Salt and Light

We welcome this morning some friends and neighbors from across the street at Westminster Presbyterian church. They have been working for several years with Living Waters for the World, helping communities and households gain access to clean, safe drinking water, both here in Tennessee and in South America. We are partnering with Westminster to strengthen the global efforts of Living Waters for the World and to take our first steps of hands-on mission in another country with brothers and sisters who have done this work well and who are eager to have us serve side by side with them. Our friends from Westminster came over today to talk to us about their experiences in Peru and in Macon County, and they brought with them a complete water purifying system for show and tell; this way more of us can take a look, even put our hands on it, and become familiar with the simple and highly effective technology.

So today is a good day to remember that God’s people are not new to the water purification business. Perhaps you remember the story from the second book of Kings, where the people of a certain city turned to Elisha and said, “The location of this city is good, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw the salt into it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.[1]

I couldn’t help but tell this story today when in the gospel reading Jesus tells his followers, “you are the salt of the earth.” When I listen to his words in the context of Elisha’s spring purification, “you are the salt of the earth” sounds like “you are agents of healing, you are agents of wholeness who serve the flourishing of life.”

Water and life, of course, go hand in hand, but so do salt and life. We love the taste of salt, and for good reason; our bodies need it to function well. In addition to helping maintain the right balance of fluids, salt helps transmit nerve impulses, and it allows our muscles to work properly. We hear so much about salt being bad for us, when in fact it is essential for our wellbeing. Unrefined salt contains just about everything you find in a bottle of Gatorade, except the artificial color and flavor. Unrefined salt is a convenient package of sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium, as well as other vital minerals. It is as though we carry in our bodies the ancient memory of the sea, and we thrive as long as we have a tiny dose of the ocean in us. A tiny dose, my internist would want me to emphasize in the interest of public health.

Salt has also been, for thousands of years, one of the most widely-used food preservatives, especially for meat and fish. Long before the days of Elisha, Egyptians and Phoenicians traded salt fish and salt from North Africa throughout the Mediterranean. The soldiers in Rome’s armies were paid with salt allotments, called salaria in Latin, and many of us still work for a salary. In ancient times, salt was precious as gold, and salt pressed into cakes is one of the earliest currencies in the world.

Salt has been a crucial ingredient in just about any known human culture, and it is no surprise that it gave rise to a variety of symbolic uses. Because of its use as a food preservative, salt came to represent permanence and protection. In ancient Near Eastern cultures, including Israel, a pinch of salt was eaten by the parties to agreements and treaties. Sharing salt expressed a binding relationship. In the Bible, the expression “covenant of salt” illustrates the permanent nature of God’s covenant with God’s people. We like to talk about “rules written in stone” or “iron laws,” but God’s covenants are “covenants of salt,” based in a living relationship of partners who have bound themselves to each other.[2] “You shall not omit from your grain offering the salt of the covenant with your God,” we read in Leviticus, “with all your offerings you shall offer salt.”[3] There certainly was the notion that salt would purify the offering to make it acceptable as a sacred gift, but the pinch of salt also served as a reaffirmation of and recommitment to covenant fidelity.

The preservative power of salt may have been the reason for it becoming the substance of choice to ward off evil forces in general. Perhaps you remember, as I do, a grandmother, maybe on the Italian side of the family, who would throw a pinch of salt over her left shoulder, mumbling a well-worn prayer whenever she felt she needed to keep the devil away. Cultural anthropologists are quite confident that Jewish mothers began rubbing their newborn babies with salt to protect them against evil spirits, as mothers and midwives continue to do to this day in many parts of the world. But I can’t help but wonder – when a mother in Israel rubbed her infant with salt, didn’t she also rub that little one, head to toe, with the covenant promises of God? Didn’t she also put a grain of salt on her child’s lips to give the little one a taste of God’s faithfulness and wisdom? I like to think she did, and that salt – that wondrous, precious substance – never meant just one thing, but was a vessel that contained ever new layers of meaning, generation to generation.

There still is an expression in modern Arabic, “there is salt between us,” meaning, “we are like family, we are close friends.” There is another expression in English, “below the salt,” whose origins date back to the days when salt was rare and expensive. In the houses of people of rank, a large saltcellar was placed near the middle of a long table. The places above it were assigned to the guests of distinction, the seats ‘below the salt’ were for dependents, inferiors, and poor relations. They also could say, “There is salt between us,” but it meant an entirely different thing. Jesus, of course, loved to talk about seating arrangements at the dinner table, and at his table no one was or is considered ‘below the salt.’

These are all echoes I hear when I hear him say to us, “You are the salt of the earth.” You are precious as gold. You bring healing and wholeness. You add flavor and zest to the world. You are a symbol of divine hospitality, friendship, and faithfulness. The earth cannot be without you.

“You are the salt of the earth,” he says to us, right after he said, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Our faithfulness to his way will evoke rejection and  resistance, he says, even persecution – and he tells us to rejoice, because we are on the way to our reward and life’s fulfillment.

We may feel like avoiding the confrontations that come with living as followers of Jesus; we may feel like a little religion is all we want, all we can take. We may feel like adding a little spiritual icing to the world’s cake is just fine. But he tells us what we are: the salt of the earth. Not sugar, not syrup, but salt. A group of people that adds a particular, essential quality and flavor. A group of people that is vital for the wellbeing of the whole. A group of men and women whose way of being in the world is the living reminder of God’s faithfulness to the world and all who live in it. You are the salt of the earth. You are in the world to remind even your enemies of the covenant of grace that binds us all to God and to each other.

We live in a culture that is incredibly creative, but more and more of our collective attention seems to revolve around consumption and entertainment, and not around building strong communities. There is plenty of hostility toward the gospel that calls us to live as brothers and sisters, and little of it comes in the form of outright persecution. It’s more like an endless loop of commercials: friendly faces, beautiful images, great music, and clever lines inviting us 24/7 to believe that life really is all about us and that only the things that can be sold have value.

There are powerful alternatives to covenant living; there are powerful alternatives to understanding our lives as part of Christ’s mission in the world. But the God of righteousness calls for people who share their bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house and clothe the naked, instead of worrying about what they will eat or drink or wear.

When Jesus calls us the salt of the earth, we know one thing for sure: we are good for something, we are meant to add something. We have been called to live with a holy purpose. The way of Jesus Christ reveals to us the unfathomable depth of God’s grace, and our life together in service and in joyful fellowship around the table of Christ gives the world a taste of that ocean of grace, gives the world a glimpse of the sun of righteousness. We are salt because Christ has drawn us into fellowship with him. We are light because the light of the glory of God has been revealed to us in the face of Jesus. The church is salt and light. We are in the world as a living expression of God’s desire to live in covenant with all humankind.


