “Boundary” is sometimes considered a bad word in our present lexicon. What are boundaries but walls of separation, chunks of concrete and barbwire over which we shoot our guns and with which we keep the other out? But boundaries, besides being limits to openness and possible barriers to our hospitality, are also our defining lines. They are what make us who we are. They may sometimes act as detriments, but they are also our source of identity, the anchored points we can defend with faith and where we proclaim, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” And I’m sure we all believe that – but why are so many people unwilling to identify it publically? Paul’s proclaiming enthusiastically on the Areopagus, and divinity students are obviously shaken by God’s name whispered in prayer.

Perhaps it is because the God of our public discourse is, in fact, an idol. If nothing else, the upcoming generation can peg idols as expertly as Paul did as he walked into Athens. Today God’s name is being shouted from street corners and associated with hatred and violence. God’s name is being paraded on inaugural platforms where millions bow down and worship the American Dream. God’s name is scrawled on bombs that treat God’s children as collateral damage. The gods of our culture are made by human beings to kill other human beings and to destroy creation. And in such a world, many have turned to the theory that the true God, if he exists, does not care about his creation – how could he? All evidence points to the contrary. So when my friend asks Paul why he is speaking, it’s not because she gets her kicks from kicking back. It’s because God, in our culture, is molded by the hands of greed, hatred, and militarism. And people are tired of worshipping such a God and are embarrassed to be seen with him. Who would want to tie their identity to something as heinous as that?

So, Paul, for God’s sake, why are you still talking? What is it about your God that makes you qualified to speak? And Paul offers not another name, but a story – the Christian story. There was once a God who became a man and stayed with us for a while. And while he was here with us, he wiped the blindness from people’s eyes and brought good news to the poor. He fed thousands and told us that the food would never run out, that water would never run dry. He looked out over the land and said, “This is not how it is supposed to be. This is not how I made it.” Then God, instead of resorting to violence and reinforcing our habits of fear and hatred, took up a cross, the death that only political uprising warranted. Then God, who wanted to be with us always, followed us down the long road of suffering. And then God died.

This is no human name, no idol, no unmoved mover. This is a story of a love so strong that shame and death could not stand in its way – that overcame the power of death and all its worshippers with it – a love so revoluationary that an empire shook in its armor. And as a Christian, Paul found his identity there and could not help telling that story. This is why the Christian message is so important. It’s important because the idols never really went away, they just got bigger, and their worshippers can launch nuclear weapons, when before they bandied words. It’s important because without it, the God clothed in billboards and toting a megaphone will be the only God the world can see, when what we need to see is a God carrying a cross and clothed in his love for us. It’s only when we can see that God that we can start the hard work of preaching against our own idols. It’s only then that we can call ourselves Christians and not be ashamed.  



In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of theLord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever (Micah 4:1-5).


Rachel and her children live in the city, in a hotel. They share the room with Mr. Water Bug and Mr. Rat – but this is no tale from a children’s book with adorable animal characters. Rachel and her children live in a rat hole off the big street, and the building they stay in is a hotel in name only.

Rachel weeps for her children because she can’t protect their innocence, she can’t keep them safe; most days, she can’t even feed them. “If there was a place where you could sell part of your body,” she says, “where they buy an arm or somethin’ for a thousand dollars, I would do it. I would do it for my children. I would give my life if I could get a thousand dollars.”

“They laid him in a manger. Right?” she tells the man who wants to write her story, and she continues, “Listen to me. [I’m not sayin] that God forsaken us. I am confused about religion. I’m just sayin’ evil overrules the good. So many bad things goin’ on. (…) It’s not easy to believe. I don’t read the Bible no more ‘cause I don’t find no more hope in it. I don’t believe. But yet and still … I know these words. ‘Lie down in green pastures… leadeth me beside still waters… restores my soul… I shall not want.’ All that I want is somethin’ that’s my own. I got four kids. I need four plates, four glasses, and four spoons. Is that a lot?”[1]

