All ate and were filled

Those walking by the palace could hear them sing, Happy Birthday, dear Herod, Happy Birthday to you! It was Herod’s birthday, and government officials, members of the leading families and the usual lobbyists had been invited to a banquet at the palace. They took turns toasting Herod and praising his wisdom, his power and glory. He was in a great mood, and he asked the daughter of Herodias to dance before his guests.[1]

Herodias was his wife, but she used to be his sister-in-law, his brother Philip’s wife, and John, the wilderness prophet, used to tell him, “It is against the law for you to marry her.” John didn’t mention that Herodias was also Philip’s and Herod’s niece… Anyway, Herod had John the Baptist arrested, bound, and put in prison. He really wanted him dead, but he feared public opinion: recent polls had indicated that a great number of people regarded John as a prophet of God.

So, back to the birthday party. Herod asked Herodias’s daughter to dance for his guests, and she did, and her dancing pleased him so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. He may have had a few drinks too many, or perhaps he just wanted to impress his guests with his lavish generosity. The young woman, prompted by her mother, asked Herod for her present, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a plate.”

For a moment, perhaps, you almost feel sorry for the old fool: it was too late to take back the impulsive promise; he couldn’t afford to go back on his word and lose face in front of his guests. He was trapped in the power game whose rules he upheld on behalf of Rome. He had to do what he had to do, or at least so he tried to tell himself, I imagine. Nothing’s being said about John, the servant of God’s coming reign, locked up in a cell, unaware of the deadly developments upstairs. Who knows if the music ended when they brought in the prophet’s head on a platter, or if the party went on all night.

Matthew draws our attention to what happened next, outside of Herod’s palace. John’s disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. And Jesus, upon hearing the sad news, withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. [2]

We wonder if he just wanted to be alone to grieve the death of his friend; or if he crossed the lake to get away from Herod, at least for a while. We imagine his soul was thirsting for prayer. He had to wonder what John’s death meant for his own proclamation of the kingdom that wasn’t Herod’s or Caesar’s but God’s. As he made his way across the lake, men, women and children followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus went ashore, he saw them, but rather than getting back into the boat and seeking solitude and silence out on the water, he stayed with them and cured their sick. He had compassion for them. The kingdom he embodied and proclaimed is founded on compassion.

Matthew shows us in stark contrast the kingdoms of the world and their power and the kingdom of compassion. He tells us the story of two banquets: Herod’s bloody birthday party and Jesus’ banquet by the lake. Herod, trapped in his own power games and determined to stay on top, could only produce death. Jesus brought healing and life, and all ate and were filled.

This is not just a story in the past tense about a miracle that unfolded one late afternoon hundreds of years ago, on the northern shore of lake Galilee. The story is about Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims in the midst of all the old power arrangements. The story is about us and where we go with our hunger. The story is about our need for healing and salvation, for compassion and community, for bread and the feast of life. The story invites us to leave Herod’s party and to go where Jesus is headed and find fulfillment there. There is no bread for our hunger in Herod’s palace, but there is bread in abundance on the other side of the lake where Jesus prepares a picnic in the wilderness.

Bread in the wilderness evokes memories of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, memories of God’s liberating power and providence. Like his father, Herod the Great who killed the infants in and around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod looks a lot like Pharao. The murder of John was not an unfortunate, isolated incident of poor judgment, it rather showed with brutal clarity that there are powers in the world that will do anything to keep God from disrupting their plans with the announcement of freedom for the oppressed, good news for the poor, compassion for the suffering, and bread for the hungry in the kingdom of God.

I tell myself that I don’t want a seat at Herod’s birthday banquet and that I don’t want a piece of his cake.

The real players, inside the palace, smile; they know I’d never get an invitation.

But the children who crossed the border into Texas and Arizona, longing for a chance to feel safe, to learn and grow and live, the children look at me, saying, “Are you going to sit with us?”

And the children in Israel who have nightmares because rockets keep flying across the sky and exploding around them, the children look at me, saying, “Are you going to eat bread with us?”

And the children in Gaza who have no place left to flee from the terror of war, the children look at me, saying, “Will you sit with us?”

They know and remind me that I’m very much part of Herod’s world, whether I like it or not, and Herod’s ways are very much part of me. They know that it’s power and privilege that keep me from fully embracing a life of compassion, and yet they wait for me, and Jesus with them.

I hunger for a world where all eat and are filled, a world where God is at home and all of creation is at peace. I hear a voice, shouting and yet barely audible under the din of constant propaganda and anxious chatter,

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;
and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me
listen, so that you may live.[3]

I hear the voice of Christ in these lines from Isaiah. I hear his invitation to all who hunger and thirst for life to come to him. He calls the poor to buy wine and milk without money, and those of us who have money he asks, Why do you spend it for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Why indeed? Why do I spend so much money for things that promise to fill me but don’t? Why do I labor for things that only leave me wanting more? Why do I eat too much, drink too much, work and drive too much, and still I don’t know how it feels to be filled? Why do I fill with things a void only God can fill?

We are being taught daily, in more and more sophisticated ways, that we are in control and that we can work, shop, possess and consume our way to fulfillment – I know this sounds like a cliché, but I’m afraid you and I might be quick to dismiss it because we suspect that it could be true. Meanwhile, Jesus is at the lake shore, God’s compassion in the flesh, calling the poor and the rich to come, and healing us.

It’s getting late, and some of us are beginning to worry about this enormous group of people and their hunger. “Send them away so that they may go and buy food for themselves,” some disciples say. There are markets in the villages, there are stores in the towns – send them away so that they may buy food for themselves. Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” And we look at what we have to offer, and it doesn’t look like much, and we tell him, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It really isn’t much to look at against the backdrop of human hunger and need, wherever we turn our eyes, but Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” And then he does what we remember and proclaim every time we gather at his table, he takes the bread we bring and blesses it, breaks it, gives it back to us, and we pass it around. At the end of the day all have eaten and are filled and there’s enough left to feed the whole people of God.

It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have, but what we do with what we have been given. Our fulfillment and the fulfillment of our neighbors and our enemies is not tied to how much we manage to control what is ours. Fulfillment is tied to our trust in God’s promise and power to redeem us. Fulfillment is tied to our trust that once we begin to relate to each other through Christ, life abundant will erupt.

In Jesus we encounter a power that is utterly different from what we celebrate or fear when we look through the windows of Herod’s palace for a glimpse of the party. Jesus has no use for legions, for rockets, tunnels, tanks, or border fences. But in his hands – this is the gospel promise – in his hands even our smallest gifts of what we know to be life-giving become fullness of life for all.

[1] Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1-23)

[2] Matthew 14:1-13

[3] Isaiah 55:1-3


A cup of water

In Matthew chapter ten, Jesus gathers the twelve, he gives them authority over unclean spirits and sends them off. The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, and the twelve are only the beginning. “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he tells them, “and as you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” They are to act as his envoys, sharing in his authority and power to forgive and heal, but also sharing in his poverty and homelessness. They are to take no money, no bag for their journey, no extra clothing, but depend entirely on the hospitality of others for shelter and food.

He also prepares them for rejection. They will not be welcomed everywhere, and they can expect to experience some hostility since he is sending them out like sheep into the midst of wolves. They may also have to face painful division within their families because of their loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom of heaven. For all of this risk and suffering, Jesus promises, “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Last Sunday we reflected on the weight of these words, the weight of wanting to be worthy of him; todays lection are the final three verses of the speech. Something is different in these closing lines. He no longer speaks of the risks of going out, but rather of the rewards for welcoming them in. It’s just a slight change of perspective. One moment we see ourselves in a small group of itinerant disciples walking toward a house, wondering if they will be welcomed, now we see ourselves inside the house, wondering what to do with the strangers about to knock on the door. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

It is in these closing verses that it becomes clear that Jesus is not just addressing the twelve who are about to go on the road, but all his disciples. You and I are no less part of this mission than Simon, Andrew, James and the rest of the twelve. In our life together, in our proclamation, in our intentional and accidental everyday witness to Christ God is reaching out in mercy to the world.

By the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, congregations of Christians already existed in many cities and towns of the Roman Empire. Itinerant Christian prophets and teachers were not unusual at all; on the contrary, early Christian writings suggest that at times they may have become a burden to the small communities. Not only did they need a place to stay and something to eat (and occasionally overstay their welcome), sometimes they also disagreed with each other. Paul wrote to the church of the Thessalonians, “We appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work…. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.”[1] And another leader warned, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”[2] Matthew makes sure we remember Jesus’ words, “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”[3]

He is addressing one audience, but he’s talking to two groups; the settled Christian community and the itinerant prophets. He’s assuring the prophets that they don’t need to sell their word like peddlers, as it were, because the ones who receive them will receive a rich reward for their hospitality. And he’s promising the welcoming community the rewards of welcoming a prophet in their midst. A prophet’s reward is in kingdom terms what we might call a king’s ransom, only that tilts it too much to the monetary side of things. A prophet’s reward is treasure in heaven, a kind of wealth and fulfillment money can’t buy.

Congregational life in Matthew’s day was very different from Vine Street, we know that. But having lived with people for a few decades, I imagine that life was also very similar. Nobody’s too eager to welcome a prophet, either because things are going just fine or because they’re a little iffy already, and whether you’re comfortable with the way things are or a little nervous, you don’t want some outsider coming in and stirring up trouble.

What I hear Jesus saying here to the prophets among us, is, “Don’t be afraid. Speak the word you have been given without fear. The truth of the gospel is at stake. Don’t be silent and do not walk away too soon.” And to the congregations of disciples I hear Jesus say, “Welcome a prophet, welcome without fear anyone who speaks in my name, whether or not you agree with them. The truth of the gospel is at stake. Do not close the door too soon.”

There aren’t a lot of itinerant prophets around anymore, but there’s plenty of settled Christianity in our city, and there are voices and perspectives, Christian voices that come to us like those of strangers who are passing through. Men and women who may speak with a pentecostal accent or a catholic sensibility, people we have perhaps dismissed as holy rollers or papists, or had already labeled as pinkos or fundamentalists, and who wants to listen to them? “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward,” and whoever doesn’t welcome them will have to wait for the reward that much longer.

Itinerant and settled describe the early days of Christian prophets and house churches, but to be sent and to receive are also aspects of being church together that never become a thing of the past. Jesus calls us to be fearless when we venture out beyond our comfort zone with the word of life in our hearts, in our hands and on our lips, and to be equally fearless in receiving the word of life when it comes to us – to listen, to test, and to hold fast to what is good. And the reward, it turns out, is not just tied to prophets and the righteous. We hesitate to use words like prophet and righteous, we want to be careful because they are precious, and we might cheapen them by overuse. But we do not hesitate to pray for the courage to speak the word given to us without fear and to seek righteousness in the company of Jesus. The promised reward is tied not only to prophets and the righteous. Jesus says, “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because they are my disciples—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” At the end of a long speech addressing the challenges and dangers of living as those whom Jesus has sent, at the end of a chain of difficult teachings about the hard places where faithfulness might take us, at the end we are given this beautiful word like a cup of water.

I see a prophet sitting on a hot, dusty sidewalk, tired from calling the city to repentance so that he too might have a place to lay his head, and one of the waiters steps out of the hip restaurant across the street, carrying a small tray with a tall glass of water, ice cubes jingling, and she kneels beside him and says, “You look thirsty, brother.” It’s just a cup of water, but she offers it with the mercy that holds the universe.

It is so simple, and you may be saying to yourself, “I already know that, preacher.”

Well, I’m glad you do. I think I’m done for today.


[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, 20-21

[2] 1 John 4:1

[3] Matthew 10:41 NRSV alt.


Double trees

Fifty years ago, some of you remember that summer, on June 21, 1964, three young men volunteering for the voter registration drive disappeared in Mississippi. Their names were Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Earl Chaney.

About six months earlier, President Lyndon B. Johnson, speaking before a Joint Session of Congress, had said, “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.”[1]

The bill passed the House in February of ’64, but it was debated in the Senate for sixty working days, including seven Saturdays with several attempts to filibuster the bill. It still is the longest Senate debate in history. On June 19, the Senate adopted an amended bill which was sent back to the House (Martin Luther King, Jr. was in a county jail in Florida that week after attempting to integrate a restaurant). The House adopted the Senate version of the bill on July 2, 1964 and President Johnson signed the bill into law that same day. A month later, on August 4, the FBI found the bodies of the three missing civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. They had been shot and buried beneath a dam, and they weren’t the only ones who gave their lives in the struggle for justice.

When I read the texts the lectionary of the churches recommends for this Sunday I groaned a little under their weight. Persecution. Killing. Fear him who can destroy both body and soul. Take up the cross and follow. Not worthy of me. Three times! Not worthy of me. Heavy stuff. I got a little break when I read again Jesus’ words, “I have come to set … a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

“Well, Lord,” I said quietly, “that won’t take much, will it?” Sitting at my desk, chuckling at my own joke, I knew I was laughing because I felt more than a little uncomfortable. The world of Christian witness this text addresses seems so far away from my world. I am free to proclaim the good news of God’s Messiah Jesus. In my world, the men and women who want to build a mosque for their Friday prayers face way more opposition and more threats than a preacher who loves the Lord Jesus. The only time I ever received some mildly threatening letters and emails was after arsonists burned a small Islamic center in Columbia. After that incident I stood with Muslim friends because that’s where the Jesus I know and love stands.