[1] 2 Kings 2:19-22

[2] Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5

[3] Leviticus 2:13


We ain't what we was

It is a great comfort to have Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth included in the Bible. It is a great comfort to the church to realize and remember that dissension and division are not signs of decline that brought to an end some golden age of Christian unity, but have been an issue since the earliest days. It is a great comfort to have Paul’s words and thoughts to remind us, generation after generation, whose we are, to whom we belong, to whom we really belong, and what that entails for our difficult life together.

How are we to be the church of God together? Let’s go back a few years. The reformation in Europe began in the first half of the 16th century with a renewed emphasis on essentials: Solus Christus – Christ reigns, and no other. Sola scriptura – Scripture as the revelation of God’s word determines what the church proclaims to be true. Sola fide – We are saved by faith alone. It was an emphasis on essentials, but the passionate effort to renew the church quickly became a bloody mess. The conflict over how to be the body of Christ in the world and how to remain faithful to the word of God turned so deadly that the English Protestant John Foxe compiled a history of Protestant martyrs, popularly known as “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.” Published in 1563, the book was enormously successful and went through four editions in Foxe’s lifetime. Foxe himself fled England to Frankfurt and Basel when the Catholic Mary came to power in 1554, when he was in his late 30’s. Sixteen years later, in a Good Friday sermon delivered in London, outside Saint Paul’s Cathedral, he talked about the Turkish invasion of Hungary and Austria, and the fears that threat continued to stir. But having witnessed the best and the worst of the reformation efforts across Europe, he lamented,

Here (alack) cometh another mischief, as great, or greater than the other. For the Turk with his sword is not so cruel, but the bishop of Rome on the other side is more fierce and bitter against us; stirring up his bishops to burn us, his confederates to conspire our destruction, setting kings against their subjects, and subjects disloyally to rebel against their princes, and all for thy name. Such dissension and hostility Satan hath sent among us, that Turks be not more enemies to Christians, than Christians to Christians, papists to protestants; yea, protestants with protestants do not agree, but fall out for trifles.[1]

With less than a decade or so of genuine peace, Europe of the Protestant Reformation endured almost two centuries of constant warfare.[2] Two centuries of violence and destruction, and all for thy name. You’d think that with a track record like that, Protestants would have learned to speak a little less forcefully, a little less certain of our tidbits of truth, but rather with the humble confidence of disciples who follow Jesus on the way of the cross; but no, the last two hundred years have only confirmed how good we really are at falling out for trifles.

It was around the year 50, when Paul first came to Corinth and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Corinth was a bustling town with two ports, it was a commercial and religious hub with a reputation for wealth without culture. It was a city where a lot of money could be made, and the social pyramid was steep. The church in Corinth was young, and perhaps that meant it hadn’t had time to split into congregations along the lines of the city’s socio-economic contrasts and differences in education and influence. The church in Corinth was an incredibly diverse mix of people. Wealthy merchants and slaves had been brought together by the power of Christ as brothers and sisters, and they didn’t quite know what to make of it.

“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters.”

Thirty-eight times in this letter, significantly more than in any other of his letters, Paul uses this simple address, brothers and sisters. Thirty-eight times he affirms the common ground and the equal standing of all who are in Christ. Brothers and sisters he calls them repeatedly, so that when the letter would be read aloud in the assembly, they would perhaps remember that all of them belonged to the family of God. That they didn’t “belong” to Apollos or Cephas or Paul or any other earthly authority, but that Christ had made them his own; that they belonged to no other master, not even to themselves, but to Christ, and therefore, in a radically new way, to each other. 

Brothers and sisters he calls them, not ladies and gentlemen, or senators, slaves, merchants, and sailors, or Romans, Greeks, and Jews, but brothers and sisters. “In order to form a Christian community identity within a pluralistic pagan world, Paul repeatedly calls his readers to a ‘conversion of the imagination,’” is how Richard Hays puts it.[3] A conversion of the imagination. A complete rethinking and reordering of their inherited cultural norms and practices. A resocialization of Corinthians from all sorts of backgrounds into the new family of God. A conversion of the imagination would mean the undoing of everything that used to define their identity. Ethnic and family background, gender, status, language, income, politics, education, everything is subverted by their being one in Christ.

Dissension and division, quarrels and status anxiety are indications that this “conversion of the imagination” is still incomplete. In his letter to the Romans, Paul calls this conversion the renewing of our minds. “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[4] Be transformed by looking at yourselves and each other not through all the usual lenses of who matters and who doesn’t, who knows and who doesn’t, who is wise and who isn’t, who has a voice and who hasn’t, but instead through the complete and radical undoing of all of that in the cross. Be transformed by looking at yourselves and each other in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Some in Corinth, and God knows not just there, some are easily swayed by sparkling rhetoric. Some have aspirations for wisdom. Some are impressed by knowledge. Some are awestruck by the faith and the gifts they recognize in themselves and in others. Some place importance in power and status—and all of them (and that is not the easy ‘them’ that doesn’t include us), all of them lose sight of the power of God and the wisdom of God shown through the cross.

Christ sent me, declares Paul, “to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” He dissociates himself and his proclamation from clever speech and sparkling rhetoric, precisely because some Corinthians were so easily impressed by that kind of eloquence. Cultured speech, delivered in a refined fashion, was the telltale of high status and privilege, of power and wealth. Eloquent wisdom, pleasant and persuasive as it may be, would only reinforce the ways social relations were currently arranged in the city, with a lot of distance between the top and the bottom of the ladder. Paul points to the cross, to the event that demolishes all pretensions to status and standing in the world.

We live, just like generations of Christians before us, with competing affiliations and allegiances, and we must be very attentive and careful to not let something else, something less than the God of the cross occupy the governing center of our imagination and our life. Our many differences are not a problem as long as we remember that we belong to each other because Christ has made us his own; that in our baptism, God has claimed us each equally as members of God’s household, regardless of who we were. Brothers and sisters, no matter how steep the social pyramid is in the city, it is subverted by the cross so we can come together around the table of Christ, see each other face to face, hear each other out, and finally realize that love rules, that love is Lord of heaven and earth.