No, Rachel, it’s not. It is a small dream, such a small dream of home. We’ve listened to a song, a song Micah the prophet sang; a beautiful song about days to come when entire nations stream to the mountain of God, flowing like rivers from all corners of the earth toward the house of God. They’re all coming, and it’s different from anything we’ve ever seen: They’re not coming with their armies to kill, rape, plunder, burn and destroy, like they have done so many times before. And they’re not coming because they have lost the final battle and must pay tribute now to the new rulers of the world who reside in Jerusalem. No, they come with joy and expectation; they want to learn God’s ways and study war no more. That is a big dream, Rachel, with room for the whole world in it, a big song with big music – and yet toward the end of the song, in the last verse, the big dream becomes small, small enough for you and me, Rachel, small enough for each and all of us:

They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. They shall all have somethin’ that’s their own, and no one shall make them afraid. 

Rachel is sitting on the box spring she uses for a bed, with the Bible in her lap, and she sighs, “I know I’m poor. Don’t have no bank account, no money, or no job. Don’t have no nothin’. No foundation.” She reads from the psalm she almost knows by heart, words that echo the final words of Micah’s song,  ‘I shall not fear…’, and she looks up and says, “I fear! A long, long time ago I didn’t fear. Didn’t fear for nothin’. I said God’s protectin’ me and would protect my children. Did he do it?” And after a moment she adds, “Yeah, I’m walkin’. I’m walkin’ in the wilderness. That’s what it is. I’m walkin’.”[2]

Rachel is confused about religion. But she’s not confused about what kind of  religion all the nations might have who are streaming to Mount Zion in days to come. She’s not sitting on her box spring wondering if the prophet is declaring that the paths of all who seek justice and peace will eventually lead to Zion, or if somehow in the course of history believers of all religions will become worshipers of the Holy One of Israel, or if the nations in this song of great promise only represent those gentiles who have been baptized into the church of Jesus Christ. No, Rachel is confused about religion because everywhere she turns she sees evil overruling the good. She is struggling to survive at the bottom of these days when too many children have their little lights snuffed by violence and hopelessness. She is wandering on the shadow side of these days when nations beat their pick-up trucks into rocket launchers and their school lunch programs into fighter jets and their low-income apartments into luxury condos. Rachel is walkin’ in the wilderness of these days and she can’t find a well for a sip of hope.

We have listened to Micah’s song, with its steady beat of a hammer dancing on an anvil, clang, clang, clang, bright and clear as a bell, calling us to walk toward days to come when all will be well and all will be well. Rachel is walking in the wilderness and she can barely trust that there will be days to come, let alone days when the goodness of God overrules the power of evil. But perhaps she is still open to somebody walking with her in the name of God. Somebody who has heard and embraced the promise of God, the promise that undermines the present circumstance with flashes of hope; the promise that throws open the door for possibilities the managers of the status quo cannot imagine. Perhaps she is still open to somebody walking with her in the name of Jesus whose compassion moved him to enter and embody the hurt our power arrangements produce. All the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but some will choose to walk with Rachel.

Micah makes it quite clear that the extravagant promise of peace is God’s second act. Peace completes the judgment of the city built with violence and wrong, whose rulers give judgment for a bribe, whose priests teach for a price, and whose prophets cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths (see Micah 3:5-12). Like a prosecuter arguing his case in court, Micah lists the wrongdoings of the city leaders, point by point, but the promise that in days to come the city will be one of peace is not an argument but a bold assertion: it will be otherwise because God said so. The rest is left to the testimony of those whose feet have been pointed toward the promised future.

All the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God.

Rachel may not be able to give herself to the bold assertion that in days to come it will be otherwise, because that would be a step of hope, not of despair. But she may yet learn to trust those few who are walking with her in hope and expectation of the city of peace, and in the name of the God whose promise it is. We are walking, and we are giving testimony with our feet of a hope that is big enough for the whole world and for Rachel and her children.

The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that “human faith is never final, never an arrival, but rather an endless pilgrimage, a being on the way.”[3]

“Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart. Audacious longing, burning songs, daring thoughts, an impulse overwhelming the heart, usurping the mind – these are all a drive towards serving Him who rings our hearts like a bell.”[4]

Clang, clang, clang – I don’t know what you’re hearing, but in my heart it’s a hammer dancing on an anvil, a burning song of audacious longing. I hear thousands of people from every corner of the earth on their way up to the mountain. I hear the sound of feet on the road, I hear chatter and laughter and music. They carry swords and spears and every weapon of war, and they all hear the clang, clang, clang of the hammer dancing on the anvil, pounding and beating the tools of war into tools of peace, forging a new economy – this is a city where the poor have a home and the children are safe, Rachel.