Perhaps the point is not whether or not we recognize our life, our little world in this heavy passage from the gospel. Perhaps the point is whether we will have the wisdom and the courage to stand where Jesus stands when the moment of decision comes and he’s looking for us. Perhaps the point is whether our sons and daughters will know Jesus well enough to recognize him on the bus and get on to ride with him.

The gospel words on the page seem heavy at first, too heavy almost for a sunny summer morning, but the word they speak comes to us embodied in the lives of witnesses like Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, Dr. King and James Earl Chaney.

In 1998, the authorities at Westminster Abbey in London decided to fill ten niches on the West Façade, empty since the fifteenth century, with statues of Christian martyrs. The Rev. Dr. Anthony Harvey, one of the leaders of the effort, said, “There has never been a time in Christian history when someone, somewhere, has not died rather than compromise with the powers of oppression, tyranny and unbelief. But our century, which has been the most violent in recorded history, has created a roll of Christian martyrs far exceeding that of any previous period.”[2] Among the modern martyrs remembered for standing firm in their faith against the perpetrators of the acts of violence and injustice dominating their world are Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, and we know that each of them stands for countless men and women, and even children whose names we do not know.

Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1942 Christmas letter,

“We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes and showing real compassion that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and action, not in the first place by their own sufferings, but by the sufferings of their brothers and sisters for whose sake Christ suffered.”[3]

On April 5, 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested, along with his sister, Christine and his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, all on suspicion of treason. On Easter Sunday, April 25, Christine, still in jail, wrote a letter to her sons, Klaus and Christoph, and I want to read from it, because we have so many good and inspiring words from men like Bonhoeffer, King, and Romero; we rarely hear from ordinary people, women in particular, who know and show the fearless love of Jesus. Christine’s letter to her boys ends with these words,

“Now I want to tell you one more thing. Don’t carry any hate in your heart against the power that has done this to us. Don’t fill your young souls with bitterness; that has its revenge and takes from you the most beautiful thing there is, trust.... it is after all only a really small and meager part of the human being that one can put in jail.... I embrace all of you.[4]

Stories and even snippets of stories of faithful witnesses help us to imagine how to follow Jesus when it becomes crucial.

Clarence Jordan was a Bapist preacher with an agriculture major from the University of Georgia and a PhD in New Testament. I mention him because his story is very much part of the story of the civil rights movement in the South; he was also very serious about the gospel and very funny. He heard the call to the ministry of reconciliation, and he answered it by founding the racially integrated Koinonia Farm in Americus, Georgia in 1942. As you can imagine, not all the neighbors were thrilled about that project or the people involved in it. When the Koinonia folks set up a roadside stand to sell peanuts the Ku Klux Klan threw a stick of dynamite in it and blew it to smithereens. Jordan didn’t retaliate; he put up another stand. It got blown up too. Finally, the Koinonia Farm resorted to mail-order ads: “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.”[5]

Jesus said, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! So have no fear of them.” No fear. No retaliation. But real compassion that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer.

I want to tell you one more story with a farm in the middle of it. It’s in a part of the world where keeping hope alive is the biggest challenge for all who live there. It’s a small farm, just outside Bethlehem. Bishara Nassar was a child when his father bought the land in 1916. It was a time of massive change. World War I was transforming the Middle East in ways still not resolved to this day, the Ottoman Empire was limping to an end, and Palestinian Christians were beginning to leave.

After the war of 1948 the Christian exodus from the West Bank quickened, and Bishara, who was a preacher and a musician, began to travel round the nearby villages, singing songs and leading Bible study in family homes. Music and stories, he thought, might deepen the faith and lift the spirits of Bethlehem’s Christian children, encouraging them to stay. Bishara also came to believe that the Christian community had a special role to play in building a more peaceful future on that wounded land, and he taught his own children the principles of non-violence rooted in Jesus’ teachings.

In the years since his death in 1976, the family’s commitment to non-violence has been tested in ways he could never have imagined. Jewish settlements began to be built on the hills around the farm, all of them considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this. As they watched the settlements rise around them in the 1980s, the Nassars began to worry. Their farm was in a great location, close to the main north-south road through the West Bank and on high ground. Prime real estate.

In 1991 the military authorities declared that more than 90% of the farm now belonged to the State of Israel. The Nassars, though, refused to leave, and they had the documents they needed to launch an appeal in the Israeli courts. In 1924 Bishara Nassar’s father had registered his property with Palestine’s new imperial rulers. The British issued land deeds that specified the size and borders of the farm, and almost 70 years later, those papers became the basis of a legal case that has been in front of the Israeli courts for 23 years. It remains unresolved.

When the Nassar family was informed, after 10 years in the military courts, that their Palestinian lawyer was not eligible to contest the case in Israel’s supreme court they found an Israeli firm willing to take it on. When they were told to provide a land survey, they hired an Israeli surveyor, and sent him, at great cost, to consult maps and documents in the imperial archives of London and Istanbul. “Every time they see you are ready to meet their demands, they ask [for something] more and more difficult, [so] that you say ‘I am fed up’,” one of Bishara’s children said. “Yes, this [is] always the process. We know it. It’s a game to push us to leave.”

Last month, a BBC reporter watched Daher Nassar, one of Bishara’s sons as he picked apples from the ruins of an orchard he had planted years ago. The fruit was scattered across ground freshly opened and imprinted with the tracks of a bulldozer. Tree trunks and branches had been pushed into a muddy pile. On May 19 a shepherd from a nearby village had been out at first light and had seen the bulldozer at work in the field, guarded by Israeli soldiers. By the time Nassar arrived the whole orchard was gone. His English was far from fluent, but there was no mistaking the pain in his voice when he said to the reporter: “Why you broke the trees?”

A spokesperson for the Israeli military authorities in the West Bank said the trees were planted illegally on state land. Nassar’s sister, Amal, has a different explanation. The government, together with the Israeli settlers who live around the farm, is “trying to push us to violence or push us to leave,” she says. Amal insists that her family will not move from the land, nor will they abandon their commitment to peaceful resistance. “Nobody can force us to hate,” she says. “We refuse to be enemies.”

Her brother walks across a scarred and empty field. He looks around and says, “I will plant more trees. Double trees.”[6]


[1] http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=25988&st=&st1

[2] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/129587.stm

[3] Letters and Papers from Prison, as quoted in Kelly, Geffrey B. and F. Burton Nelson. The Cost of Moral Leadership: the spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans Publ., 2003, 46.

[4] Sifton, Elisabeth and Fritz Stern. “The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi”. The New York Review of Books. October 25, 2012. Emphasis added. 

[5] See Millard Fuller’s foreword to Ann Louise Coble, Cotton Patch for the Kingdom: Clarence Jordan’s Demonstration Plot at Koinonia Farm (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 11.

[6] Adamson, Daniel Silas. The Christian family refusing to give up its Bethlehem hill farm. 17 June 2014. 


Holy Extravagance

The other day, driving home through the rain, I made the final righ turn and parked the car in the driveway just after it had stopped raining. I sat there for a moment, listening to the rest of a story on the radio. Then I pulled the key from the ingnition and opened the door.

It was late in the evening, the sun was low, light pouring through the  trees like the world had just taken a bath. I was about to open the back door of the car to grab my bag from behind the seat, when a very gentle breeze stroked my face and a sweet fragrance greeted me in passing. Suddenly nothing else mattered. I just stood and then turned toward the tall magnolia tree, slowly breathing in, hoping to catch another wave of scented air from its graceful blooms – and there it was.

Such goodness. Such generosity. I didn’t say a word, but for a moment my whole being was a thank you to life and the God of life. It didn’t cost me a penny, all I had to pay was a little attention.

Our days are full of these wonders. Honeysuckle. Watermelon. Strawberries. Such goodness. Wine with friends. Thick slices of fresh bread. Travel stories. Sitting on the beach, watching the waves roll in. Or closer to home, gently swinging in the hammock, listening to the happy noise of the children at the pool. Such goodness. The joy of noticing all the places where the Wrens love to stop before they fly to the nest to feed their young. Or seeing how the hills cradle the lake and the air carries the hawk above the cliffs by the river. Such beauty. Such wideness and fullness of grace.

We listened to the entire first chapter of the first book of the Bible this morning, which may have seemed slightly over the top to some of you, a little extravagant perhaps. “That was enough text for a seven-week sermon series,” you may have said to yourself, “complete with an adult education forum on faith and science – why waste it by pouring it all out at once?”

Why pour it all out in one reading? Because it’s the whole story of life in one chapter, from first light to God’s rest. Because it’s poetry that wasn’t written to be chopped up into lectionary sections but to be read and heard, to be spoken and sung with at least some of the extravagance the text applies in describing the wondrous orderliness of creation. And we listen to the whole poem because God takes time in creating. God doesn’t just snap the divine fingers and immediately bring creation into being. God speaks. God makes. God names. God observes and delights. “And God saw that it was good,” is one of the refrains of this grand poem. The first day. The second day. The third day. God is not in a hurry. Like an artist who steps back from the detail, again and again, to behold the whole as it is taking shape, God pauses to observe closely how the earth brings forth plants yielding seed of every kind and fruit trees. The fourth day. God notices how the waters swarm; God sees how birds fly across the sky and where they build their nests. God lingers with delighted attention over every movement of every wing. The Carolina Wren, the eastern Goldfinch, the Great Blue Heron. The fifth day. God speaks. God makes. God observes and delights. “Why so many forms?” asks Annie Dillard in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

“Why not just that one hydrogen atom? The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t, particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely and  wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. Freedom is the world’s water and weather, the world’s nourishment freely given, its soil and sap: and the creator loves pizzazz.”[1]

According to the poem from the opening chapter of Genesis, human beings are latecomers to creation. We are creatures of the sixth day, made in the afternoon, after cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind. When Carl Sagan came up with his now famous model for the age of the cosmos, he didn’t count days, but he arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the late arrival of humankind. Sagan first popularized the idea of squeezing all the time of the universe into not seven days, but a single year, beginning with the Big Bang on January 1. On March 15, the Milky Way galaxy was formed. The sun and planets came into existence on August 31. The first multicellular life on earth appeared on December 5, fish on December 18 and birds on December 27.

Human beings arrived on the scene about 8 minutes before midnight on December 31. And we started writing only about half a second ago in cosmic time.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” asks the Psalmist, awed by the dawning knowledge of creation’s grandeur. It is in us, in these last few minutes of creation’s magnificent unfolding in the hands of God, that the universe has become conscious. Human beings are the first creatures to look at the heavens, the moon and the stars, and ask questions. Human beings are the first creatures to discern the unity of life in all its wild and orderly freedom, and to name the source from which it comes. All creatures praise God by simply being what they were created to be, but there was great joy in heaven when the first human beings looked around with awe and delight and said, “Thank you.” Human beings find themselves addressed by the divine creator in a particular way that calls us to respond to every detail of the miracle in which we know ourselves to be participating, to respond with praise and gratitude, with caring responsibility and exuberant creativity.

We listen to the entire opening chapter of Genesis on a Sunday morning in June, because it is a beautiful invitation to step out of our little worlds and to live into the unfathomable splendor of a gazillion creatures great and small, each vibrating with the love of God, giving that love a shape that changes from moment to moment and yet remains one for as long as God breathes and speaks. We listen to beautiful scripture to better know how to be who we are made and meant to be.

More than fifty years ago, in 1967, a historian named Lynn White wrote an article for Science magazine in which he charged that the roots of the ecological crisis are essentially religious. The problems derive from Christian tradition in particular, he said, which has taught people to view themselves as “superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.” James Gustafson calls it “despotism”—one of the historical ways that people of faith have interpreted their divine calling to dominion over the earth. “In this view,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, “you do not have to ask a tree before you bulldoze it for a subdivision. You just knock it down, push it into a pile with the corpses of other trees, and set it on fire. Then you are free to scrape the clear-cut earth free of green moss, tiny wild iris, unsuspecting toads and a couple of thousand years’ worth of topsoil before calling the pavers to come cover your artwork with steaming asphalt. Oh—and if the mountain laurel block your view of the river, just cut them down too. The next time the river floods, the banks will collapse without those living roots—the river will silt up eventually, until you can push a sharp stick three feet straight down in the sandy bottom without ever hitting what used to be the river bed—but what the heck, if the trout die, you can still buy some at the grocery store—already cleaned and boned, for just a few dollars a pound. You are Lord over this playground, after all—God said so. It is all for you.”[2]

A lot has happened since 1967. We have listened to the prophets and begun to repent. We also listened to our teachers of Scripture who reminded us that dominion on God’s earth doesn’t mean self-serving tyranny, but rather caring attentiveness that allows life to flourish. And by the mercy of God, growing numbers of Christians remembered that God isn’t some absentee landlord who can’t wait to burn the place to the ground, but the creator who delights in every creature and on the seventh day rests serenely in the wondrous whirl of creation.

Summer, of course, is the perfect season for us to fully immerse ourselves in our God’s delight in all creatures and to practice seventh-day-living by resting completely in God’s providence and care. So have a full, slow, free, wild, wonderful summer.