The conversion of our imagination for life in this new family of God. I was listening to the radio and heard that last fall, curators and interns at the New York State Museum were digging through their audio archives in an effort to digitize their collection. It was tedious work; the museum houses over 15 million objects. But on this particular day in November, they unearthed a treasure. As they sifted through box after box, they pulled up a little reel-to-reel tape with a piece of masking tape on it, labeled ‘Martin Luther King, Jr., Emancipation Proclamation Speech 1962.’” It’s audio no one knew existed. That year – 1962 – fell in the midst of the Civil War centennial. At one commemorative event, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller proposed a focus on the Emancipation Proclamation and invited King to speak. No one had heard his speech since.

I listened to it on NPR’s website and I was struck by Dr. King’s closing words:

And so I close by quoting the words of an old Negro slave preacher, who didn’t quite have his grammar right, but uttered words of great symbolic profundity. They were uttered in the form of a prayer: Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be, we ain’t what we want to be, we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what we was.[5]

The old preacher didn’t quite have his grammar right, but he spoke words steeped in the power of God to liberate and reconcile. He spoke words for all of us, brothers and sisters who struggle to live more faithfully as the family of God.

Lord, we ain’t what we oughta be, we ain’t what we want to be, we ain’t what we gonna be, but thank God we ain’t what we was.


[1] Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2004), p. 335.

[2] MacCulloch, p. 648.

[3] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation) (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), p. 11.

[4] Romans 12:2



Servant people

“Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than them, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”

John of Salisbury wrote this in the middle of the 12th century about his teacher, Bernard.[1] Some seventy years later, the huge south rose window was installed in the cathedral of Chartres, and below it five tall, slender lancet windows [picture] showing the four evangelists and the Virgin Mary carrying the infant Christ.Each evangelist is portrayed as sitting on the shoulders of a major prophet, Luke on the shoulders of Jeremiah, Matthew on the shoulders of Isaiah, John on Ezekiel, and Mark on Daniel. We don’t know if this rare depiction was perhaps commissioned in part to honor Bernard as a teacher and chancellor of the cathedral school, but it certainly illustrates memorably the close connection between the apostles and the Old Testament witnesses who before them had spoken and written of God’s will and ways.

From early times, the prophet Isaiah stood out as particularly large among the giants. Jerome, who lived from 342 to 420 and was one of the most influential figures in the history of the Bible, wrote of Isaiah, “he should be called an evangelist rather than a prophet because he describes all the mysteries of Christ and the Church so clearly that you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened rather than prophesying about what is to come.” Others didn’t hesitate to call Isaiah, with holy enthusiasm and gratitude, the “Fifth Gospel.”[2]

Sadly, the enthusiasms that led Christians to read and interpret Isaiah weren’t always holy, and his words were often used in hurtful, violent ways, particularly against Jews. Perhaps we can learn to read as servants rather than masters, so we don’t create interpretations that only serve us and our desire to lord it over each other. Perhaps we can learn to read as disciples of Jesus, that is with the attitude of servants who receive scripture with gratitude and in community with others.

Last Sunday, at the Baptism of the Lord, we heard a passage from Isaiah where God says, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[3] We heard the beautiful words and their many echoes in Jesus’ beautiful, faithful life. Today we heard another passage from Isaiah that speaks of God’s servant, with its own echoes of last week’s reading. I want to encourage us to hear the words not like masters who are eager to determine who the servant is and what the servant’s work might do for us; I invite you to hear them as fellow-servants who want to learn how our own calling is related to that of the servant of whom Isaiah speaks.

The Lord said, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”[4] Israel is named as God’s servant, but then we read, “the Lord formed me in the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him.”[5] The servant is both Israel and an individual with a mission to Israel. How can this be? How can the servant be both God’s people Israel, the tribes of Jacob, the children whom Moses led, and an individual whom the Lord called before he was born, whom he named while he was in his mother’s womb, whom he sent to bring Israel back to Zion? How can this be? Perhaps our insistence that the servant can only be one or the other is too rigid, too stiff for Isaiah’s proclamation.

Walter Brueggemann is one of the giants on whose shoulders I sit when I read the scriptures. He turned to music when he was looking for  a way to describe the book of Isaiah as a whole, and he compared it to “a great fugue, always advancing to fresh statements, at the same time continually returning to pick up and restate themes already sounded.”[6] The overarching theme of the book is the destiny of Jerusalem, that old and troubled city in which according to Isaiah all the purposes of God and all the claims of Israel are concentrated. Over the centuries, the city was pummeled in turn by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and the Persians, but the book of Isaiah asserts that in all the ups and downs of geopolitical change throughout history the will and purposes of the Lord God of Israel are at work. The pivot point of the book is in the unwritten, inaudible silence between the end of chapter 39 and the beginning of chapter 40. In the text, there’s only a period and a new line, but in the city’s history the gap represents two centuries, encompassing the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the deportation of the population into exile. 39 chapters, with insistent warning, move toward that destruction and deportation, and then chapter 40 famously begins with words that point to a way out, a way home, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

The great themes of the fugue are exile and homecoming, the judgment of God upon Jerusalem and the deliverance of God for a new Jerusalem. The theme of judgment is massive and pervasive in chapters 1-39. The city has failed to practice justice, its people, its leaders have failed to embody neighborliness to all in the community. But there are also other themes woven into the great fugue. At the beginning, just after a forceful condemnation, there is an invitation to repent, “Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doing from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”[7] Reorder your life for neighborliness while you can – a possibility the city didn’t embrace. The other and more defining theme, however, follows the steady beat of God’s faithfulness beyond judgment. The final word to the city is not destruction but restoration and redemption, righteousness and peace, which the Holy One of Israel will create. [8] After the judgment, new life.

Chapters 40-55 sing of God’s resolve to love, save, and deliver Israel. “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God,” the prophet tells a people frightened and intimidated by Babylonian power.[9] “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine,” the prophet tells the exiles, encouraging them to claim their identity as God’s beloved community, to be God’s servant people in the world, to participate in establishing God’s purposes, to faithfully be and do what Jerusalem in chapters 1-39 refused and failed to be and do:[10] to be servant people who reach to the socially rejected and the poor so that they may be fully at home in the city; to be servant people whose witness and work shine to the end of the earth.

The servant prophet who tells of his commissioning in today’s passage from Isaiah is just one individual, but he is not a replacement of Israel as God’s servant. He has been called and anointed by God to be a servant among the exiled, discouraged, perhaps forgetful servant people to embody their own calling among them, to unsettle, encourage, and remind them that they don’t belong in Babylon but in Jerusalem.