[1] Jonathan Kozol, Rachel And Her Children. Homeless Families in America (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988), 69-71

[2] Kozol, p. 71

[3] Moral Grandeur And Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Noonday Press, 1997), p. 245

[4] I Asked for Wonder. A Spiritual Anthology. Abraham Joshua Heschel, ed. Samuel H. Dresner (New York: Crossroad, 1992), p. 15


Seeing what's there

In the middle of Luke’s gospel there is this mountain; it simply appears, without name or introduction: Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. Not a mountain, but the mountain.

Luke is not talking about geography, but rather about the inner landscape of prayer. It’s like Alison Krauss singing, As I went down in the river to pray: not only can any river be the river – in the singing the song can become prayer, and the prayer becomes the river. Our prayer with Jesus is the mountain.

Jesus went up and the three went with him, their feet were sore, and their legs, weary. They had been working long hours bringing the good news to villages in Galilee and curing diseases, setting food before thousands and gathering baskets full of leftovers. They were tired. Jesus went up on the mountain, and they stumbled along behind him. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes were shining like the sun was rising inside of them. Everything the three looked at was bathed in that dazzling light. They were tired, very tired, but they saw Jesus, their master and friend, talking with two of God’s great servants of the past, Moses and Elijah – it was as though time had ceased or the fullness of time had been crammed into that moment. Moses, Elijah and Jesus were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. They were talking about his death on that hill outside of Jerusalem, at the end of the way he was on, but they did not use the word death. And they did not speak of it as something that would happen to him, but something he would accomplish.

The word translated as departure is the Greek exodos, and with Moses right there, no other hint was needed. Jesus would go to Jerusalem to lead God’s people from bondage to freedom. This time the great opponent wouldn’t be Pharaoh, and it wouldn’t be Caesar; the struggle was against sin and against all the powers that keep God’s children in captivity, against all that prevents God’s people from entering the joy of God’s reign and finding the peace of God. It would be another exodus, with Jesus laying down his own body to part the waters and rising on the other side, the firstborn from the dead. Elijah was the prophet whose coming meant that redemption was near, that the Messiah was due, and there was Elijah talking to Jesus – everything was coming together beautifully on top of that mountain. They saw the glory of God illuminating the body of Jesus and confirming his way to be the way of Christ.

The moment was awesome and holy, and they wanted it to last; everything was beautiful and clear, bathed in heavenly light, and all they could think of was, abide. “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Don’t let this end; abide, and let us behold this beauty for good.

Prayer has the power to bring us into God’s presence; and the glory of God can erupt anytime and anywhere. When it does we can mark the spot with a rock like Jacob who saw a stairway set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven, and the angels of God ascending and descending on it. “How awesome is this place!” he said. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I, I did not know it,” and he called it Beth-El, house of God.[1] We can mark the spot with a cairn or a rock or a temple or three dwellings or a sanctuary, but God’s glory will not stay on our map.

On the mountain, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified. In that darkness nothing dazzled, nothing shone, all they could see was the absence of all things visible. Whereas before everything had been exceedingly clear and orderly, now they were completely in the dark without any sense of place or direction. It was as if they had fallen from the heights of holy awe to the depths of trembling fear. And that’s when they heard the voice. This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him. Just one commandment for the journey across the plains of life: Listen to him.

They didn’t say a word about what they had seen. They followed Jesus down from the mountain, down to where the needy crowd was waiting, down to the lowlands of life. And there, at the foot of the mountain, the silence was broken by a father who cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child.”

His cry was like the echo of the voice they had heard on the mountain top, only here it was filled with pain and helplessness. This is where we long to see transfiguration, down here in the valleys and plains where demons need to be cast out and children wait for healing. Down here we work and watch and pray for the transfiguration that illumines all the earth with the light of heaven. Down here is where we encounter God’s Chosen One among the people who are hurting, in the places where despair threatens to smother all hope. Down here is where we listen to the One who embodies God’s grace and compassion, calling us to repentance and challenging us to follow him all the way to the cross in our quest for the glory of God and the wholeness of life.