[1] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1988, p. 137

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dominion of Love,” Journal for Preachers 2008, p. 26


Life in fullness

It was the night of their last supper together. Judas had already left the table and gone out, and the other disciples didn’t know why or where. Then Jesus said, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer.” I imagine each of them feeling their stomachs tensing up. Jesus also said, “I give you a new commandment; love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” But Peter and the rest of them weren’t quite ready to hear those words; they worried what would become of them.

“Lord, where are you going?” When will you be back? What are we supposed to do without you? Why can’t we come with you?

Little children he had called them, and that’s exactly how they must have felt. Worried kids, not at all excited about the prospect of having the entire house to themselves with no one around to tell them what to do. “Don’t be troubled,” he told them. “I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am you may be also.” And he went on like this for four long chapters, telling his disciples everything they needed to know before he left them. “I will not leave you orphaned,” he promised.

Barbara was the eldest of three daughters and the designated babysitter in her family. “From the time I was twelve, I was the one my parents left in charge when they went out at night. First my father would sit me down and remind me how much he and my mother trusted me—not only because I was the oldest but also because I was the most responsible. This always made me dizzy, but I agreed with him. I would not let the house burn down. I would not open the door to strangers. I would not let my little sisters fall down the basement steps. Then my mother would show me where she had left the telephone number, remind me when they would be home, and all together we would walk to the front door where everyone kissed everyone good-bye. Then the lock clicked into place, and a new era began. I was in charge.”

Turning around to face her new responsibilities, what Barbara saw were her sisters’ faces, looking at her with something between hope and fear. They knew she was no substitute for what they had just lost, but since she was all they had they were willing to try. And so was she.

“I played games with them, I read them books, I made them pimento cheese sandwiches on white bread with the crusts cut off. But as the night wore on they got crankier and crankier. Where are mommy and daddy? Where did they go? When will they be back?”

She told them over and over again. She made up elaborate stories about what they would all do together in the morning. She promised them that if they would go to sleep she would make sure mommy and daddy kissed them good night when they came in.

“I tried to make everything sound normal, but how did I know? Our parents might have had a terrible accident. They might never come home again and the three of us would be split apart, each of us sent to a different foster home so that we never saw each other again. It was hard, being the babysitter, because I was a potential orphan too. I had as much to lose as my sisters, and as much to fear, but I could not give in to it because I was the one in charge. I was supposed to know better. I was supposed to exude confidence and create the same thing in them.”[1]

When Jesus prepared his friends for his departure, he called them little children; he sat them down to give them his instructions and left them in charge. That’s us, all of us. We’re the responsible ones now, the ones he has trusted to carry on in his name. But what about the times when we feel not quite grown-up enough for the responsibility we were given, when we feel abandoned, desolate, vulnerable, frightened—in a word, orphaned? What about the moments when the darkness creeps in and our little brothers and sisters look to us for a story to comfort them, for a brave song that will keep the monsters from coming up the basement steps; when they look to us for assurance that all will be well in the morning? What about the moments when we worry about what will become of us, what will become of the church, what will become of this beautiful world—aren’t we supposed to exude confidence and create confidence in the ones who look to us?

The way John tells the story, faith doesn’t begin with intellectual conviction or an act of will; faith is a relationship with Jesus. A relationship with Jesus, because he doesn’t just declare and explain the truth; he is the truth. Jesus not only gives and restores life, he is the very life of God and of God’s creation. Yes, Jesus teaches the ways we are related to God and to each other, but he isn’t just a teacher of the way, he is the way.

Faith is a relationship with Jesus, and through Jesus with the God he revealed and glorified in his life on earth. The first disciples were anxious about the end of the incarnation of God in Jesus, anxious about the prospect of their relationship with Jesus being reduced to mere memories of him. How would they love him after his return to the Father?

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth.”

Another advocate, someone like Jesus. Someone who would keep the truth of Jesus present to the world. The word our Bible translation (NRSV) renders as “advocate” has been translated as comforter (KJV), counselor (RSV and NIV), companion (CEB), helper, assistant, broker, and mediator; another contemporary option would be community organizer. The Greek word parakletos has a wide range of meanings, and we must assume that all of them are meant to resonate. All translations are correct, but no single one captures the full range. Many scholars have suggested that perhaps it would be best not to translate parakletos but to keep it in its transliterated form, Paraclete.[2] I’m not sure that’ll help, since lots of folks will wonder what kind of bird that might be.

Jesus promised his friends that he would not leave them orphaned. His return to the Father didn’t mean he’d be absent, but rather that they would encounter him differently, in and through the Spirit. They would continue to love him, not by clinging to their cherished memories of him, but by continuing to live in his love.

While Jesus was with them as the Word of God incarnate, his mission was limited to the one place where he was at any given time, and to the people he encountered then and there. Then he returned to the Father, and a new era began. His friends, the disciples, were given the Spirit and, little children no more, they now became the community of love where the living Christ, the living God is at home. This is us, all of us, every generation of disciples. We’re the responsible ones now, the ones he has trusted to carry on in his name, gifted with all that is needed.

We worry, because we think it’s all up to us now, and it’s so much to do, and we already have so many things to do, and how much more can we do, and do we really have all it takes to do all that? We’re so used to letting ourselves be defined by what we do and how much or how little we accomplish. We think we’re supposed to live constantly on the edge of anxiety. We forget that we’re gifted with all that is needed. We forget that faith is not a call to do everything Jesus used to do. Faith is our relationship with the living God, our participation in the life of God, our being with Jesus in what he is doing.

“I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you,” Jesus says, having already promised the coming of the Spirit, and then he says, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

The divine presence the first disciples encountered in Jesus, the divine presence we seek and so often question, that presence is promised to those who love, to those who mirror the divine communion of Father, Son, and Spirit in their human communion with one another.

“I give you a new commandment; love each other,” Jesus said to his disciples that night. “Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.” And he went on like this for four long chapters, with words intertwining like branches on a vine.

“If you love me you will keep my commandments. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” Words like music, phrases intertwining like the melody lines in the harmonies of a song, ever new variations on a theme Jesus embodied so beautifully: love in communion, life in fullness. Loving each other the way Jesus has loved us we become a dwelling place for God, a place where God is at home in the world and the world at home in God. I can’t think of anything more awesome.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine, pp. 80-81

[2] The New Jerusalem Bible does just that


Take One

A couple of years ago, during one of our weeks of hosting Room in the Inn, I was standing near the kitchen counter downstairs, waiting in line with our guests to have our plates filled. The food smelled wonderful, and from every side I could hear bits of conversation. Just as I was about to grab a plate, the man in front of me, one of our guests, turned to me and said, “I know what we need to do to end homelessness.”

“You do? That’s awesome. Would you mind telling me?”

“Every congregation in Nashville adopts one of us and then you all help us get the help we need. Some of us just need a place to stay to get back on track, others need medical attention or a job. If every congregation adopted one of us, we wouldn’t be back here night after night.”

“Man, what an idea, and so simple! You’re right, one each ought to be doable and that would change things dramatically.”

Then he turned to ask one of the volunteers on the other side of the counter if they had any hot sauce, and I thought about Isaiah’s call to share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house as a way of fasting that is righteous and God-pleasing.[1] But it wasn’t long before I thought about how much easier it is to open the doors to God’s house to the homeless poor on a cold night for shelter and a meal when we know that the next morning they’ll get a ride back to the Campus for Human Development. Organizing shelter and meals for a few nights a year requires the commitment of many helpers, but it is nothing compared to a congregation committing to embrace one individual with their gifts, their story and their needs.

This doesn’t change the fact that the man was right. Homelessness is caused by many factors, but most of them represent a breakdown in community, a fracturing of relationships, separating and isolating us one from the other and pushing some of us to the margins. And congregations are communities that embody and display in their life together God’s power to reconcile and make whole. Congregations are communities of hope. We are being called together by God who doesn’t turn away from our brokenness but says, “I am with you.” The big question is, how do we translate that promise of God into a life together that embraces not just some of us, but all who need community to be made whole?

The end of April, I got a letter signed by one of our state legislators and by the Commissioner of TDOC, the Tennessee Department of Corrections. Take One, it says in big, bold letters.

“Dear Faith Leader,” it begins, and after some introductory remarks it continues,

It is estimated that more than 90 percent of offenders currently housed in Tennessee Department of Corrections (TDOC) prisons will eventually be released back to our communities. It is also well known that having positive influences to assist and support these men and women in their transition is crucial to their return home.

Take One seeks to have individual organizations agree to mentor just one offender and his/her family for a period of one year. The idea is that faith-based and non-profit organizations can provide a level of support, encouragement, and guidance that could be the difference between a successful transition home or a return to prison.

Take one, just one, for one year. Reconciliation heals broken community, and reconciliation is such a big word, but here it translates into support, encouragement, and guidance that say to one individual, preparing to return to life outside the prison doors, “You are not alone. You are not on your own. We are with you.” It’s the promise of God, embodied.

In this Easter season, we are given a reading from the book of Acts, the Acts of the Apostles, a book about the wondrous ways in which church happens. It’s the day of Pentecost, and Peter stands up to address the crowd, to say a few words about how the world has changed for good. Christ is risen from the dead, the Spirit of the risen Christ is on the loose, and the world is no longer what it used to be. Everything’s become new, and you’d expect Peter, this newly made apostle of the kingdom to grope for words, perhaps stammer a bit, but no. Luke has him preach a sermon without notes, complete with lenghty quotes from scripture, flawlessly structured according to the best practices of rhetoric, and all at nine o’clock in the morning. And to top it all off, we’re told that those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about 3000 persons were added. One sermon – and 3000 new disciples! What is this, preacher intimidation Sunday?

Well, not just preachers. These 3000 plus newly baptized along with the first followers of Jesus, we’re told, devoted themselves to Christian education and fellowship, to shared meals and prayers. No worries about worship attendance or Wednesday night programs, Bible study or budgets. Everyone spoke highly of them, and there was not a needy person among them since everything they owned was held in common. Everything was just perfect.

Why is Luke doing this to us? Why is he painting this picture of perfection where no one is hungry, no one is homeless, sinners are forgiven, and all are devoted to learning and growing as God’s people? Doesn’t he realize that no congregation we have encountered is like that? Doesn’t he know that among us devotion to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship is not exactly enthusiastic and that most of us are glad to be able to make it to coffee hour occasionally and perhaps to the waffle breakfast on Mother’s Day? Doesn’t he know that he’s making us feel small and insignificant in comparison, that somehow we’re not measuring up?

If Luke had written solely as a historian or a chronicler, we’d be looking at nothing but the sad fact that the church has been going downhill, and fast, since the day he wrote about it in chapter two. If he had written on rose-colored paper with nostalgic, golden ink flowing from his quill, we’d find little comfort in his words as we struggle to embody and proclaim the gospel in our day. If, however, Luke wrote as a visionary theologian with a pastoral heart, then he looked at the struggling congregations of his day and thought of a way to support, encourage and guide them in their tremendous and sometimes terrifying mission as Easter people. He wrote to remind them and us that we are participating in a movement of the Holy Spirit, the powerful, unstoppable, life-giving Spirit of God who draws us and all creation into life redeemed and made whole. He reminds us that the work is God’s and that we have the privilege of participating in it, anticipating the conversion of multitudes when we tell one of the compassion of God; anticipating the just sharing of earth’s goodness among all people when we give of our abundance to the need of another; and anticipating the signs and wonders of the age to come when we take one, just one, for one year. He teaches us to see God’s purposes perfectly fulfilled in the seemingly small things we do faithfully, day by day.

Think of it as Luke taking a picture of an ordinary congregation of ordinary people on an ordinary day, but then he doesn’t just post it on Facebook with a quick comment, “Hang in there, friends, and keep up the good work!” No, he applies a set of filters that render the everyday scene in the light of heaven, and suddenly the ordinary moment glows with the promise and presence of God’s reign.

You may be standing in line with a group of homeless men, waiting with them to have your plates filled with fried chicken, mac ‘n cheese, and green bean casserole. And you talk about stuff you enjoy talking about, a movie perhaps, or the biscuits your mom used to make when you were little, or how to end homelessness in Nashville. And there, on an ordinary Wednesday in November, suddenly it dawns on you that we’re all made for each other, that we all need community more than all the things we want, and that we’re all being saved by being drawn together by the Spirit of the risen Christ. It’s a wonderful moment, and you don’t quite know how to talk about it without sounding corny, but you know in your bones it’s true.

[1] Isaiah 58:6-7 “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”


Walking to Easter

We don’t know where to look for Emmaus on the map, but we know the road. We walk on it when loss has turned love into grief. Or when our hope has drained away as though a sinkhole had opened underneath and swallowed it. Emmaus is where we go to walk away from what we cannot forget.

Seven miles is a good long walk. When your heart is heavy and you don’t know who you might become after you’ve pretty much lost all sense of who you are, you go for a walk. Walking gives you something to do. It helps you sort through things. Sometimes you have to be alone – you walk by yourself; you want to be under tall, old trees. And when you know there’s no one else on the trail who could hear you, the words don’t just run through your head anymore, but spill out. You don’t really care who it is you’re talking to, whether it’s yourself, or God, or the trees. You let the anger well up, the disappointment, the doubt, the tears. And you walk; the rhythm of your steps keeps your thoughts and memories from spiraling into chaos. You walk, sometimes by yourself, sometimes with a friend. You tell the story, again and again, to your friend, to yourself, to God, to the trees. Seven miles, that’s a good long walk.