That’s not just ancient history. When God’s servant people become too comfortable in our cities far from Zion, in our disconnected neighborhoods with little neighborliness left in them, far from the beloved community we are, we actually are as God’s chosen ones, God calls and anoints servant prophets who embody among us our own calling, our own true identity. (Quite a lovely move by the Spirit to give us Isaiah to hear on the Sunday after the Baptism of the Lord and just before the day when we honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who was such a faithful servant prophet and disciple.)

I want to go back to today’s passage one more time.

The Lord said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.” But I said, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing.”

What servant of God hasn’t, in words laden with exhaustion and defeat, lamented that her work was in vain, that he spent his strength for nothing, that all their labor barely made a dent? The servant who speaks in Isaiah has a good word for us.

I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely, yet surely my cause is with the Lord.” Justice, compassion, neighborliness, and reconciliation are not the exhausting causes of over-scheduled servants who have so many other things to do. No, they are expressions of God’s will and purpose and work that point us in the direction of the wholeness and peace we all long for. As servants of God, we’re not pursuing a pile of causes or checking off endless to-do-lists, with barely five-and-a-half hours of sleep at night. No, we trust that our life and work are with the Lord, and that in the company of Jesus our feet are on the road to Zion, to the city where all are at home. We don’t hurry, we don’t worry, we rest in the movement of God, grateful for giants on whose shoulders we get to ride.


[1] Metalogicon, 1159 C.E.

[2] John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel. Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 1

[3] Isaiah 42:1

[4] Isaiah 49:3

[5] Isaiah 49:5

[6] Walter Brueggemann, A Story of Loss and Hope (Sojourners Nov-Dec 1998)

[7] Isaiah 1:16-17

[8] Isaiah 1:26-27; 2:1-4

[9] Isaiah 41:10

[10] Isaiah 43:1; 42:1-4


The Old River

Friends and colleagues of mine who studied and worked in Jerusalem always came back with fascinating stories. They loved to talk about the history, the politics of Israel and Palestine, and about the deep spiritual impact of walking on the ancient roads and across the hills of Galilee. None of them, though, ever said much about the Jordan River. Apparently it is much more impressive in our imagination than in physical reality. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see it in person, but mentally I’m prepared to lay eyes on something much closer in size to Richland Creek than to the Cumberland River. Folks who have stood on the banks of the Mississippi may look at the Jordan and ask themselves, “What’s all the fuzz about?” Of course that’s exactly what Naaman, the great commander of the army of the king of Aram said, when the prophet Elisha told him to go and wash in the Jordan seven times in order to be healed.[1] “Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel?” he declared angrily, and in those days the Jordan was still considerably larger than today. The people who measure this kind of thing tell us that the lower Jordan today only has about 5% of the flow it had in the 50’s. Irrigation and other water usage are taking a heavy toll. What Naaman couldn’t fully grasp was the particular role of that river in the life and faith of Israel. For one, the Jordan is one of very few rivers in that dry region that actually flow year-round, turning the river valley into a lush, fertile band in an otherwise rather dusty landscape. More importantly, the Jordan marked the border between Israel’s wilderness wanderings and the land of promise. It was in the plains of Moab, beyond the Jordan, in the wilderness, where Moses expounded one more time the covenant commandments before the people crossed the river to live as God’s people, according to God’s will, on God’s land.[2]

The Jordan is a mighty river because crossing it means entering into freedom and fulfillment. The Jordan marks the border between exile and home. African slaves who fled the South didn’t have their geography mixed up when they lifted up their eyes upon the Ohio River and sang,

Deep river, my home is over Jordan;
deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
Oh, don’t you want to go to that gospel feast,
that promised land where all is peace?

When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea and proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” he called people to reaffirm their willingness to live as God’s people, according to God’s will and purpose, on God’s land. A lot of people from Jerusalem and the surrounding region were heading down to the river to listen to John’s preaching and to be baptized by him, confessing their sins. One by one they stepped into the water. They could see the fire in his eyes. One by one they said what needed to be said. Then they trusted themselves to his strong, sun-burned arms as he plunged them beneath the surface, into the silent depth of the old river. Their ancestors had crossed this river to enter the promised land and to live faithfully as God’s covenant people. Now they sought to be baptized in this very river because they wanted to be worthy of being counted among God’s people, worthy to live in the coming kingdom of God. They prayed that the river would wash away their sins, their shame, their fear, and that they would emerge from the chilly depth refreshed and renewed.

“I baptize you with water for repentance,” the Baptist said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[3] A mightier one was already among them, and he would bring the fire of judgment.

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized. He came like the rest of them had come, walking the same dusty roads and down the same rocky paths to the river’s edge, waiting in line in the heat of the day, and finally stepping into the water to be baptized. It is good for us to notice and remember that Jesus began his ministry where sinners gathered; some full of fear of the coming judgment (just like some of us), others much too comfortable in their presumed righteousness (just like some of us).

John looked at Jesus, and he was convinced that the days of preparation and repentance were over, that the day of truth and fire had come. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” he asked. It wouldn’t be the last surprise the Son of God brought with him. And so Jesus got in the water with all who had come to the river for a new beginning, who wanted to step out of the past and welcome God’s new day with freshly-washed lives.

We get into the river hoping that it will carry away all that weighs us down, our failures and our worries, our self-condemnation and our broken promises, all that gets in the way of our living a life that is faithful, real and whole. We get into the water, and Jesus gets in with us. He steps into the river and is baptized along with all who gather there, not because he needs to repent, but because he wants to be with us. This is what righteousness fulfilled looks like. Obedient to God’s will and purpose, Jesus is baptized in solidarity with us. He is Immanuel, God with us in our broken humanity. He gives himself to the murky water of our sinfulness, trusting that the river of God’s grace will carry not only him but all of us with him. He gives himself to the path of humble servanthood that is greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Stepping into the water with us, he gives himself to the path that leads to the cross where the muddy water of human sin washes over him and kills him, carrying away to the sea of oblivion his love and compassion, his mercy and wisdom – all for naught?

The little scene at the river is like a sketch of his entire life and ministry. When he came up from the water it was a glimpse of Easter, a first glance at the first day of a new creation; the heavens were opened, the Spirit descended, and a voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

When Jesus got in the water with us, something wonderful and beautiful happened to that old river that marks the border between wilderness wandering and home, between life as a slave and life as a servant of God. In his baptism, Jesus made our lot his own, he let himself be immersed in our alienation from God, our sin, our lives far away from the kingdom; and in our baptism, his beautiful, faithful life becomes ours in the forgiveness of our sins, in our reconciliation with God and with each other, and in our call to participate in his mission.