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

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

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

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

John Ames, in a letter to his son, wrote,

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

On Wednesday, we enter the forty days of Lent with ashes on our foreheads, and we each have our own ways of nurturing that little willingness to see how constant and extravagant the Lord is. Perhaps you know a song that takes you to the river, and you listen to it just once each day, and for those few minutes, you do nothing else. Perhaps you follow Jesus up the mountain by turning off your phone for ten minutes of silence every day.

The journey takes us from the mountain of light to the hill outside the city where Jesus was crucified, and the journey prepares us to see the love and light of God even there, especially there, in all its extravagance.


[1] Genesis 28:10ff.

[2] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (New York: C. S. Francis & Co, 1857)  p. 275-276

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


Another Voice

The Bible tells us that our story begins with God who formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life. God planted a lush garden in Eden, took the man and put him in it to till it and keep it. And God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Our story begins with life in abundance, given by a loving God, and with a commandment, given to the humans who are to till and keep this place of lush life. But there’s another voice in the garden, the serpent, more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. The serpent doesn’t say much, only asks a question, “Did God say, you shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” It’s not what God said, but the serpent continues to sow seeds of suspicion and distrust, saying, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God did not tell the whole truth, the voice suggests, and the relationship between the humans and God begins to unravel. They eat, we all eat from the tree, and at the same time we wonder why: is it out of curiosity? Is it because we find being like God more desirable than being human? Or is it simply because disobedience becomes an option when there’s a rule?

We’re meant to be gardeners in God’s Eden, but we wonder if perhaps the other voice has a point … and we eat. When questioned by the Lord God, the man blames the woman, the woman blames the serpent, and the serpent is silent. Guilt and fear, shame and blame have entered the scene, and jealousy, hatred, and violence soon follow. We look around, and nothing, it seems, is the way it’s supposed to be.

The story invites us to consider that the initial crack in our fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God. And with that, we’re also invited to consider that the wholeness of life we all long for begins with the healing of that rift. We trust, or rather learn to trust, that the God who made us and all things, is one who forgives and redeems. We learn to say, “I have sinned. I have not trusted you. Guilt and fear have built their walls around me, and shame has locked the door. Forgive me. Set me free. Take me home.”

Especially during the season of Lent, we make this confession part of our common worship, as we reflect on the way of Christ as our salvation. Some churches begin every worship service with a prayer of confession to make sure we remember that we are forgiven sinners. Kathleen Norris writes, 

I am a sinner and the Presbyterian Church offers me a weekly chance to come clean. But pastors can be so reluctant to use the word “sin” that in church we end up confessing nothing but our highly developed capacity for denial. One week the confession began, “Our communication with Jesus tends to be too infrequent to experience the transformation in our lives which you want us to have,” which seems less a prayer than a memo (…). At such times, I picture God as a wily writing teacher who leans across a table and says, not at all gently, “Could you possibly be troubled to say what you mean?” It would be refreshing to answer, simply, “I have sinned.”[1] 

The initial crack in the fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God, and wholeness begins with the healing of that rift. We learn to say, “I have sinned,” and we learn to trust God’s word, “You are forgiven.”

When Jesus was baptized, a voice came from heaven, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And right there, Luke inserted a long genealogy going back all the way not just to David or Abraham, but beyond, generation after generation, to “Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.” This is Luke’s way of telling us that the gospel of Jesus, the beloved son of God, is for all the children of Adam and Eve, for all God’s beloved sons and daughters. The next thing we hear is that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Nothing is said of the devil’s looks, or where he came from; that’s clearly not the point. What matters – perhaps the only thing that matters – is the fact that the devil spoke. There’s another voice.

Jesus was famished, weak, and vulnerable when the bread whisperer said, “Since you are the son of God, how about one small miracle for yourself? Come on, help yourself to some bread. Nobody’s watching. It’s just you and me.” And Jesus said no.

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world; but Jesus continued to be led by the Spirit, not by the power whisperer who said, “Come on, take it. I can give it to anyone I please. Worship me, and it will all be yours. Think of all the good you could do as ruler of the world.” Jesus said no.

Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem. It had to be the temple, a lonely cliff somewhere in the wilderness wouldn’t do. “Think of the possibilities,” the publicity whisperer said, “throw yourself down,” and he added a proof text from Scripture. But Jesus said no. No to the bread, no to the power, no to the angelic guards. His response to every test was to remain human and to love God with all his heart. Full of the Holy Spirit and led by the Spirit, he chose God’s way to Jerusalem, God’s kingdom mission, and God’s glory. The initial crack in the fractured world is a rift in our relationship with God, and in Jesus’ life of faithfulness the rift has been healed.

The final encounter, the ultimate clash of the kingdom of God and the whispering tempter’s reign happened on the cross. Again three times Jesus heard the voice suggesting that he use his power for himself. “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one,” some scoffed. Others said, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” And one kept deriding him, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:35,37,39). He didn’t save himself. He did not call on armies of angels. He did not use God for his own ends. He trusted in the faithfulness of God, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

And this loving, serving, and suffering Jesus God vindicated by raising him from the dead, saying Amen to his teachings, his table etiquette, and his friendship with sinners that helps them remember that they are indeed God’s beloved. Beloved, forgiven sinners.

“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” we want to sing, lost in wonder, found by love. Sadly, the word wretch has become unpopular in recent years, resulting in a particularly embarassing example of hymn improvement which Kathleen Norris tells us about,

Some hymnals have taken out the offending word, but the bowdlerization of the text that results is thoroughly wretched English, and also laughably bland, which, taken together, is not an inconsiderable accomplishment: ‘Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved someone like me.’ Someone? (…) Is there a fabled “someone” who only thinks of good things in the middle of the night, who never lies awake regretting the selfish, nigh unforgivable, things that he or she has done? Maybe the unconscious of some people really does tell them that they’re okay, all the time. Maybe there are people who are so thorougly at home in themselves that they can’t imagine being other than comfortable, let alone displaced or wretched in spirit. But I wonder. I suspect that anyone who has not experienced wretchedness—exile, wandering, loss, misery, whether inwardly or in outward circumstance—has a superficial grasp of what it means to be human.[2] 

I think she’s right. And haven’t you at times wondered if God fully grasps what it means to be human? Haven’t you asked yourself if God is all eyes and ears, watching and listening from a distance, but not really in touch with the misery, the pain of being human?

The story of Jesus tells us that God’s grasp of what it means to be human is not superficial at all. The story of Jesus is the story of humanity and God, a retelling and healing of the story that began in Eden. Jesus was tested in every respect as we are, but without sin. He heard the whispers of the other voice, but he didn’t allow it to sow its seeds of suspicion and distrust. In the power of the Spirit, he followed the path of obedience and love, and he bore the full weight of sin: betrayal, hatred, lies, torture, exile, the arrogance of power – all of it. He bore it and trusted God to forgive, redeem, and heal – all of it. He didn’t turn stones into bread, but in the end his entire life was bread – blessed, broken, and shared for the life of the world.

[1] Amazing Grace, p. 165

[2] Amazing Grace, p. 166



Nones - perhaps you think about the women across the street at Aquinas when you hear the word. Perhaps you think about Dominican or Benedictine sisters or The Sound of Music. Some of you who went to Catholic school may remember fondly (or not so fondly) Sister Mary Margaret who introduced you to the wonders of Math.

But I’m not talking about nuns, but rather the Nones, N-O-N-E-S. I’m talking about the 46 million people in the United States who checked the box “none” last year when answering the religion question in a national survey. In October, the Pew Research Center released its study, “Nones on the Rise” where you can read in great demographic detail that one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, and that the ranks of the “nones” are growing faster than any religious group. Some of them are atheists and agnostics, but the largest number self-identify consider themselves to be “nothing in particular.” Many describe themselves as spiritual or religious, and a signifant number observe spiritual disciplines like daily prayer, but they’re not looking for a congregation that would be a good fit for them.

One detail of the report received a lot of extra attention: overall, one-fifth of American adults have no religious affiliation, but among Americans under 30, that group makes up one-third. Greg Smith, one of the researchers at Pew said on NPR, “Young people today are not only more religiously unaffiliated than their elders; they are also more religiously unaffiliated than previous generations of young people ever have been as far back as we can tell. This really is something new.”