Two of Jesus’ friends, Luke tells us, were on that road – Jerusalem behind them, the city and the events of the last few days. They were trying to cope with the flood that had washed over them: the joy of Jesus’ arrival, the shock of his arrest, the guilt over their painful lack of friendship, the trauma of his execution, and then the astounding story the women told about a vision of angels who said that Jesus was alive. It was all too much to take in, and so they walked. A stranger came near and was going with them. Luke tells us that it was Jesus, but they didn’t know that. They didn’t know the man who was walking next to them.

He asked them what it was they were talking about. They stopped and stood for a moment, and then they told the story again; told the man how their hope had grown from a spark to a bright flame in the company of Jesus, and how death had snuffed the flame together with the life of their friend. “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

“We had hoped,” they said. Some of us have spoken those words when we were packing up the things we had brought with us to the ICU. “We had hoped,” we said, and then we went home alone. Some of us have used the phrase when we didn’t get the phone call after the job interview that went so well. Some of us were too tired to even say the words when news of yet another atrocity flashed across our screens: Civil war in Syria and South Sudan. Hundreds sentenced to death in Egyptian courts. Over two hundred Nigerian girls abducted from their school because education threatens power.

We had hoped. Emmaus is where we go when we can speak of hope only in the past perfect tense. We had hoped that Jesus was the one to redeem us from the powers and rulers that oppress us. With every fiber of our being we want to speak of that dreadful Friday in the past perfect, “Our chief priests and leaders had handed him over to be condemned to death and had crucified him, but …”

“But on the third day,” we want to continue… but the two on the road can’t hear that yet. The execution on the cross, that was the public event, the one with all the eyewitnesses. From the road to Emmaus, Good Friday simply rings truer than Easter morning. Good Friday is verifiable, then and now. On the Emmaus road, Good Friday is not only not past perfect, it’s present tense. It is where we live, in the world of betrayal, corruption, violence, death, and shattered hope. “Easter is a rumor by comparison. Someone said that someone saw him, only it didn’t look like him, exactly, and before anyone could believe it was him he was gone. … Now you see him, now you don’t.”[1]

Rumors. Baffling tales. The two travelers told the stranger the story of their dreams and disappointments, and they were quite unable to see outside of their own story. The things they kept rehearsing in their hearts kept them from seeing that it was Jesus, the risen Christ himself who was walking with them.

Cleopas and his unnamed companion are not as famous as Mary or Peter. We never hear of them again; they are like us, ordinary people struggling to keep hope alive. They are also, like us, folk who sometimes struggle to see outside of our own story. Slow-of-heart folk. The story of the resurrection of Jesus is the story outside of our stories, it is the story of God’s faithfulness surrounding our stories of lost hope, the story of God’s creative and redemptive possibilities enveloping our stories of dead ends. It is also the story inside all of our stories. Now you see it, now you don’t.

The stranger listened, and then he retold the story they had just finished, told it right back to them, and in the telling, he wove their loss of hope into the fabric of God’s faithfulness. Now they could hear the confusing rumors of resurrection as echoes of God’s promises to God’s people. Now they could begin to see that the suffering and death of Jesus was not the end of their hope, but somehow a part of it. In the stranger’s words, the promises of scripture opened up like blossoms, and the two companions opened up along with them. “Stay with us,” they urged him when they reached the village and he was walking ahead as if he were going on. “Stay with us; it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. And there, at the kitchen table, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. That’s when they recognized him. That’s when it dawned on them. That’s when the resurrection was no longer a rumor or an idle tale, but their life, their world renewed.

Once they had recognized him in the stranger, in the scriptures illumined by his presence, in the breaking of the bread, they no longer needed to see him. He vanished from their sight. The risen One walks with us on the road through the wasteland of lost hope until we see that the power of God’s suffering love makes all things new. Now we see it, now we don’t.

“The sacred moments,” wrote Fred Buechner, “the moments of miracle, are often the everyday moments, the moments which, if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only… the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our … imagination (…) what we may see is Jesus himself.”[2] The risen Christ subverts our ways of knowing, making an ordinary moment shine with glory and opening to us a horizon of hope and courage we cannot perceive with our minds alone. Before we recognize the risen Christ in the stranger, in the scriptures, and in the breaking of the bread, we try to squeeze what we are told happened on Easter into our understanding of the world. We try hard to make it fit. Afterward, it’s the other way around. Now, how we understand the world is held in the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. And how we understand life is illuminated by this divine passion for communion with creation, the pssion that has broken down the gates of hell, the chains of sin, and the tombs of death.

We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know what will become of Syria and South Sudan, or of Ukraine and Russia. We don’t know how many executions there will be in Egypt or in Tennessee before we stop killing each other in the name of justice. We don’t know how long girls will be obducted and sold in Nigeria and elsewhere before their lives and freedom will finally be honored. We simply do not know what the future holds. But we believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead. We believe in God who is redeeming all things through Christ.

In his book Why Christian?, theologian Douglas John Hall engages in a series of dialogues with an imagined conversation partner, someone who is “on the edge of faith.” The final conversation in the book is about hope, and Hall talks about resurrection:

Resurrection is the ultimate declaration of God’s grace. It is not ... natural. It is not ... automatic. It is wholly dependent upon the faithfulness, forbearance, and love of God. And just for that reason - only that! - I am able, usually, to sleep at night, to continue playing the piano and writing (…) and taking my aging body more or less for granted “in the meantime.” Because the only thing of which I can be at all confident when I think of my own “not being” is that God will be. I am not so presumptuous as to think that the God who “brought again our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead” (Heb. 13:20) will also, quite naturally, be pleased to bring me from the dead, too. I don’t understand all that. (…) I do not, and I expect I never shall, understand all that. All that I can do is to stand under it.[3]

It’s much more than just a clever word play. All that I can do is to stand under the great promise that gives me hope and sets me free.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s words,  

Deciding to trust the contours of this new reality more than they trust their accustomed sense of things, the [disciples] themselves are changed. They stop hiding and start seeking. They stop making excuses and start moving mountains. They sell all of their stuff and put the proceeds in a common pot so that no one is in need. They lay their hands on the sick. They defy the authorities. They never tire of telling people who gave them the courage to do such things, and they become known for their glad and generous hearts. (…) their way of life becomes contagious. [4]

They become Easter people.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Easter Sermon,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 1995), 10-14.

[2] Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 87-88

[3] Douglas John Hall. Why Christian? (Kindle Locations 2113-2119). Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.

[4] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Easter Preaching and the Lost Language of Salvation,” Journal for Preachers (Easter 2002), 18-25.


The Streets of Nashville

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, Emily and Elizabeth, Alec, Sara and Andrew, and a few more of us walked the streets of Nashville on Friday. We took the stories of Jesus’ suffering on a walk downtown, or perhaps I should say, Jesus took us on a walk on the Good Friday streets of Nashville from the garden to the governor’s headquarters and Golgotha. The long-ago stories of betrayal, denial and abandonment came close, uncomfortably close, between Broadway and Church Street.

We carried a cross all the way up to the Capitol, the final station. There we listened to a long list of names, the names of men who are currently on death row at Riverbend and we prayed. We prayed. We prayed for resurrection. We prayed for God’s word, for God’s reconciling grace to disrupt our violent ways for good. We prayed, a large wooden cross on the ground in front of us, a silent witness to God’s suffering from us and with us and for us – all of us. We should have left it there, a silent witness at the bottom of the steps of the Capitol, but we didn’t. We carried it back to the garage and loaded it on a truck and left.

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary didn’t leave. They watched Joseph taking the body and wrapping it in a clean linen cloth and laying it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock. They saw him rolling a great stone to the door of the tomb, and then he went away, too. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.[1] They had followed Jesus all the way from Galilee to this moment. They had seen him teaching and healing and illuminating the world around him with his grace and his compassion. When they were with him they saw the world where the poor are blessed and love embraces all, even the enemy. The way he broke bread with friends and strangers, the way he spoke of forgiveness—he had lit a fire in their hearts. He spoke of the kingdom of heaven, and when they were with him, they could see it.

Now this could be the moment when I quote C. S. Lewis who said, “To love anyone is to open oneself to heartbreak.” This could be the moment when I point out how true that is for the two Maries, and really for all of us, and certainly for God who loves the world. But this is also the moment where the story takes a very funny turn. The chief priests come to Pilate’s office with a memory that’s troubling them, “Sir, we remember what that impostor said while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ Therefore command the tomb to be made secure until the third day.” And that’s what they do. They put a guard in front of it and stick a seal on the stone. Now it’s secure. Now this nonsense of God’s reign in what is after all Rome’s world is dead, buried, guarded and sealed. Ha!

But they who laugh last laugh best. The chief priests weren’t the only ones who remembered what Jesus had said. After the Sabbath, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. They remembered Jesus’ words and they went to see and they walked into a messenger of God descending from heaven, lightning dressed in white, earth quaking and the guards of death shaking for fear and passing out. Can’t no grave hold this body down. No grave. No stone. No guard.

“I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified,” the angel said to them. “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.” That’s all there is to see: the guards of death passed out on the ground like dead men and the place where he lay, empty.

Jesus who was crucified has been raised—where is he? The women don’t know whether to laugh or cry; their hearts are beating up in their throats; in their fear and joy they have nothing to hold onto but each other; they want to know where they can see him, him and not some heavenly messenger who seems to know their every thought and hope. “Go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’” Go quickly, like they needed an angel to tell them that—they run, their cheeks hurting from grinning, tears running down their faces, they run, each holding the other’s hand to keep their souls from bursting. They run and suddenly they see him, they see their risen friend on the way. “My God,” you want to say, and if there has ever been a moment to say it, this is it. They fall down at his feet and worship the risen Lord, still trembling between fear and joy.

“Do not be afraid,” he says and then he repeats what the angel said, with one small difference. The angel said, “Go and tell his disciples,” but Jesus says, “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” The first disciples were the men who betrayed, denied, and abandoned him, and we know we belong among them, men and women. Our risen Lord makes sure we know that, no matter what we have done or left undone, we are his brothers and sisters and we are not done following. He hasn’t been raised from the dead to live in glory and never to be seen again. He didn’t burst the chains of death to save himself from the consequences of our sin but to save us, to be with us, and to go ahead of us. The resurrection is not merely something spectacular that happened to Jesus. The resurrection of the crucified one is God’s judgment of the world and it is the first day of a new creation. It is the beginning of new life for the whole world, you and me and all creatures great and small.

“Go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Why Galilee? Galilee is where it all started. Galilee is where Jesus first disrupted our daily routines with his call to follow him. Galilee is where he healed and taught and told the wondrous stories about God’s reign. Galilee is where we first saw the world where the poor are blessed and the hungry are filled and love embraces all, even the enemy, in ways we could barely imagine before Friday. Those who want to see the Risen One are sent to the Sermon on the Mount and to Jesus the Teacher. We who want to see the Risen One are sent back to the beginning of the journey, to follow him again, with a little less fear and with the joy of this day.

The first disciples went to Galilee and saw him there, on the mountain where he said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” He sent them into the world not from Jerusalem, the city where authority and power are so easily confused with might and violence, but from Galilee, from their everyday world of things to do, bills to pay and kids to raise. We who want to see the Risen One are sent back to the beginning of the journey, to follow him again, to learn from him and to serve with him. And we will again hear his parable of the last judgment where they ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

When we walked the streets of Nashville on Friday we heard stories about brothers and sisters who are hungry and thirsty and we saw them; we heard stories about strangers longing for welcome and families in need of shelter and we saw them; we heard stories about brothers and sisters who are sick and in and out of prison, and we saw them. We saw Jesus on the streets of Nashville. On my way back to the church, this has become a Good Friday tradition of mine over the past few years, I listened to Mike Farris sing like an Easter angel.

O’ Mary, Mary I know just whom you seek
You seek for Jesus, whom they crucified last week
Now child he’s risen from the dead And now he walks the Streets of Galilee
O’ Mary, Mary Tell the disciples that he is free
Run Mary run
Now he is waiting just for you
Out on the streets of Galilee
Now when they got up to the mountain
Where he said he’d be
They worshipped and adored him
And said Lord how can this be
All power is within me
From sea to shining sea
Now, go tell all the world about me
And tell them that I walk the Streets of Galilee.[2]

You knew it, didn’t you? He is waiting just for you out on the streets of Galilee.


[1] See Matthew 27:57-61

[2] Words and Music by Michael E. Farris © Gypsy7Music



Jesus Comes to the City

When they were still in Galilee, Jesus began talking with his disciples about having to go to Jerusalem. He mentioned it not just once, but several times, speaking of betrayal and condemnation, of being handed over to be executed and of being raised.

They tried to persuade him not to go. His reputation as a teacher and healer had grown, but so had the concern of the authorities in the city. Delegations had been sent from Jerusalem to investigate his ways: they challenged him, questioned his teachings, tried to identify his weak spots.[1] In Galilee Jesus was safe; he was with his own people – rural folk, poor people mostly, people who weren’t impressed with delegations of educated experts from the city, having come all the way to harass one of their own.