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights,” God had said through the prophet Isaiah, “I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[4] The words the voice from heaven spoke were not a quote, but there’s enough of an echo for us to notice the deep connection between God’s delight in God’s servant people Israel and God’s delight in this servant. There’s enough of an echo for us to recognize in Jesus the kind of obedience that will not break a bruised reed nor quench a dimly burning wick, but establish justice in the earth. There’s enough of an echo for us to hear in just a few words the whole promise that the life of the obedient servant would be a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, the liberation from prison for all who sit in darkness, a blessing for all the families of the earth.[5] Jesus entered the water in solidarity with us, making our lives his own and his life ours. The old river has been changed forever by his beautiful, faithful life.

Some of you probably remember the day of your baptism, how cold the water was, and how you didn’t feel any different at all and at the same time like a whole new person. Some of us, including myself, can’t recall that day or that moment because we were babies when we were baptized. Christians have fought long and hard over when and how to baptize people properly and it took us many years to realize that the church of God is big enough to accommodate a variety of traditions and practices. No matter what particular form of baptism we undergo, in it God claims us as beloved sons and daughters. Our lives are woven into the life of Jesus and we become members in the body of Christ. We no longer worry about whether or not we are worthy of life in the kingdom, because Christ has made us his own. In baptism as in all of life, what Christ has done for us far outweighs anything we do or fail to do. Whether we were immersed in a river or had a little water poured over our heads in a chapel, when we were baptized the life of Jesus became our life, the story of Jesus our story, and the mission of Jesus our mission.

We discovered last year that Vine Street’s role in that mission would include our commitment to help vulnerable communities gain access to safe, clean drinking water. Beginning today, you will be asked to volunteer to be trained for that work. Think about it, pray about it, and if necessary, be a little braver than you thought you could be.

The mightiest river in all the world is the river of God’s mercy and justice, and Jesus has called us to step in.


[1] 2 Kings 5

[2] Numbers  36:13; Deuteronomy 1:1-5; Joshua 3-4; see also 2 Kings 2:6-13

[3] Matthew 3:11

[4] Isaiah 42:1

[5] Isaiah 42:3-7; Genesis 12:3; Matthew 12:18-21


The quiet teacher

Wednesday night we watched and listened as the children performed their wonderful Christmas pageant. What a great story… it changes year to year and yet remains the same, generation to generation. This year we followed Gloria who had just moved to California from Vermont, and her new friends and co-conspirators, all of them determined to show Molly Hollywooder, the Mayor that wanting to keep Christmas out of her town was not only a bad idea, but also impossible. We heard happy songs and funny lines, and saw some exquisite acting and even dancing, all in celebration of the birth of Jesus the Savior.

I thought of Christmas pageants past, many years ago when I was a kid and we didn’t even dream of wearing a microphone over our ears. I don’t know how many times I had a part in a pageant, but I remember playing a sheep (no lines to learn), a shepherd (just do what the older kids do), and one of the angels (we sang Gloria and worried about our wings falling off). The high point for me was the year I got to play Joseph, and the girl who played Mary and I got to sing harmony in response to an unkind inn keeper who told us he had no room for us.

Imagine that, Joseph, the strong, quiet type had a few lines of dialogue and even a song! Usually, you know that, all the attention is “round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild” and Joseph gets to hold the lantern. When Mary birthed Jesus, ‘twas in a cow’s stall, with wise men and farmers and shepherds and all – what about Joseph?[1] Can you think of a carol that has Joseph in it? There are few, very few; in our hymnal, just one.[2] Compare that to twelve with mother Mary. Last night at the choir Christmas party, when it was again, “Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day…” I turned to Micah and said, “Somebody needs to write a song about Joseph.”

The Christmas story is big, with plenty of room for details from Luke, Isaiah and Matthew. In nativity scenes and pageants it got bigger and bigger, proclaiming year after year the good news that there’s plenty of room in God’s inn for all to come home. Kimberly Richter is a colleague from North Carolina who wrote about her family’s nativity set:

We delight every year in unwrapping each figure and arranging the scene. But every year, just which figure is Joseph is a matter of personal opinion. Any one of five or six shepherds is a likely candidate for Joseph. Every year, I’ll admit, I look in that stable and wonder if I have the right man as the father of the baby Jesus. … of course, that was Joseph’s question, too. Who’s the father?[3]

Of the four gospels, Matthew is the only one that deals with the question of Joseph at all. Otherwise, he just disappears among wise men and farmers and shepherds and all. Luke barely mentions him. And even in Matthew, he appears in chapter one, disappears by chapter two, and never says a word. But watch him listen.

Joseph and Mary were married but not yet living together, and Mary was pregnant. Matthew tells us that the pregnancy was the work of the Holy Spirit, but Joseph didn’t know that; all he knew was that the child wasn’t his. Matthew doesn’t tell us what thoughts went through his head or Mary’s. In the entire passage, neither one speaks a single word. Matthew does tell us that Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose his wife to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. Being a righteous man, a man who always sought to act in accordance with God’s commandments, he could have chosen to condemn Mary to life-long shame by publicly demanding a divorce. He could even have chosen to have her stoned to death for adultery – he could have, it was perfectly legal, and some of his friends and neighbors, had they known about the situation, probably would have expected him to do just that. But from among the limited options the law provided Joseph didn’t just do what the book says but chose the path of kindness. Joseph listened to the commandments of scripture with his heart inclined toward mercy.