Robert Putnam, a sociologist who has studied trends in American religious life for years, points out that this young generation has been distancing itself not only from religious institutions, but that it “is much less involved in many of the main institutions of our society than previous younger generations were. (…) They’re the same people who are also not joining the Elks Club or the Rotary Club.” And then he adds, “It begins to jump at around 1990. These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise (…) is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”[1]

The kids who were coming of age in the 90’s are tired of the ugliness, and they’re looking for a better way.They’ve grown up in an age of fundamentalism, with religiously motivated violence on the evening news and careless God-talk in heated political campaigns. They’ve heard too many reports of the Catholic hierarchy trying to keep stories of child abuse by priests away from the public, and they can’t trust religious leaders who are more concerned about appearance than about justice for the victims or true repentance that might lead to renewal. They’ve witnessed increasingly silly public arguments about evolution or climate change, and they’ve had enough of the condemnation of gays and lesbians in the name of God. They’re tired of the ugliness, and they’re looking for a better way.

For some, it’s easier to trust community made from scratch, than any organized religion. Amy Sullivan last year wrote in Time Magazine about a gathering of American expats in a coastal town on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. Every Sunday, they meet for what they call Not Church.

Many of them long ago gave up on traditional religious institutions. But they function as a congregation often does — engaging one another in spiritual conversation and prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the poor. On a recent Sunday the group (…) featured a sunny-haired ordained Presbyterian named Erin Dunigan delivering a sermon about tomatoes and God’s call to Samuel. (Organized religion, she told them, can be like supermarket tomatoes — flavorless and tough. That isn’t a reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local version worth cultivating.) “It was beautiful,” Dunigan says. “The people who don’t want anything to do with the church or religion were the people who were leading everyone else in the service.”

I love the parallel Erin draws between cultivating tomatoes and cultivating a life of faith, because she emphasizes flavor over looks and shelf life. And I would love to dig a little deeper into the similarities between industrial agriculture and religious institutions, but not today. I noticed something else.

Jesus was about 30 years of age when the good people of his home congregation drove him out of town. At first they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth, but within the course of a short sermon, they flew into a rage and were ready to hurl him off the cliff.

You don’t belong where respectable people worship!

You are no longer one of us, get out!

And the rage escalated to a point where at least some of them were ready to kill him. As far as the good people of Nazareth were concerned, Jesus was the consummate ‘none.’ In their heart and mind, he was no longer part of organized religion – but as far as the good news of God is concerned, he is of course no less the prophet of the kingdom now than he was before. Only now, he is moving on. He is out there with all the other ‘nones’ and unaffiliated ones, on his way, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God in Capernaum and the villages of Galilee, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. He’s moving on.

The good people of Nazareth loved Jesus’ proclamation of good news to the poor because they were poor, and they had waited so long for redemption and release – and there he stood, Joseph’s boy, a son of Nazareth, speaking of fulfilment – an end to their captivity and oppression. You know that at least a few of them were hoping that he’d set up shop in his hometown for the great work of redemption, that he’d put sleepy little Nazareth on the map – until they realized that ‘hometown’ meant something else altogether to him. They flew into a rage when he hinted at a couple of stories they knew and loved, stories about two of their favorite prophets.

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

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

Jesus reminded the congregation that God’s promise to restore life didn’t stop at the border; even in the days of the prophets of old, God’s mission brought new life to a Gentile widow in Phoenicia and her child, and healing to the General of the enemy’s army. The good people of Nazareth thought, today was finally their day, and he disappointed them by telling them that it was the day of fulfilment for all. At the end of his hometown sermon, Jesus didn’t go elsewhere because the people of Nazareth rejected him – it was rather the other way round: the people of Nazareth rejected him because he was going elsewhere; they realized that he wouldn’t respect the boundaries of here and there, us and them. They rejected him because they weren’t able to transcend the boundaries of their particular community for the sake of God’s mission.