Jesus’ friends thought it was a mistake to go to Jerusalem, to make himself so vulnerable, but he insisted. The city was where he had to go. They followed reluctantly, dragging their feet, one day amazed at his courage and determination, the next day frightened to death.

On the road, the crowd of people walking to Jerusalem grew larger and larger. It was spring, time to make the pilgrimage to the Temple to celebrate Passover, time to celebrate God’s mighty acts in liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt. Conversations among the pilgrims were marked by joy and expectation, but occasionally even the casual observer could also detect overtones of wounded national pride and signs of barely contained religious fervor. Jerusalem was the holy city, God’s own city, their city, but it was also a center of Rome’s control over the land and its people.

Facing a city crowded with pilgrims, Rome’s representatives were understandably nervous. Large crowds were difficult to control under any circumstance, but add the politically charged memory of liberation from Pharao’s yoke, and the mix easily became explosive. Every year, in time for Passover, the Roman governor moved his headquarters from Caesarea by the sea to Jerusalem. He brought along elite Roman soldiers to keep order and to quell any outbursts of enthusiasm that might escalate into a governor’s nightmare.

Lots of people were on the road before the festival. Imagine two processions approaching Jerusalem at about the same time. One a festive, happy throng of pilgrims, colorful and noisy, with small children, goats and sheep; the other a long, orderly column, a Roman battalion, rows and rows of foot soldiers, led by troops on horseback; banners flying overhead, golden eagles mounted on poles; helmets and weapons glistening in the sun; the sound of marching feet, the clanging of hooves, the clinking of armor, the beating of drums. Rome knew how to project power and remind a city filled with pilgrims that any trouble would be crushed. The Pax Romana, Rome’s peace, would be enforced.

Jesus and the disciples reached Bethphage, on the outskirts of the city, at the Mount of Olives. Jesus had walked all the way from Galilee, but now he stopped, only a couple of miles outside the city gates, and sent two disciples for a donkey. It wasn’t that suddenly he couldn’t walk anymore and needed a ride. Everything in this story is about the unfolding of God’s purposes. “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Words from Isaiah and Zechariah illuminate the scene with the light of promised redemption. People stripped branches from trees and the cloaks off their shoulders and spread them on the road to make a carpet for the one who comes in the name of the Lord, a carpet worthy of a king, their king. Hope and expectation were stirred, but also fear. The whole city was shaken, questions flying from every side, “Who is this?” and the crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”

Two processions entered the city that day, one led by Rome’s governor, riding on the largest horse he could find in his stable, the other led by Jesus, a Galilean peasant, riding on a donkey. Some look at this scene and they see prophetic theater, comedy of the oppressed at its best, a parody of imperial pomp and circumstance; but the people who asked, “Who is this?” didn’t just ask out of curiosity. There were men with little black note books in the crowd who reported to the authorities, both at the temple and at the governor’s residence. They followed Jesus to the temple, eager to record verbatim his inflammatory speeches, but he didn’t give any speeches. He entered the temple precinct like any other pilgrim, but instead of purchasing an animal for the sacrifice, he drove out the merchants and money changers, words of the prophets pouring from his lips. On his first day in the city Jesus managed to irritate the occupying power and the religious authorities, not to mention the merchants who didn’t like having their holiday business interrupted.

He spent the night in Bethany, and some of his disciples probably wished he had stayed there, in the suburbs, away from the complications of the city, but he didn’t. Everything in this story is about the unfolding of God’s purposes. He had to be in Jerusalem, the holy city, God’s own city, the city of memory and hope that was also a hub of political power. He had to be there, not to take over the system and put himself at the top, but to topple the whole power scheme and its principles of fear, greed, and control.

Days later, after the powers that be had decided that they needed to get rid of him expeditiously, the governor would ask him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus would say neither yes nor no.[2] He was and is a threat to the power arrangements of the city because he refuses to play their game, our game, and instead he continues to proclaim the kingdom of God, a reign based not on fear or coercion but on faith and unsentimental, dependable love.

Jesus comes to the city. He comes to bless and to heal, to teach and to comfort, but also to challenge, confront, and disturb us. We spread green branches on the floor of our sanctuary today to remember and celebrate his entry into Jerusalem when the empire was Rome’s, but we also do this to remember his claim on our city. We do this to remember that he does indeed ride his donkey all the way down Broadway, passing churches and synagogues on the way, hospitals and schools, hotels and arenas, law firms and banks, the governor’s office and city hall. He has no interest in a bigger pulpit, a bigger desk, or a bigger campaign fund. He rides his donkey down 8th Avenue, past the massive, most impressive Music City Center, and on down Lafayette and past the Union Mission and the Campus for Human Development. He knows this city, from the hippest condo in the Gulch to the fragile encampments under bridges where those without housing try to find shelter. He enters our city and rides through its streets, inviting us to follow him, and on the way we discover life in his city. His city is built around the table where he shares his bread with the hungry and brings the homeless poor into his house, all of us. His city is built around the table where he gives himself to us to heal our broken, fragmented lives with his compassion and his deep trust in God’s faithfulness. His city is built around the table where we look around and finally see that we are brothers and sisters, members of one household, all of us.

Two processions entered Jerusalem on that spring day before Passover: One from the west, a parade of imperial power, a show of force led by Rome’s governor; the other entered from the east, a parade of hope, surrounding a man of fearless humility. We know where the two parades ended; on a hill not so far away. We know which man was tortured and executed, and which one washed his hands.

A few weeks ago, Amanda Miller taught a class during our adult education hour on Sunday morning. We learned a lot about life in the cities of the Roman Empire, including the curious detail of the very restricted use of the color purple. Only members of the imperial household and a small class of officers were allowed to wear clothing made from purple cloth or decorated with purple accents. Purple was the most expensive dye, the color of highest status, the royal color. I chuckled because the church soon adopted the practice of color coding its hierarchy with bishops in purple and cardinals in red. Then I came upstairs and looked at the table.

You can see the bright purple cloth, it’s been on the table all through Lent. It was a bold step for the church to strip the emperor of his purple power suit and to put it on Jesus of Nazareth, as it were, to declare which of the two truly was Lord and Savior and whose vision and power ruled all things. It was a bold step. It was also a dangerous thing to do, given the human inclination to seek power. The challenge remains to this day, will the gentle and fearless way of Jesus transform how we negotiate and organize power in our communities, or will our old imperial ways of domination and control co-opt the name of Christ for our own purposes?

The church was bold to not only claim the royal color of the empire for the Lord Jesus but to combine it with the cross, the empire’s preferred instrument of execution for slaves and trouble makers. This table cover is a bold statement of our hope that the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, will indeed overcome our death-dealing ways with redeeming love. The purple cloth of Caesar embroidered with the cross of Christ is perhaps a greater statement of our faith in the resurrection of the Crucified One than all the trumpets of Easter.

Jesus is riding into town on a donkey, he wants to build his city here. Following him, we discover what it means to be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. Following him, we discover the just city.


[1] Matthew 15:1; 16:1

[2] Matthew 27:11


Just City 360 | Cohousing

Cohousing? Yes, co-housing. Nashville’s first co-housing community will be moving into their condos on 5th and Taylor in Germantown this summer. The project features two buildings with 13 and 12 units, respectively and a common house with a dining room, a living room, a kitchen for community dinners and two bedrooms upstairs for overnight guests. The design and development process as well as the built environment are intentionally more supportive of social interaction. Nationwide, there are approximately 125 co-housing communities where residents own their homes but share open space and common facilities. The growing movement represents efforts to push back against the isolating forces of other development models.

Diane Sullivan, a real estate broker and future resident of Germantown Cohousing, will be our guest speaker on Wednesday, April 9 at 6:30 p.m. (dinner as usual at 6:00 p.m.) to talk about the vision and challenges of this movement. If you want to join us for dinner (see the menu), please make a reservation before noon on Monday, April 7.


Just City 360 | Sanctuary Art Project

There will be an article in our April newsletter about this project. But if you don't mind poor audio, grainy resolution, and a lot of cross-disolving transitions, watch this video. 


Second Call

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Elizabeth Kolbert’s new book, The Sixth Extinction. I knew her writing from the New Yorker, and I was looking forward to reading more of her excellent science journalism. I expected her book to be well researched, well written, and challenging, and I was not disappointed. I couldn’t put it down. What I didn’t expect was how reading it turned into an ongoing Lenten moment of seeing with painful clarity what an impact human life is having on all of life on earth. I was filled with awe at the sheer immensity of life’s history and with amazement at life’s flourishing again and again after great devastations.

The first mass extinction of life on earth, roughly 450 million years ago, at the end of the Ordovician period, is believed to have been caused by dropping temperatures and the resulting glaciation. The third and biggest, known as “the great dying,” at the end of the Permian period about 250 million years ago, seems to have been caused by rising temperatures and changes in ocean chemistry. That one, writes Kolbert, “came perilously close to emptying the earth altogether.” The fifth and most famous, which ended the Cretaceous period some 65 million years ago, doomed the dinosaurs as well as perhaps three-quarters of all living species. It was brought on by an asteroid slamming into the Yucatan Peninsula. Which brings us to the sixth mass extinction, happening all around us. This one is unique in that its underlying cause is a single highly successful species, yours and mine. In geological time, humanity has been around for only a blink of an eye, but long enough to become a planet-altering force.

In her book, Kolbert took me along as she joined scientists in the field who are closely following the trail of destruction – in tropical forests on the slopes of the Andes, in the Amazon, on the Great Barrier Reef, and in caves in Vermont and the Adirondacks. Reading her stories I found myself wondering at her capacity for grief. How could she not be overwhelmed by all the losses she encountered? I can’t forget the scientist from Australia who became a Marine Biologist because he loved the ocean and the incredible diversity of life it supports; now he studies dying reefs, fully expecting that they will all be gone by the time his children would become grandparents. How does he do it?

In a conversation with Claudia Dreifus Kolbert said about humankind’s role in the sixth extinction,

“It’s not something we’re doing because our species is greedy or evil. It’s happening because humans are human. Many of the qualities that made us successful — we are smart, creative, mobile, cooperative — can be destructive to the natural world. When we use fossil fuels, we are reversing geological history by taking organisms that were buried millions of years ago and pumping their carbon back into the atmosphere at a very fast rate.  If I go to Antarctica, an organism I bring on my shoe could be devastating to a life form that has evolved there without any defense against it. Humans have sped up the rate by which we change the world, while the rate at which evolution adapts is much slower. There’s a mismatch between what we can do and what nature can sustain.”[1]

Like I said, reading her book has turned into an ongoing Lenten moment for me, a moment of questioning, wondering, and waiting. Her stories set me down in the middle of the valley, full of dry bones, side by side with Ezekiel, where the Lord asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?”[2] Her stories prepare the ground of my heart for a spring planting of hope. I listen to the opening line of Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come?” And I remember and affirm, “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

Kolbert’s story, grand as it is, is still too small. Yes, there is the first call that brings into being all living things, the call of God the creator who speaks and there is life, wonderful, colorful, breathing, swimming, jumping, flying, crawling, growing, roaring life. But the one who calls the worlds into being from first light to the Holocene makes a second call.

In the opening chapters of Genesis we read about the creator’s struggle with a repeatedly rebellious, violent, and corrupt humanity as a whole. Kolbert says life’s a mess because humans are human. Scripture teaches us to look at ourselves as creatures in need of redemption, because there’s a mismatch between what we can do and what we are to be and do.

Standing on the threshold of Genesis 12 we linger for a moment at the place where one epoch in the divine economy ends and another begins. Behind is the record of humanity’s sin, and ahead lies the history of God’s redemption. Looking back we see that up to this point, ever since our first parents stepped out of Eden and the gate fell shut behind them, most of the human stories in Genesis add up to tales of human sin: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the flood and the tower. At the end of the eleventh chapter of Genesis, eight sad words speak of the fruitlessness, the hopelessness of our world in the grip of sin: “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.”[3] This family, and with it the whole human family of Genesis 1-11 has played out its future and has nowhere else to go. Under the curse of sin, human history is a dead end.

But the one who calls the worlds into being makes a second call. The Lord speaks to Abram, and with that speaking the walk of faith becomes a possibility in the world.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

God’s call interrupts the hopelessness of humanity’s exile and opens a new and different history, the end still being the same as in the beginning of creation: blessing. The history of hope, the new humanity begins where God speaks and the children of Adam and Eve listen. “Go,” the Lord said to Abram, and Abram went, as the Lord had told him. He set out, not knowing where he was going when the Lord burdened him with this curious hope, this peculiar combination of command and promise, ‘Go, and I will bless you.’

The passage opens with God’s command and closes with Abram’s obedience. God’s call and Abram’s response are set like parentheses around the promise, the account of what God is going to do.  God’s action is the center of the word, and because God is going to act, Abram must and can act himself. He must go, without a map, without a schedule or an ETA. He must leave behind country, kindred, father’s house. It’s one radical step – and then another. He must leave the security of home and give up his identity and become a sojourner of God’s promise. He must leave his land for the land which God will show him. He must abandon his kindred for the great nation God will make of him and Sarai. He must let go of his present security for the promised blessing. He must move out of his world for the sake of living in the world to come.