There are of course other inclinations, other paths. Fred Craddock was reflecting on this short scene with Joseph when he almost lost his temper recalling how some people read scripture,

I get sick and tired of people always thumping the Bible as though you can just open it up and turn to a passage that clears everything up. You can quote the Bible before killing a person to justify the killing. ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ the Bible says. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘If a man finds something displeasing in his wife, let him give her a divorce and send her out of the house.’ It’s in the Book. Do you know what the Bible says? ‘Let the women keep their heads covered and their mouths shut.’ Do you want me to find it for you? It’s in there. I run into so many people who carry around a forty-three pound Bible and say, ‘Just do what the Book says.’ [4] 

Righteousness is not as simple as just do what the Book says. Joseph could have read the law with his heart inclined toward anger and vengeance, but instead he read it with an unwillingness to expose Mary to public disgrace and chose to follow that path. And just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and Joseph listened:

“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The law against adultery didn’t apply at all, no matter what inclination one brought to it, because Mary wasn’t an adulteress. The child in her womb, the angel said, was not a violation of God’s holy will, but an expression of it, a gift from the Holy Spirit.[5] Joseph was to keep his marriage to Mary and he was to name Mary’s child ‘Jesus,’ thus becoming his adoptive father and crafting the baby into the tree of Jesse. Did he tell his family about this or his neighbors? Not according to Matthew, which I take as a strong hint that our question might be beside the point. Matthew wants us to watch Joseph listen. When he awoke from sleep he didn’t say anything, but his life became a faithful response to the revelation received in his dream. He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and through his obedience the child became a son of David.

In Matthew, the story of Jesus begins like the story of creation, with the stirring of God’s Spirit. This child is entirely God’s initiative, and through this child, God is making all things new. Now the law and the prophets must be read, understood, and obeyed in light of this newness – not to be left behind as old, but to be illumined from within with the light of Christ.

Joseph’s righteousness is in tune with the living and saving God. Joseph is the first person in the New Testament who reads the scriptures in light of what God has done in Jesus. According to Matthew, Joseph is the first person in the world to hear the word God is speaking in Jesus as the culmination of God’s promises and saving purposes. He will save his people from their sins and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. In Jesus the Savior God is with us, teaching, healing, and forgiving, serving, pleading, and reconciling.

Joseph is a quiet teacher, but he shows us what righteousness rooted in God’s mercy looks like. He shows us that doing what is right and in accordance with God’s will involves more than looking up a rule in a book, even if the book is the Bible. It involves listening for and responding to God’s will for us in light of Jesus’ life.

Joseph is a quiet teacher, but he tells us the gospel truth, “If in reading the Bible you find justification for abusing, humiliating, disgracing, harming, or hurting, especially when it makes you feel better about yourself,”[6] you better think twice if that really is what God wants you to do. You better sleep on it, or better yet, pray on it, and let an angel from heaven remind you of what God has done in Jesus Christ and continues to do.

The impression we’re getting from our Christmas pageants, paintings, carols, and Christmas cards is quite accurate. All the attention is “round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild” and Joseph gets to hold the lantern. Some say he’s just a regular Joe trying hard to make himself useful.

Maybe, but I see a man who quietly directs our gaze to the new beginning this child embodies for the world.


[1] I Wonder as I Wander, Chalice Hymnal #161

[2] Chalice Hymnal #155 Angels We Have Heard on High (v4 Mary, Joseph lend you aid, while our hearts in love we raise). Joseph, Dearest Joseph Mine is a lovely lullaby/carol, but it’s not included in Chalice Hymnal. The Cherry Tree Carol presents a Joseph very different from Matthew’s!

[3] Kimberly Clayton Richter, “The Advent Texts: Glorious Visions, Dogged Discipleship”, Journal for Preachers Vol. 28, No. 1 (Advent 2004), p. 8

[4] Fred Craddock, “God is with us,” The Cherry Log Sermons (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001) p. 5

[5] Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 13

[6] Craddock, pp. 5-6.


Not waiting for another

John the Baptist is in prison. The wilderness preacher who used to sleep out by the river, under a blanket of stars – Herod has locked him up. Night and day he stares at the walls; there’s no window that would allow him to see the sun or the moon. The door is shut, and it can be opened only from the outside.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he used to declare with conviction and urgency, certain that the days of sin’s old regime were counted. So convinced was he that the reign of heaven was about to erupt, he could feel it rumbling under the soles of his feet like an earthquake. Any day now; he knew it.

John ate wild honey, but his words had little sweetness in them; he spoke with fire on his breath. One stronger than himself would come after him, and he would gather the wheat and burn the chaff and clean up this mess sinners had made of the world. John had seen Jesus. John had baptized Jesus. And when Herod shut him up in a cell he thought it wouldn’t be long before the prison doors would fly open. Soon, very soon, divine justice would rule and all the fruitless trees would be chopped down and thrown into the fire.

But he didn’t hear any reports of the wicked being punished. No cries of terror from the threshing floor of divine judgment, no shouts of vengeance from the streets of he city. I can see him pacing up and down his cell, barely four steps to the door, he turns, another four steps back to the wall; he’s being tormented by questions, “What is Jesus doing? What is taking him so long? Where is the fire?”

Then reports began to trickle in about Jesus’ work in the towns of Galilee, bits and pieces about him healing the sick and forgiving sinners—what had happened to the ax that was lying at the foot of the trees? John was confused. I can see him sitting in the dark, waiting for the walls of his cell to crumble and light to pour in; but the only thing crumbling was his certainty; disappointment and doubt were creeping in. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Everything is at stake in that question, and not just for John but for anyone who has encountered Jesus since.

A year ago yesterday a boy named Adam threw a blanket of death over a school, a town, and a nation. We sat in the dark, our hearts broken, waiting for light to pour in. Defiantly we lit an Advent candle that Sunday and with shaky voices we sang of peace. Faithfully we lit a candle of remembrance Sunday after Sunday, praying for healing for the families of the victims and for all the brokenhearted, and honoring the women who had given their lives to protect the children. Many of us thought that such a horrifying act of violence would certainly, finally shake the conscience of the nation and move us to talk about weapons in our culture, about the sorry state of our mental health services, and about the violence and vengefulness that saturate our imaginations. Appallingly little has changed, and perhaps one more moment of silence yesterday was the most honest and honorable thing our leaders could ask us to do.

But some of us sit in this darkness and wonder, “Did we get it all wrong? Is it really just the same old mix of fear and self-interest that determines our being, our thoughts and our actions? Are we so trapped in ourselves that the gentle and courageous way of Jesus will always remain just a side road for dreamers?”

“Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Are we to wait for one who doesn’t tell Peter to put away his sword? Are we to wait for one who will call for legions of angels for one final battle of cosmic proportions in which evil will forever be eradicated?[1] Is Paul proclaiming a fantasy when he urges us in light of Christ’s death and resurrection, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought of what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[2] Are we fools when we insist on seeking non-violent responses to violence? Are we to wait for another?