I read this story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a parable. We’re no less tempted than the good people of Nazareth to think of ourselves as God’s own hometown. We’re tempted to look at the statistics of shrinking congregations and the growing ranks of ‘nones’ and worry about what will become of us, and before long all we care about are butts and bucks – bodies in the pews and dollars in the budget. We’re tempted to forget that God loves the world and continues to call us to proclaim the good news of the kingdom in the company of Jesus. God’s mission in the world and for the world continues, and the only question the church must answer, in any generation, regardless of whether there are only a handful or millions of us, the only question is whether we are participating in what God is doing today.

Many churches in the United States in the years after WWII got accustomed to viewing the world from a perspective of privilege, but that privileged position has also held us captive. Now we’re learning to look at things from a different angle, and I believe this will be a liberating experience. I believe it will lead us into more honest conversations about how we see God, how we see God at work in the world, and how Christian believers, believers of other religious traditions, and even so-called ‘nones’ participate in that work. I believe looking at things from the margins will liberate churches from the very human desire to convert others to become more like us, and open us to being converted by God into one humanity re-created in the image of  Christ. I believe we’ll be better prepared to grow fresh, local varietals of church life worth cultivating. And just like good tomatoes, some will be heirloom plants and others will be wonderful hybrids no one could have imagined even a few years ago. God’s mission continues – how will we participate in it?



No need of you?

Did you watch the inauguration on Monday? Some of you may not have been able to watch the festivities live, but perhaps you caught some of the key moments on the news or from pictures and clips your friends posted. What was your favorite moment? Was it the oath of office or the inaugural address? Or was it the Obama girls taking pictures of their parents kissing before the parade started? Perhaps it was Beyoncé’s rendition of the national anthem, or Senator Chuck Schumer saying “Wow” after Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Or how about Al Roker jumping around like a little boy who just hit the ball out of the park?

I loved it all. More than any one thing in particular, I love the fact that the inauguration is a big, public liturgy with pomp and circumstance, music, prayers and poetry, parade and dance – an event that brings us together when there’s so much that pulls us apart.

It was President Obama’s second inaugural address, and like 43 presidents before him, he spoke about his vision for the country and the priorities of his administration. Against the backdrop of this week, Luke’s account of the beginning of Jesus ministry in Galilee reads like an inaugural moment, doesn’t it? Jesus has begun to teach, and word about him has spread through all the surrounding country. And now the famous son returns to Nazareth where everybody knows him and word of mouth has stirred up all kinds of expectations, and on the Sabbath day, at the synagogue he gets up to read.

“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.”

This is not just a random reading on a random Sabbath, this is the inaugural address of God’s anointed. This is his vision and mission, the words that capture who he is and what he is about: good news, and specifically, good news for the poor. Then Jesus sits down and all eyes are fixed on him; all are excited to hear his comments, hungry for a teaching to remind them that these ancient promises are still theirs, despite the daily reality of poverty, foreign occupation, and oppression. And he says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled.”

As far as sermons or Sabbath talks are concerned, that one is about as short and to the point as it gets. ‘That’s who I am,’ Jesus says, ‘that’s my life’s purpose, that’s what I’ve been anointed and sent to do.’ The sermon is short and to the point, because his entire life is the teaching. He is good news for the poor in person.

Now this is the part where you need to listen very carefully, because the preacher is going to make a little leap, and if you miss it you will find yourself wondering how we ended up where we’ll be in just a moment. Jesus’ entire life is his teaching, and because we are baptized in the same Spirit whose power filled him when he came to Galilee, we are part of his continuing proclamation. Jesus’ life is ours, and our lives are his. His mission is our mission. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth was short and to the point, because the church, in the power of the Spirit, continues to bring good news to the poor today. The church, of course, is and has been all kinds of things, but in the power of the Spirit, we are good news for the poor, messengers of liberation, and ambassadors of reconciliation.

Good news for the poor – that is as simple as Room in the Inn, as simple as making a bed in the fellowship hall and cooking a meal, so a homeless veteran can enjoy the warmth and fellowship of home for a night. But it can’t end there; we can’t stop asking why there are 4000 homeless men, women, and children in Nashville alone. We can’t stop asking ourselves and one another why so many of us are being pushed to the margins of our communities and beyond.