This is a call we do not hear easily or readily. We’re comfortable enough in Haran, half-way between Chaldea and Canaan. We like our little world, the familiarity of it all, although we know that everything hyped as new is really just the old stuff with a new façade, just another turn on the old carousel.

“Of all the things in the world,” wrote Jim Mays many years ago, “we are most interested in those to which we can attach the possessive pronoun—my family, my home, my possessions, my plans, yea, my life.”[4]

God’s call creates a crisis. Our response determines whether we live with and for the promise, disengaging from the present barren way of things, or against the promise, holding on grimly to the present ordering of our world, our vision, our life.

In contrast to the resistant and mistrustful world presented in Genesis 1-11, Abram and Sarai are responsive and receptive to God’s presence and promise. They hear God’s call to live as people of the promise in creation gone awry, and they embrace the promise with just enough passion and courage that they relinquish their present for the sake of God’s future.

It is God’s hope that in this new family all human history and all of life can be brought to the unity and peace intended for creation. And the One who keeps watch over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord will keep you from all evil; the Lord will keep your life. The Lord will watch over your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.


[1] Elizabeth Kolbert in a conversation with Claudia Dreifus http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/11/science/the-sixth-extinction-looks-at-human-impact-on-the-environment.html

[2] Ezekiel 37:1-14

[3] Genesis 11:30

[4] James L Mays, “God has spoken,” Interpretation 14, no. 4 (October 1, 1960), p. 420



Wilderness Days

On a January morning in 1971, John Francis turned on the radio and he got the wake-up call of his life. He wasn’t aware of it at the time. He only heard the news that two tankers had smashed into each other near the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the sea. He drove to the beach and watched residents wade into the black muck to save what they could. Mostly their efforts failed: more than 6,000 seabirds were killed by the spill.

Francis watched, and he wanted to do something, but he wasn’t sure what. How was his life connected to that deadly accident? Haunted by the images of that day, he started wondering about his role in a society powered by fossil fuels. One day (long before we started squeezing the last drop of oil from tar sands) he decided to walk to an appointment rather than drive, and from then on, without fanfare or much thought, foot travel became his sole mode of transportation.

He tried to explain this to his friends and the occasional driver who offered him a ride, but he soon recognized that he couldn’t. Yes, he felt like he had to do this. No, he hadn’t thought it through all the way, how could he have? Yes, it was a radical step. No, it wasn’t a call for others to follow him, let alone a policy proposal for the city or the state. Before long he realized that he didn’t want to explain his decision. On his 27th birthday, Francis made a one-day vow of silence; he stopped talking. What he didn’t know then was that his day of silence would stretch to 17 years. He packed his backpack and embarked on a cross-country pilgrimage, carrying a written note that read, in part: “This is to introduce John Francis, who left his home in California on January 1, 1983, on a pilgrimage to raise environmental consciousness and promote earth stewardship and world peace.” Along the way – on foot and in silence – Francis earned his undergraduate degree, a master’s, and a PhD. He also earned the respect of government officials and the oil industry, as well as the esteem of many whom he encountered on his journey across the United States.

By his own account, as a young man he was an opinionated big mouth who cocked his ear toward others just long enough to determine he was wasting his time. “I had stopped listening, which is the end of communication,” he told a reporter. “When I stopped speaking, I had time to reflect. The silence created a space for me to learn how to listen—not only to another person but to the environment around me and the voice within.”[1]

In the Bible, that space has a name, it is called wilderness. It is a transitional and transformative space. The Hebrew slaves after their escape from Egypt spent 40 years in the wilderness, learning to live in freedom, learning to live in covenant with God and with each other. The prophet Elijah spent 40 days in the wilderness before hearing the still, small voice of God on the mountain where Moses had spent 40 days listening to God and receiving the commandments of life.

In the wilderness, Francis’ wake-up call was transformed into a vocation. In the wilderness, a band of escaped slaves were transformed into a people. In the wilderness, Israel’s prophets discerned the voice and call of God.

Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, his hair barely dry after his baptism. He had just heard the voice from heaven, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[2] Like Moses on Israel’s wilderness journey, Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights, and when he was famished the tempter came. Nothing is said of the devil’s looks, or where he came from. What matters – perhaps the only thing that matters – is the fact that the devil spoke. The wilderness is not a place of quiet retreat, but rather a landscape where conflicting voices demand attention. The voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” but there’s another voice, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” I imagine it’s a friendly voice, with overtones of care and reason, “Why let hunger pangs interrupt your prayers? What kind of son of god sits around listening to his stomach growl instead of helping himself to some bread? Go ahead, just do it.”

Matthew doesn’t tell us this story so we can know what Jesus was doing after he was baptized and before he called the first disciples. He tells us this story so we understand what kind of Son of God Jesus is. Jesus responds to the voice of the tempter by recalling a moment in Israel’s wilderness journey and quoting a line from Deuteronomy.

“Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”[3]

Bread is good, bread is important, but trusting the word and promise of God is even more essential for our life to be life.

The devil takes Jesus to the holy city, to the top of the temple, and says, “Since you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. You know the scriptures, ‘He will command his angels concerning you.’ Think of the publicity you could get with a stunt like that. Word would spread like a wildfire; the whole world would know you. Just do it. Jump and show them who you are.” And again Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy, echoing Israel’s wilderness experience, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Now the devil takes him up a very high mountain with a view of the whole world. “Look at all the kingdoms. Look at their splendor. I’ll give them to you. Think of all the good you can do. You can bring an end to hunger and war. You can build something perfect and lasting – just show me a little respect. Come on, let’s do it my way.”

Twice in Matthew does Jesus say, “Away with you, Satan!” Here in the wilderness and again later, on the way to Jerusalem. Peter had just declared with great conviction, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” when Jesus began to show them that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious leadership, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Peter took him aside, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” And Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! Behind me!”[4]

In the wilderness, Jesus chose to trust in God and God’s purposes, he chose the way of the cross over the way of the world. “Then the devil left him,” Matthew tells us, “and suddenly angels came and waited on him.” Angels came. I hear echoes of Elijah. When Elijah was in the wilderness, it wasn’t because he had been led there by the Spirit of God; he had been driven there by the fury of Queen Jezebel who wanted him dead. Elijah had fled into the wilderness for his life, but he was also exhausted. He was so exhausted, he wanted to die. He was tired of fighting. He was tired of being the lone voice of resistance in a culture that worshiped idols rather than the living God.

“It is enough,” he said, exhausted in body and soul, before he fell asleep. He woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” There was bread and a jar of water. “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”

Like Elijah before him, Jesus was being nourished in the wilderness for a difficult and demanding journey. In obedience to God and in solidarity with us, he resisted the whispers of the tempter and gave himself to establishing the kingdom of God among us.

Lent is wilderness time. Few of us will give up speaking for forty days in order to let silence create a space where we can learn to listen to each other, to our fellow creatures, and to the voice that calls us beloved. Few of us will give up driving for forty days to discover a different pace and a way of life that doesn’t depend on destroying the earth. But this season is still an invitation to us all to find ways to enter into silence and to stop rushing around mindlessly, to make room for wilderness time so we may discern and listen to the voice of Jesus, and not the voices of the tempter.

As a community, we have made a commitment to look at Nashville during this season with our Just City 360. We have made a commitment to ask questions and learn, in an effort to pay attention to how our city is changing. We will look at housing and development and urban planning with eyes sharpened by what the prophets noticed and by Jesus’ own loving attentiveness to those who have been pushed to the margins and beyond. We will seek ways to establish righteousness in our city and our neighborhoods, right relationships that reflect the loyal love of God we encounter in Jesus.

When John Francis stopped going so many places, his world didn’t shrink, but rather opened up and he noticed small things. He began drawing or painting a picture every day: the sunrise reflected on the bay, the faces of his neighbors, the grass growing in a crack in the sidewalk. It wasn’t that he hadn’t noticed these things before. “It’s just that I hadn’t noticed [them] enough to give [them] meaning,” he said. And he added, “It makes me wonder how much of life goes by me that way.”[5]

Lent is an invitation to wilderness time. It’s an opportunity not just to wonder but to notice how much of life goes by us unnoticed. It’s an opportunity to practice being attentive to seemingly small things and to their place and meaning in the world God has made.


[1] Marilyn Berlin Snell, “The Walking Man,” Sierra, March/April 2007, pp.18-22

[2] Matthew 3:16-17

[3] Deuteronomy 8:2-3

[4] Matthew 16:16, 21-23

[5] Marilyn Berlin Snell, “The Walking Man,” p. 19



This is really just a thank you note for a beautiful moment. 

I used to get the ashes for Ash Wednesday service from St. Mary's Bookstore. No need to get a fresh supply every year - the little plastic bag holds plenty for two or three services. I always loved the fact that the ashes are made from dried up palm branches that had been used to greet Jesus on Palm Sunday. The exuberance of that day really does dry up fast, doesn't it?

Last year, I decided to keep the palm branches we actually used here at Vine Street. I kept them in my study, in a big, blue bucket from Lowe's. At first they looked like an odd potted plant, but soon it was just a bucket full of dead stems and leaves. I waited for just the right day and had a little fire in our backyard.

So this year, the ashes on our foreheads and hands didn't come from a church supply store, but from our own dried up Palm Sunday parade. I like that, but that's not what this note is about.

On Monday before Ash Wednesday, a friend called and told me that our sisters and brothers at Otter Creek would have a service on Ash Wednesday. One of the leaders was about to make the trip to St. Mary's Bookstore to get some of the black stuff that reminds us so starkly of our mortality. Would we consider sharing some of ours? He knew that burning through a bucket of dry palm branches makes a nice pile of ashes (a pile, liturgically speaking, because it's really not even a handful).

And so we shared all that was left of our exuberant welcome of Jesus with our friends at Otter Creek. I can't think of words large enough to hold my gratitude.

In the company of Jesus, even ashes become sacramental. We are dust, all of us, and Christ makes us one.


No Freeze

I received an email from my friend Johnny Wray, the Interim Director of Week of Compassion. It was one of his kind and thoughtful thank you notes, but it included a few additional paragraphs:

While the "official" offering time is ending and we have received a few anecdotal reports from some pastors that their 2014 Week of Compassion offerings are up, I must acknowledge that I am worried about the impact of the severe winter weather we've had across the nation. Many of our congregations have cancelled services or have had diminished attendance because of the bitter cold, snow and ice. 

Unfortunately there has been no "freeze" in the violence in Syria, South Sudan, Congo and elsewhere; no "freeze" in the hunger in Haiti or the Horn of Africa; no "freeze" in the ongoing typhoon recovery work in the Philippines or tornado recovery work in the Midwest. I could go on.

He asked for a favor. Do we have people who haven't had a chance to give (or who would like to give more)? If so, please know that "gifts to Week of Compassion are welcome and needed anytime. Folks can give of course through the congregation as always. They can also give directly to WoC by check or online via our website and in both cases giving credit can be given to the congregation."

Thank you, Vine Street, for your support of Week of Compassion, and thank you, Johnny, for reminding us that bad weather can't disrupt compassionate action. 




We call this day Transfiguration Sunday. On this day we go up the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James and John. The journey invites and equips us, after we have heard what Jesus said and did, to see who Jesus is. The hike up the mountain is an invitation to see through all the episodes, anecdotes and moments, to see beyond all of Jesus’ teachings, healings and meals with sinners, and to know him. “He was transfigured before them,” the scriptures tell us, “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” How do you talk about such a moment? With great hesitation, I suppose, because there aren’t words to capture it, to capture the fullness of it.

This mountain moment is the point in the story when everything shifts from Jesus’ work in the villages of Galilee to his work in Jerusalem. Everything shifts here from his beautiful proclamation of God’s reign in his words of comfort and demand, his healing touch, and his radical hospitality; everything shifts to his journey to Jerusalem, to the dark hill outside the city where all is lost in betrayal, injustice, and violent death. And here at midpoint, this luminous mountain moment already sings of Easter. It sings of the light of God’s new day when life is redeemed from the power of sin and the glory of God is seen by all in all. How do you speak of a moment when everything sings of the fullness of God dwelling in Jesus, when Jesus, the light of the world is no longer a metaphor but the true light that illumines everything?

Brian Doyle wrote a marvelous biographical piece, seemingly about something altogether different, but perhaps not so different in the end.

Very rarely are we able to reach back into the past and mark a moment when our innermost tides began to flow in another direction; but I think I see one, a moment when I realized with a first hint of cold honesty I was being a selfish buffoon—and possibly the moment when I began to grow up. It is beside the point that it took me another ten years at least to get there, or that I am not quite there yet, even in my fifties.

I was sitting at the dining-room table. My dad and my mom and my sister were sitting there also. I believe it was lunch. My brothers were elsewhere committing misdemeanor. I believe it was summertime. The room was lined with books from floor to ceiling. I believe the meal was finished, and my mother and sister were having tea and cigarettes. My father mentioned casually that our cousins were coming for dinner next Sunday or something like that. I believe these were the Connecticut cousins and not the New York cousins.