John looked at Jesus when he came to the Jordan to be baptized, and he just knew that this was the one whose coming he had been announcing. John saw the one whose power he had envisioned, the one carrying the winnowing fork in one hand and the ax in the other. John looked at Jesus on the river bank, and he knew that the reign of God, the new regime of everlasting righteousness was now but a fire away. But then Jesus insisted on being baptized together with all the sinners, and perhaps that was when John started to wonder. But he wasn’t puzzled enough to allow the Messiah’s complete identification with sinners to call into question his own ideas about divine vengeance. He still waited for the fire to be kindled. Locked up in Herod’s prison, with little waiting time left, he asked, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

We take the question with us to Bethlehem, on to Galilee, and to Jerusalem. We look at the child and ask, “Are you the one?” We spend time in the company of the friend of sinners and ask, “Are you the one?” We look at the curious king riding into town on a donkey and being crucified under the old regime, his head crowned with thorns, and we ask, “Are you the one who brings the kingdom of heaven to earth or are we to wait for another? One who is more powerful than you? One with a bigger hammer, a bigger sword, a bigger army?”

Jesus’ response doesn’t take the answer away from John or from any of us; we still each give it with our lives. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he says. And pointing to the life erupting around him, Jesus sings a few lines from Isaiah: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. Tell John what you see. Sing him a song of heaven embracing the earth with grace and compassion. Sing of showers of forgiveness falling on thirsty ground. Sing of streams of mercy refreshing the parched places. The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom.

Jesus’ presence transforms lifeless wilderness into a lush garden; his deep knowledge of our brokenness opens the gates of healing in a thousand places. We are still only beginning to grasp that Jesus didn’t come to bring the fire, but to be the fire that burns in our hearts and the water that makes the desert sing. Jesus didn’t come to bulldoze a highway across the mountains and valleys of our life, but to be the way that leads us all from sin and death to righteousness and life. In him the consummation of God’s work has burst into the world and is wondrously unfolding in and around us.

John was bewildered because in the reports he heard about Jesus he didn’t recognize the Messiah whose coming he had announced. I think of John as the embodiment and voice of our longing for the world made right. He is Advent in person, preparing the way, watching, waiting, wondering. I don’t know if his eyes were opened to recognize the glory of God’s reign in the words and deeds of Jesus, but I like to think that he began to open up to the possibility. I like to think that his expectations only for a moment got in the way of seeing the fulfillment of his hope in Jesus. I like to imagine it for John in his dark prison cell, because I have the same hope for you and me in the darkness that surrounds us: that we may have eyes to see and ears to hear how in the coming of Jesus the end time of God’s mercy has entered into our history. His coming, his Advent calls into question everything we think we know about God’s power and justice and then our notions of human power, human justice, human judgment.

“The ransomed of the Lord shall come to Zion with singing,” Isaiah declared. “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Sorrow and sighing are still present, but there are weak hands that need to be strengthened and feeble knees that need to be made firm. There are fearful hearts, our own included, that need encouragement against the temptations of cynicism and despair,  “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.”

A year ago yesterday, a boy named Adam threw a blanket of death over a school, a town, and a nation. We can’t pull it away, but we can refuse to sit under it. We can refuse to let the twisted logic of violence determine our actions.

We can declare with our lives that the gentle and courageous way of Jesus is not some obscure side road to nowhere, but the highway to Zion. That’s why we decided to observe this painful anniversary with small acts that affirm life in community, small acts that express our shared commitment to nurturing our children. We could of course call it a school supply drive, but that doesn’t get to the heart of it. Faithfully and defiantly we light candles of hope and peace and joy and love, and we declare that we are not waiting for another.


[1] Matthew 26:52-53

[2] Romans 12:17, 19, 21


Christmas Eve

I love worshiping in our sanctuary. I love the large windows, the open view on the changing patterns of sky and clouds, the trees giving shape and color to the seasons.

I love worshiping in our sanctuary any time of year or day, but I have some favorites. Christmas Eve is one of them. The darkness outside. Inside, the hushed voices of worshipers before the services begin, the eyes of old and young reflecting the light of the star. The tiny flame topping candle after candle as the light travels from hand to hand in the beautiful circle of Silent Night. And the songs, the carols, the music blending ancient hope and childhood memories with the miracle of birth, proclaiming once more the wonder of the night of nights when the word of God became a human being. I hope that many of you who read this will join us this year for one of our Christmas Eve worship services.

The service at 4:30 p.m. is designed with small children in mind. At the center are the nativity scene and the birth stories from the gospels of Luke and Matthew, and around it we sing our favorite carols and light our candles.

The service at 11 p.m. tells our story from creation and fall to the birth of our Savior with scripture lessons, carols, and gifts of music. We share the Lord's Supper to proclaim God's faithfulness beyond all that sin divides and destroys, and we give thanks for the birth of Christ. And right around midnight we pass the flame from candle to candle in a circle of joy: the light of Christ will fill the world!

Come and worship with us. Come and take part in bringing the good news of great joy to all. Merry Christmas!



Mary's boy

A year is the length of time it takes the earth to circle the sun. The journey doesn’t have a clear starting point, and so the first day of the year can be freely chosen. This explains why we live in multiple years at the same time: One year begins with our birthday, the school year begins after the summer, the fiscal year on January 1, our congregation’s budget year on July 1, and the church year on the first Sunday of Advent, which makes this the last Sunday of our worship year.

In this country, it’s a Sunday often in friendly competition with Thanksgiving Day, which isn’t bad at all, if you think of it as ending the year with gratitude – saying thank you to God for the gifts of the land and the fruit of our labor, for the people who make our lives meaningful and joyful; for all the ways in which we belong together. We pause, we look back, we recognize how blessed we are, and we say thank you. Not a bad habit to cultivate, even if some of us jump up after the last bite of pumpkin pie to get a headstart in the mad rush of Black Friday that seems to begin earlier each year.

There were complaints this year, quite vocal complaints when some major retailers announced that they would be open for business on Thursday. Many worried people signed pledges on facebook declaring to the whole world that they would not go shopping on Thursday. Some of them said shopping on Thanksgiving was almost as bad as scheduling the kids’ hockey practice on Sunday morning when the family ought to be in worship; others let it be known that it was much worse, since Thanksgiving is only once a year, whereas a hockey season only takes twelve Sundays out of fifty-two.

Somebody interviewed the CEO of a large national retailer whose stores remained closed last year in observance of the holiday and to allow employees to be with their families. “People were lining up outside the locked stores, knocking against the glass, wondering why they couldn’t go shopping when they wanted to,” he said; this year the doors of all their stores will open at 8pm.