I want to tell you about Emma Faye Stewart; actually, I invite you to imagine for a moment that you are Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty-year-old, single African American mother of two. You were just arrested as part of a drug sweep. You are innocent. You don’t use drugs, let alone sell them. You just happened to be there. After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, saying the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. You didn’t do anything wrong. Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty just so you can return home to your children. You are sentenced to ten years probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs.

You are now a drug felon. This means you are no longer eligible for food stamps. This also means that on any job application, you have to check the box that you have been convicted of a felony. And it means that you cannot vote for at least twelve years, but that’s the least of your worries: You are about to be evicted from public housing, and once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.

You think it couldn’t get any worse? It can and it does. A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire sweep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, Emma Faye, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.[1]

What do you hear when you hear Jesus proclaiming freedom for the oppressed? What comes to mind when you hear him talk about release for the captives? I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because I want to know how the good news of the kingdom that Jesus is and proclaims can become good news for you today. I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because Christ tells me that we are one in him. Yes, I can live my life quite comfortably without you, but not in the kingdom where he rules with grace and truth. He has made us his own, and that makes us each other’s business. I am beginning to see how you are being oppressed by grave injustice, but I don’t see clearly yet, and I believe that it is Christ through you who will restore my sight. I am beginning to see how your captivity is also mine, and we can only be free together.

I’m not making this up. Emma Faye’s story is based on an actual case, and sadly, it’s not uncommon at all, especially among the poor.

Paul writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” The reality of being members in the one body of Christ lies at the opposite end of “I have no need of you” and finds expression in the words, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” I don’t know about you, but I want to be able to look Emma Faye in the eye while hearing or remembering these words.

A few days before Christmas, a rabbi, a priest, and a minister went to prison. I know it sounds like the beginning of a joke, but a group of prisoners at Riverbend had invited us to come over on a Saturday night to talk about forgiveness and reconciliation. We sat in the chapel together, Christians, Muslims, non-believers, Buddhists and Jews, and we had one of the most rewarding conversations I can remember. But what I want to share with you today about that night is a question one of the insiders asked at the beginning, when we went around the circle introducing ourselves. He looked at me across the room and said, “Where is the church? Do you even know we’re here?”

No, man, we don’t, not really. Most of us haven’t been paying attention for decades. We like to think that there are chaplains for that, and we gladly leave the prison ministry to our brethren on the right. We live our lives quite comfortably without you. We didn’t notice that the number of incarcerated Americans has quadrupled since 1980 and that more than two million of our people are now locked up, and for increasingly longer terms, even for non-violent crimes. We’re surprised to hear that the United States leads the world in the rate of incarcerating its own citizens, and that we imprison more of our own people than any other country on earth or in human history, including China which has four times our population.[2]

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” Jesus said in his inaugural address. “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.” It was a reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus didn’t quote the entire verse at the end; “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” is what Isaiah wrote. Now I don’t think Jesus dropped that half-verse by accident, do you? I believe he dropped it because the good news he embodies and proclaims isn’t about vengeance or retaliation, but rather about reconciliation and the restoration of life.

That’s something we need to work out together, and we can’t do it without the men and women on the other side of the prison walls. Let’s pray about that. Let’s talk about that; and the next time I go over to Riverbend, I want one or two of you to come with me.


[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (p. 95). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

[2] Lisa Bloom


Breaking the Cycle

Family of Abraham is a group of leaders from Nashville's Abrahamic faith communities and other religious traditions. They are committed to promoting interfaith understanding through excellent educational events, and they invite the public to their fifth evening of learning together.

On February 21, at Christ Church Cathedral, Daniel Tutt will give a public address on Breaking the Cycle: Faith Communities and the Transformation of Bigotry. He will be specifically speaking about how a community like Nashville can best attack and break the cycle of bigotry in order to transform our culture into one that truly accepts and celebrates the differences among us. People who know Daniel, describe him as bright, engaging, and humorous!

Following his keynote, Volney Gay (Professor of Psychiatry and Religious Studies at Vanderbilt) and Jackie Halstead (Managing Director of the Institute for Christian Spirituality and Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Lipscomb University) will respond.

Please make plans to attend this event at Christ Church Cathedral on February 21 at 7pm.

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