I shoved my chair back and whined and snarled and complained. I believe this had something to do with some vague plans of my own that I had of course not shared with anyone else as yet, probably because they were half-hatched or mostly imaginary. My father said something calm and reasonable, as still is his wont. I said something rude. My mother remonstrated quietly but sharply, as still is her wont. I said something breathtakingly selfish. My sister said something gently and kind, as still is her wont. I said something cutting and sneering and angry. My mother slowly put down her tea. Odd that I would remember that detail, her cigarette in her left hand and her teacup in her right and the cup descending slowly to the table. The table had a blue cloth, and just outside the window the yew hedge was the most brilliant vibrant green.

As I remember it was just as my mother was putting her teacup on the table, just as the smoke from the cigarettes was rising thin and blue and unbroken like twin towers, just as my father put his big hands on the table and prepared to stand up and say something calm and blunt to me and cut the moment before it spun out of control, that I realized I was being a fool. It wasn’t an epiphany or a trumpet blast or anything epic. It was an almost infinitesimal wriggle of something for which I don’t have good words even now. It wasn’t that I was embarrassed, though I was embarrassed, later. It was more like for a second I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was. I understood, dimly, for an instant—I believe for the first time in my life—that I was being a fool.[1]

When I first read that piece, I immediately remembered that moment in my own life. For me it didn’t happen at home with my parents and siblings, but with a group of friends on a Friday night.

For a second I saw who I actually was rather than who I thought I was, or wanted to be, or wanted other people to think I was.

Brian Doyle calls it A Fool’s Awakening, and awakening is the word, the experience that for me ties his piece to the luminous mountain moment the gospel writers struggle to describe. It wasn’t Jesus who was transformed in front of his friends’ eyes, but their manner of seeing him. Suddenly they saw who he really was rather than who they thought he was, or wanted him to be, or wanted other people to think he was. They saw, not because somebody convinced them or told them what Jesus books to read or urged them to try harder, but because they awakened and they heard the voice from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

We heard a passage from 2 Peter this morning that makes reference to that mountain moment. The text addresses a situation where believers wrestled with disappointment and doubt. For more than a generation, the church had lived with the hope of Jesus’ return in glory. The Risen One will come to judge the living and the dead, but when? Why hasn’t he come yet? What’s taking him so long?

People were making fun of them, and not just the usual despisers of religion, saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!”[2] Apparently the argument was gaining ground that the apostolic teaching about Jesus’ return as judge at the end of time was a “cleverly devised myth” and that the prophecies of scripture were unreliable. Cleverly devised myths. Stories made up for people who can’t handle the cold, hard truth that justice is but a dream. Sounds remarkably contemporary for a text from the end of the first century, doesn’t it? I expect commercials and campaign slogans to be cleverly devised myths, designed to tell people what they want to hear, but I can’t think of the apostles’ witness as Jesus commercials, cleverly devised to sell a religious brand. “We did not follow cleverly devised myths,” the author insists, “when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

The apostles who were with him on the mountain, the men and women who saw him on the third day, they were not a bunch of myth makers bent on deceiving impressionable people, but rather eyewitnesses of his majesty. They were men and women struggling to find words for that moment of awakening, for an experience that opened not just their eyes but their entire being to the presence and promise of God in Jesus. To them the point was not when Jesus would come to judge the living and the dead, but that it was Jesus who would come; that the unsentimental and dependable love of God they had encountered in Jesus was also the power that holds the future; that in the end we would all be answerable not to ourselves or to the powers that want to hold us and God’s creation in thrall, but to Jesus. Cleverly devised myths? No, but rather a transfigured, an awakened way of seeing, thinking, and being.

I want to close with a quote from John Calvin, and I promise I won’t do this often. I know it’s not easy listening, but it’s good, challenging stuff.

True, were I called to contend with the craftiest despisers of God, I trust, though I am not possessed of the highest ability or eloquence, I should not find it difficult to stop their obstreperous mouths; I could, without much ado, put down the boastings which they mutter in corners, were anything to be gained by refuting their cavils. But although we may maintain the sacred Word of God against gainsayers, it does not follow that we shall forthwith implant the certainty which faith requires in their hearts. Profane [people] think that religion rests only on opinion, and, therefore, (…) insist to have it proved by reason that Moses and the prophets were divinely inspired. But I answer, that the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of [people], until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.[3]

We have no great certainty of the word itself, until it be confirmed by the testimony of the Spirit. For the Lord has so knit together the certainty of his word and his Spirit, that our minds are duly imbued with reverence for the word when the Spirit shining upon it enables us there to behold the face of God.[4]

We’re about to enter the season of Lent, a time of deep critique of the cleverly devised myths we tell each other and ourselves. A season that can awaken us to the Spirit’s presence and desire, and bring us face to face with God.

[1] Brian Doyle, “A Fool’s Awakening,” Christian Century, February 19, 2014, p. 12

[2] 2 Peter 3:4

[3] John Calvin, Institutes, 7.4.; see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.viii.html

[4] John Calvin, Institutes, 9.3.; see http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iii.x.html


To the edge of the field

Mark this day on your calendar, for today we had a reading from Leviticus. The book is mostly known among us for being either skipped or quickly skimmed by folks who make a first attempt at reading the Bible cover to cover. Here at Vine Street, we follow the Revised Common Lectionary through three annual cycles of readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Epistles, and the Gospels. Leviticus comes up only twice in three years, and one of these rare occasions is today, the seventh Sunday after Epiphany.[1] However, in years when Easter is earlier in spring, the whole calendar shifts, and there is no seventh Sunday after Epiphany, making it even less likely that we will hear a reading from Leviticus in worship.

Why make such a fuss about it? I recently had lunch with a friend who had just completed reading the Bible cover-to-cover and was getting ready to read through all the books again in six months, and his comment on Leviticus was, “Man, all those weird sacrifices…” Yep, lots of instructions for sacrifices and other strange stuff, at least to our modern ears, but Leviticus also contains the brief verse that became essential to ethical reflection in Judaism and Christianity, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Both Jesus and Rabbi Hillel, who became very influential in rabbinic Judaism, lifted up this commandment as the most comprehensive and definitive one. When we talk about love of neighbor, we talk about Leviticus 19. And when we wonder about how to unfold love of neighbor in our daily lives at home, at school, and at work, the verses we heard this morning give us a great place to start. The chapter touches on a wide spectrum of daily life, from worship to fairness in commerce, from family relations to truthfulness in legal proceedings and support of the needy –and all the instructions elaborate God’s initial statement to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Before you jump too quickly to the assumption that this is for holier than thou people, but probably not for you, let’s take a look at what we say when we speak of God’s holiness. When we say that God is compassionate, merciful, just, kind, and loving, we use familiar words that we use daily in other relationships, and those contexts add layers of meaning to the words. But when we say that God is holy we run out of comparisons before we can begin to compare, because nothing compares to God’s holiness. To say that God is holy is to say that God is other, different, radically different, and that God may not be confused with anyone or anything else. To say that God is holy is to say God is God and I am not, nor are you or we, nor are our idols or various powers that like to dress up in religious garb. God alone is God, God alone is holy. And yet, the Holy One is the Holy One of Israel, the related One. The holiness of God is in and with and for God’s people Israel without ever ceasing to be over against Israel.

And Israel’s purpose is to host the holiness of God. “Because God is holy, God’s people are to be holy by being like God in the world,” writes Walter Kaiser is a commentary. “We can, therefore, do away with all the cartoon pictures of the sanctimonious holy person wearing a halo and a prudish glare. To be holy is not to be narrow-minded and primly pious; it is, rather, to imitate God.”[2] And how do God’s people embrace their call, our call to a holy life? Not by striving to out-compete one another on the holiness scale but by turning toward each other, by seeking to embody God’s holiness in our life together. What an awesome calling, a holy life. Where might it take us, after we drop the halo and the sanctimonious manners?

To the edge of the field. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” The edge of the field is holy ground. We are to stop our harvesting before we reach the farthest boundaries of our fields so as to welcome the poor and stranger, who live at the margins, to take their share. The commandment doesn’t specify how much to leave behind, but the Mishnah, a written record of Jewish discussion on matters of Torah, “recommends taking into consideration several factors, such as the abundance of the yield, the overall resources of the owner of the field, and the current needs of the poor.”[3]

Fewer and fewer of us harvest our own fields anymore, and the poor aren’t looking for food on the edges of the field, but many among us still seek to make a living on the margins. How much of the overall yield of our economy belongs to the poor, especially the ones who can’t earn it? The commandment doesn’t specify how much is theirs, whether by right or by mercy, and it’s up to us to decide how to divide the yield of fields, factories, and investment portfolios and how to make certain our practice reflects rather than insults the holiness of God.

We tend to think of holiness in connection with particular places and moments or certain extraordinary people, but the Holy One calls us to be holy in the most ordinary and everyday. Leviticus 19 connects holiness, the very character of God, to the wellbeing of the needy and vulnerable in our midst, to being impartial in court, to not telling each other lies, and not cheating clients, customers, and business partners. “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning.”

Why not keep the wages overnight? A reason is given in Deuteronomy 24, “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”[4] Again, the commandment doesn’t specify how much laborers should be paid before sunset, but the minimum standard appears to be their livelihood: they must earn enough in six days so they and their family can live for a week.

I can probably find somebody desperate enough to dig my ditch for $5 an hour instead of $15, but when I give him his pay of $40 at the end of the day, I’m actually withholding the balance of $80 he needs in order to feed and clothe himself and his family and pay the bills. The market, of course, will let me get away with paying a lot less, but the market is not holy, God is. And as one whom Christ has claimed as his own, I’ll either dig my own ditch or pay the laborer a wage that won’t insult the holiness of God.

Everyday holiness is not about halos but about building a community that reflects the character of God. I love how all the you-shalls and you-shall-nots in today’s passage from Leviticus are gathered together in the beautiful line at the end, a commandment that captures the essence of holiness like a bowl: You shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

Jesus quotes this commandment in his sermon on the mount and broadens its scope in ways I find immensely humbling. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor’ and [you may think this allows you to] hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[5] He commands us to love not only those we readily recognize as neighbors, but also the anti-neighbors who oppose, violently even, the holy way of Christ. He commands us to actively subvert the logic of violence and vengeance by following him.

At the conclusion of the passage he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Why would Jesus say such a cruel thing? Doesn’t he know that none of us can be perfect? Doesn’t he know how many of us are haunted by the memories of mothers who always found something to criticize in us, no matter how hard we tried to please her? Doesn’t he know how many of us are still trying to prove than we can be just like our dads who always did everything right, everything? Doesn’t he know what a weight he places on our weary shoulders with his talk of perfection?

If that is what we hear, it’s not Jesus we’re hearing. Being perfect sounds very different to our ears, from being complete, being at one with one’s purpose, or being fulfilled. But these are all nuances of what Jesus says here. Also, we must not forget that the command to be perfect is not a call to isolated, individual achievement, but again a call to life in a community that reflects the character of God.

It is no coincidence that Jesus’ words sound much like the ancient commandment to be holy because God is holy. Jesus picks up the bowl that holds the ethical essence of holiness – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” – and he says, Remember, it is not your view of who is neighbor that defines the reach of love, but rather the reach of God’s love that defines who is neighbor. Follow me on the way and you will recognize love’s embrace of all, even the enemy. Trust that love and the Holy One who is its source, and you will find life made complete and whole.


[1] Epiphany 7 Year A and Proper 25 [30] Year A

[2] Walter Kaiser, Leviticus (NIB), p. 1136

[3] Baruch Levine, Leviticus (JPS Torah Commentary), p. 127

[4] Deuteronomy 24:14-15

[5] Matthew 5:43-44


We are one

“It’s been a year since The New York Times declared Nashville the next ‘it’ city,” wrote E. J. Boyer in the Nashville Business Journal, “and it seems the paper's infatuation with Nashville isn’t over yet. The New York Times’ travel desk released its ‘52 Places to Go in 2014’ list (…) and Nashville ranks at No. 15, between Fernando de Noronha, Brazil, and Scotland.”[1] We’re kinda famous, aren’t we? And it’s not just because of some great new restaurants or because Rayna Jaymes, Deacon Claybourne, Scarlett O’Connor and the rest of the Nashville cast give the world an episode of country music soap opera every Wednesday night. Did you watch 60 Minutes last Sunday? If you did, you may have seen Charlie Biter and Rusty Lawrence on national tv, together with Ingrid McIntyre from Open Table and Anderson Cooper. The segment was about a nationwide effort by cities to end homelessness by providing housing first and saving a lot of money in the process. Nashville became part of the movement just recently, after years of good work by churches, non-profits, and government agencies that prepared the ground for what is at heart a simple and common sense concept: people without housing need first and foremost a safe place to stay; then it becomes a lot easier and, yes, cheaper for the community to provide the care and services they might need.

In Nashville, more than 360 individuals have moved from the streets to a home since last summer, and most of them have been able to keep their homes. This is something to celebrate, because one story of transformation is a heart-warming anecdote, twelve stories are an interesting pattern, but over 360 stories reflect a change in how we understand ourselves to be a community. We know a little better that Nashville is not just a bunch of houses and streets with a bunch of people scattered about in them. We know a little better that a city is a community, and how together we can find  creative ways to address the needs of citizens and other residents. The truth is, we are one, we are made for each other, and not just thrown together and pulled apart by invisible hands.