It doesn’t really matter if the whole thing makes you want to laugh or pull your hair and scream, the fact remains that not a single store would be open on Thanksgiving Day if everybody stayed at home and watched the ballgame, just like we always have since the days of the pilgrims when the natives came over for dinner with corn, squash, and a portable black and white tv.

But back to this Sunday, the last one of the church year. We’re invited to reflect on time as God’s gift that allows all of life to flourish. The readings for this Sunday encourage us to look at last things, as in “What abides when all else has ended?” or “What is it that determines the course of time and where is it all headed?” or even “Who says that a festive meal with one’s family is better for life’s flourishing than a trip to a crowded mall?”

On Easter we hear and proclaim the good news that on the first day God raised Jesus from the dead. And on the last Sunday of the church year we affirm that this Jesus is Lord of all, that what will abide beyond all endings is the love of God, that the course of time is headed to the throne of God, and that the day will come when we no longer pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” – because all things will reflect the glory of God in perfect peace and beauty.

We continue to pray for the kingdom, even though most nations have banned kings and queens from our political life. We continue to use the language not just out of respect for the past or because Christ the King sounds so much better than Chairman Christ. We use the language because it allows us to sing and speak of our hope that righteousness will prevail. We live in a world where power and strength are often paired with arrogance and selfishness, and we long for a world where the last word doesn’t belong to the guys with the bigger guns or the bigger off-shore accounts, but to a righteous ruler.

Toward the end of Second Samuel, we read an old man’s last words, written down so that generations to come would know and remember, One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.[1] It’s a scene of great beauty and promise. The hope for one who rules over people justly goes back as far as historical records, legends and ancient songs can take us. And the hope for one who rules in the fear of God is as old as the sad reality of rulers who abuse the privilege and power of their office for selfish ends.

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord, we hear Jeremiah cry. Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness, and his upper rooms by injustice; who makes his neighbors work for nothing, and does not give them their wages; who says, “I will build myself a spacious house with large upper rooms,” and who cuts out windows for it, paneling it with cedar, and painting it with vermilion. Are you a king because you compete in cedar? [2]

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! It is a harsh judgment that lays the responsibility for the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of God’s people at the feet of the shepherds, the king and the leaders. My pasture, my people, my flock, says the Lord, but you have not attended to them, you have built your spacious house on their backs, you have scattered them.

I wonder what the prophet had in mind when he spoke of scattering. Certainly he spoke of the captives who had been taken into exile in Babylon and of the refugees who had fled to Egypt; but the scattering had begun much earlier with the families driven off their land and from their homes, the neighbors who built the spacious houses and were not given their wages, the people bending under the weight of debt who saw no other way out but to sell their children and themselves into slavery. My pasture, my people, my flock, says the Lord, but you have not attended to them, you have scattered them.

I’m not a king and I can’t find one to point to in order to deflect the force of the prophet’s indictment against the scatterers. I can’t escape the word that indicts me for not attending to God’s people who work for next to nothing just so I can go to the store after my Thanksgiving feast and play bargain hunter. I won’t go and I don’t want a bargain that comes with that kind of a price tag, but I’m still complicit in the scattering. I can’t escape the word that indicts me for not attending to God’s people who live and die on the streets because our mental health system is broken and we can’t figure out how to build affordable housing in our city. I can’t escape the word that indicts me, so why don’t I just tell Jeremiah to leave me alone and go and talk to the people who I’m sure do a lot more scattering than I do?

Well, for one it’s too late for that; I have heard his message and can’t pretend I didn’t. But there’s a better reason: the prophet also has the word that points to the way out of this mess for God’s scattered people. I myself will gather them, says the Lord. Our God indicts us for our scattering ways, and judges us for fragmenting the unity of life, the unity of God’s people on God’s earth, but God also gathers us.

I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall exeute justice and righteousness in the land. I don’t know what promise Jeremiah’s first listeners heard in those words, but for the church they point to Jesus who has compassion for the people because we are like sheep without a shepherd; Jesus, the curious king whose palace is on the streets and whose spacious house has an upper room large enough for all.

Delores Williams remembers Sunday mornings from her childhood when the minister shouted out, “Who is Jesus?” And the choir responded in voices loud and strong, “King of kings and Lord Almighty!” And then little Miss Huff, in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear her, would sing her own answer, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Back and forth they sang. “King of kings” the choir thundered, and Miss Huff sang softly, “Poor little Mary’s boy.”[3]

We long for a world where the last word doesn’t belong to the guys with the bigger guns or the bigger off-shore accounts, but to a righteous ruler, and we already live in that world because Mary’s boy is the One whose kingdom has no end. With love he invades the world to build his reign. His pierced hand will hold no scepter but a shepherd’s staff. On his haloed head he will wear no crown but the splendor of his mercy. Never will his might be built on the toil of others, but he will walk and work with us on the journey to the city of God. The Lord is our righteousness, it will be called, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.[4]

[1] 2 Samuel 23:3-4

[2] Jeremiah 22:13-15

[3] See Barbara Lundblad

[4] Some of the words come from Gian-Carlo Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors


What a light

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” he asked her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



[2] Robert Coles, The Moral Life of Children


Advent on your phone?

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

Download file


All will be thrown down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only the young possess the simplicity

To accept a truth transcending rote and rule,

So that, like star-led shepherds, children see

The fact of miracle.

But logic, the sophist, clouds the maturing life, 

Caution replaces the fearless face of youth,

Till the sceptic mind prefers a plausible lie

To a fantastic truth. [5]

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

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

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

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

Follow me, he says.



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

[3] Josephus, Jewish War 5.222

[4] Luke 21:1-4

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

[6] Ibd.

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


The Bishop and Lazarus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is blessed. How?

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

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

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



[2] Luke 16:19-21

[3] Luke 3:5

[4] Luke 1:52

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

[6] Luke 19:9-10


Brothers, perhaps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

How long, O Lord?

Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I bear pain in my soul,

this sorrow in my heart day and night?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


See you, see me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Leviticus 13:45-46


Thank God for the Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Luke (Interpretation), p. 200


The Man with the Hammer

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

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

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

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

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

Annie Dillard wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

[5] Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries, 1898

[6] Deuteronomy 15:7

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

[8] Isaiah 40:4

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


What an economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love your enemies.

Turn the other cheek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much do you owe my master?”

“Nine hundred gallons of olive oil.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Spare change?” the man asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


Sabbath Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Paul's Appeal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Hughes, p. 80

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

[4] Noll, p. 160

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

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

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