To me, the more than 360 stories are illustrations for what the yeast of the gospel can do over time, when there are disciples who are patient, persistent, and faithful. In 1977 Charlie Strobel was the priest at Holy Name Catholic Church over on Woodland, and one day he gave a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a homeless man at the door of his rectory. Nothing could be simpler than a PB&J, right? Nothing could be simpler than Charlie opening the doors of the rectory to those sleeping outside in the cold, and soon a cooperative ministry by a growing number of Nashville congregations began, known to this day as Room in the Inn. It always begins with a simple, human gesture of compassion that says, “I care about you. We care about you. We are one.” A simple PB&J can be sacramental bread, reminding both the giver and the receiver that the love that made us makes us one; that love heals. Even the very complex problems of homelessness can be addressed with caring gestures we all know and understand, and love will show us a way to greater justice we couldn’t imagine before the bread was broken.

Caring gestures we all know and understand. It was on the evening Jesus and the disciples gathered for one last meal, when he took off his robe and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin, and he washed the disciples feet, and he wiped them with the towel, one after the other. He spoke for a long time that evening, but what we remember better than the words, what we see without even opening the pages of the gospel, is the Lord kneeling on the floor. He taught us how to be the community of his friends with a gesture of hospitality none of us expected but all of us understand. He continued to teach that night, column after column of text printed in red in chapters 14 to 16, and if you’re looking for something to hold onto, grab the vine and the branches: they speak beautifully of our unity in Christ, of our roots in love and our fruits of love.

At the end of the evening, before they crossed the Kidron valley to go to the garden, Jesus prayed. The words are not the words of a man in agony, wrestling in the night with God’s will and the knowledge of his impending death; there is not even a hint of struggle. It is the prayer of one who has complete confidence that the purposes of God will be fulfilled in the events about to unfold. The words reflect the love and intimacy between Jesus the Son of God and the One he called Father, but the prayer opens up to include us, the community of Jesus’ friends. His eyes are lifted up to heaven, but his arms are stretched out to embrace all generations of his friends. He prays for us and our work and witness in the world. He prays for us who live in the world, but don’t belong to it – because as Jesus’ friends we belong to him and to each other, a communion of life rooted in the love and intimacy the Son and the Father share in the Spirit.

We don’t belong to the world, but we live in it as agents of divine friendship, as the living, breathing invitation to life in communion with God and one another. We’re not just a bunch of people scattered about the city and scattered in our pews, brought together for an hour before we scatter again. No, we are one in ways we couldn’t even imagine before he broke bread with us. We are made for each other. We belong together like branches on the vine, and the love that draws us into the communion of life in God is also the desire that longs for creation to be whole. “We are one,” God the Son and God the Father say to each other. “We are one,” Jesus the Son and generations of his friends say to each other. And in the end, “We are one” names the reality of all creatures and the world made whole. We are one, not because we make it so, but because the love that made us makes it so.

In the gospel of John, “the world” is often a way of describing those who oppose Jesus. But it was for love for the world that God sent the Son, and in this prayer, at the close of his ministry, Jesus carries not only the names of his friends on his shoulders and in his heart, but the world. Jesus prays for his friends, “that they may all be one…, that they may be one as we are one…, that they may become completely one…, so that the world may believe…,  so that the world may know that you have sent me.” The vision he puts before us is not of the beloved community surrounded and threatened by a hostile world, but of the world coming to know itself as the beloved community it is. The hope expressed in the words of his prayer is that even those who had been hostile to the coming of the Son may find life in his name. The divine desire expressed in the words of the prayer is the reconciliation of all things in the love we recognize in the life of Jesus.

Reconciliation is one of the big church words, and there’s a story that might help illustrate its power.

Sam Bowers was the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, when, before dawn on January 10, 1966, he and two carloads of his fellow Klansmen drove to a house about five miles north of Hattiesburg, MS. The house belonged to Vernon Dahmer, and he and his family were asleep when the Klansmen doused their home with gasoline and set it on fire, destroying both the house and the adjacent grocery store. One of Dahmer’s three children, a ten-year-old daughter, was injured in the fire. Dahmer himself lived for a few hours but died that afternoon.

More than three decades later, in August 1998, Sam Bowers was finally convicted, after four mistrials, of the firebombing murder of Vernon Dahmer. Witnesses testified that Bowers had ordered the killing because Dahmer was allowing black voters to pay their poll taxes in his store.

One of the individuals present in the courthouse for Bower’s 1998 trial was the Reverend Will Campbell. Campbell had known Vernon Dahmer from his days as a chaplain at Ole Miss when they had worked together on voting rights issues. Courtroom reporters were shocked, though, to see Campbell being embraced as an old friend not only by Ellie Dahmer, Vernon’s widow, but also by the defendant, Klansman Sam Bowers. During recesses in the trial, people noticed Campbell was talking with equal warmth to both her and him. When a reporter asked Campbell how he could possibly be so friendly with both the victim and the monster who had committed murder, Campbell growled, “Because I’m a Christian, G-dammit!”

While writing a book about the integration struggles at the University of Mississippi, Campbell had realized that he needed to spend time not only with his friends and people who shared his views but also with enemies of the movement. He eventually met Sam Bowers and spent time with him. During one of their meetings, Campbell had been riding with Bowers in a car and Bowers had stopped by a local cemetery to visit the graveside of a friend. When he came back to the car, Campbell remembered, Bowers had tears in his eyes. “Animals don’t cry,” Campbell said. “Human beings cry at the foot of a friend’s grave.”[2]

A tear helped him see the human being behind the mask of the Imperial Wizard, and he reached out to the man. Campbell’s testimony in the courtroom wasn’t part of the legal proceedings. He acted as a witness not for the prosecution or the defense, but for the love that desires and accomplishes our reconciliation.

The last time I saw Will Campbell he was the speaker at a Week of Compassion gathering; he was an old man then, holding on to his cane, bent over and moving cautiously, but with fire in his heart. He didn’t say much, but what he said stuck. “The deepest human hunger,” he said, “can only be stilled by love, unsentimental and dependable love.”

The theme for this year’s Week of Compassion offering boldly quotes Jesus’ prayer, “We are one.” Giving food to the hungry and water to the thirsty are simple human acts of compassion, as are washing feet, opening a door and noticing a tear. And yet, in those simple human acts the unsentimental and dependable love of God is at work in the world, healing, restoring, and reconciling, until the world is one.


[1] E. J. Boyer http://www.bizjournals.com/nashville/blog/2014/01/nashville-lands-among-ny-times-places.html

[2] See Bartholomew Sullivan, “Bowers Convicted of Killing Dahmer. Ex-Klan Leader Gets Life Term in ’66 Murder,” (Memphis) Commercial Appeal, August 22, 1998; http://www.asne.org/kiosk/writingawards/1999/sullivan.html#Aug22 . See also Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 2004), pp. 102-103. 


Savoring the words

“The most dangerous passages in the Bible are the familiar ones,” writes the professor, “because we do not really listen to them.” Perhaps you thought that it’s good, even important to be familiar with scripture, but the professor suspects that familiarity breeds contentment, and “the sharp stone of God’s Word, smoothed down by the river of time, no longer cuts. Instead of being challenged by hard thought or hard choices,” he writes, “we lean back and savor pretty words.”[1] The professor wants to counter the “soporific effect of the too-well-known,” wants to give the smooth stone its sharp edge back, and he does so with scholarly depth and precision.

I don’t mean to make fun of the professor, although it may sound like I’m setting the scene for a punch line. I don’t really disagree with him on the dangers of familiarity, especially when the seemingly too-well-known is not known at all. No, I want to suggest that the savoring of pretty words, something he seems to dismiss as merely superficial, is actually a way to open those words for us, and us to the Word of God that comes to us through them. Savoring words of beauty is a mode of knowing that has less to do with penetrating study, and more with not swallowing too quickly what has barely been chewed and tasted. Savoring words of beauty is a more contemplative mode of knowing.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” we hear the words read from scripture, and the professor suspects that we stop listening, with our hearts strangely warmed by nostalgia rather than the fire of God’s Word. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” we hear as we have heard countless times before, and yet it is a beautiful, life-giving word when we hear it spoken to us. “Blessed are you, poor ones in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.” The word for them, heard so many times before, becomes a word for now and for us, a promise, a blessing for you and me.

When you hear “poor in spirit,” what comes to mind? A group of tired cheer leaders? Folks with an F in spirituality? I find myself in a kitchen with a mother and her 9-year-old daughter. It’s a scene I will never forget; it has stuck with me ever since I first stumbled upon it.[2] The little girl was sitting at the table, eating a bowl of cheerios, and mom was packing her lunchbox. The radio was playing in the background, the news was on, the usual sound track of a weekday morning. Suddenly the child looked up and said, with great sadness in her voice, “Mom, is that war still not over yet?”

She had been listening to the news, and it almost doesn’t matter if the war was in Iraq or Afghanistan, Libya or Syria, does it? “Mom, is that war still not over yet?”

“I could feel my soul draining through the soles of my feet,” is how the mother described it. Do you know that feeling when something’s just not right, but you can’t be angry or sad about it, because it’s too big for ordinary feelings, too overwhelming?

The little girl in her sadness gives voice to God’s own grief, and you tell yourself that it’s not right for such a little one to already know in her bones how broken our world is, and you want to protect her, you want to make things right, and in the same instant you realize that you can’t.

What do you do? You speak the truth as love has taught you. You take her in your arms and hold her; you whisper that it breaks your heart too, and you hold her a little longer before you kiss her on the forehead and say, “It’s gonna be OK, pumpkin, it’s all gonna be OK.” And off she runs to catch the bus.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. When you know that the world doesn’t have the answer to it’s brokenness, despite its shoddy promises and props of power and wealth, when you know that none of us hold the answer to our own brokenness, you are blessed in your poverty because the kingdom that has drawn near in Jesus is for you. When you hunger and thirst for righteousness and you feel like you’re going to bed hungry every night, you are blessed because Jesus is bread for you. When you speak the truth as love has taught you, when you speak it with your tongue, with your arms and feet, when you seek to receive and give mercy with your whole being, you are blessed because you speak the language of heaven. When you follow Jesus on the humble path of compassion that leads to the cross, you are blessed because it’s not the proud, the arrogant, or the violent who will inherit the earth, but the crucified one who is risen.

The blessings Jesus utters are words to take along on the journey, words to savor and remember and make our own. It’s gonna be OK, it’s all gonna be OK because God is faithful. The way of Christ may look like fool’s avenue in the eyes of those familiar with the workings of the world and its wisdom, but for us it is the way of redemption, the way of peace, the way of life. In Jesus’ healings and teachings, in his compassion for the poor and his meals with sinners, the joy of heaven embraces the earth and holds it, holds us in all our brokenness. He never lets go as he enacts the justice of God’s mercy and embodies the kindness of God. He walks humbly all the way, pure in heart and fearless, never letting go, trusting that the final word would be God’s.

When we say to the little girl, “It’s all gonna be OK,” we tell her the gospel truth, a truth much bigger than anything we can promise. We tell her, and telling her we remind ourselves, that God is faithful beyond anything we do or fail to do. And so, poor as we are in spirit, hungry and thirsty as we are for righteousness, we serve the kingdom of heaven Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated. We savor his words of blessing as they open themselves to us and draw us in. We savor his words of blessing as we open ourselves to them and let them make our hearts their home. We savor his words of blessing and we give the precious gifts of comfort and courage to each other, each time with different gestures the love of Christ has taught us.

Fifty years ago, Studs Terkel wrote and produced a radio documentary, titled, “Born To Live: Hiroshima.” He created a collage of music and voices, strong, gentle, life-affirming voices, cradling the small voices of young children who were afraid of nuclear war, young children deeply worried about the future of life. Among the voices woven into the loving choir of adults, holding the children and surrounding them with hope and courage are Pete Seeger, then in his 40’s, Georgia Turner, an elderly sharecropper from Tennessee, Miriam Makeba, James Baldwin, and many others. And about halfway into this symphony of life and hope, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. begins to pray, “Because we love the world, we pray now, O Father, for grace to quarrel with it, oh Thou, Whose lover’s quarrel with the world  is the history of the world, grant us grace to quarrel with the worship of success and power; with the assumption that people are less important than the jobs they hold. Grant us grace to quarrel with the mass culture that tends not to satisfy, but exploit the wants of people; to quarrel with those who pledge allegiance to one race, rather than the human race. Lord, grant us grace to quarrel with all that profanes, and trivializes, and separates [human beings]. (…) Lord, number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth from this [place] longing for only those things for which Thou dost make us long; [people] for whom the complexity of issues only serve to renew their zeal to deal with them; [people] who alleviated pain by sharing it; and [people] who were always willing to risk something big for something good. So may we leave in the world a little more truth, a little more justice, a little more beauty than would have been there had we not loved the world enough to quarrel with it for what it is not, but still could be. Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them; and take our hearts and set them on fire.”

I listen to this prayer and I don’t hear words that are fifty years old. I hear words of comfort and courage whose time is always now. Words that will rise again and again, as long as the church leans forward and savors the beautiful, life-giving words of Jesus.


[1] John P. Maier, “Matthew 5:3-12,” Interpretation 1990, p. 281

[2] I believe it was written by Barbara Kingsolver, but I wasn’t able to track down a reference.

The quote from Stud Terkel's radio program is from the liner notes of the Smithsonian Folkways recording.


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

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