Little neighbors

It was a hot summer day in the neighborhood, but not quite hot enough for Mr. Rogers not to wear his iconic cardigan. He had taken off his shoes and socks, rolled up his pants, and now we see him sitting outside, cooling his feet in a plastic kiddie pool. Officer Clemmons, the local police officer, comes by, and Mr. Rogers invites him to join him. The two enjoy the water together for a while, then they dry each other’s feet off with a towel.

“It was such an easy thing to do, profoundly simple and easy for two friends to sit down and put their feet in the water to relax on a hot summer evening,” says François Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons. This scene aired in 1969, during the end of the Civil Rights Movement and about a year after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“White people did not want black people to swim in [public] swimming pools and were putting acid and other kinds of poisons in [them],” Clemmons says. “So it was dealing with something that was very serious in this country. But here we were, showing an alternative, a different way, an option, saying to people, ‘You know you don’t have to do that.’”[1]

It was the most gentle of radical statements one can imagine. I didn’t grow up with Mr. Rogers, but he comes to mind when I listen to Jesus talk about welcoming children. Do you remember how big everything was when you were little? What a magnificent thing a chair was, and what an adventure to climb on it? And when you finally sat on it, how you felt like you were on top of the world? I remember rooms full of adults, on various occasions, they were tall as trees, chatting away way up there, oblivious to my presence and my brave effort to find a way across, through a forest of legs, to the other side. I remember sitting at the children’s table at every family gathering. It was great fun, usually, I don’t think any of us ever felt excluded. But I also remember how proud I was when I got to sit at the grown-up table for the first time. They had to put one of the firm pillows from my grandma’s couch on my chair to bring me up a few inches, but I had arrived, I had made it, I was sitting at the big table. I was still short, but I was no longer one of the little ones.

We all have memories like that, memories of a world just beyond our reach, a world we can’t wait to belong to. Getting to sit at the grown-up table is easy, it’s just a matter of time, all you have to do is eat your veggies and keep growing. Getting to hang out with the people you really want to hang out with at school is a lot tougher. It’s like you have to fit in and stand out at the same time. And getting a seat at the tables where decisions are made about our life together – whether that’s the neighborhood, the city, or the country – can be a formidable challenge for those outside the circles of belonging. From a very young age, people around us encourage us to be ambitious and competitive, to set goals for ourselves that seem just a little beyond our reach, to work hard, to get up and try again, to meet the right people, and to make something of ourselves.

The disciples hadn’t been looking for Jesus when they met him, but somehow it felt like they had found the one who would set all things right, and so they followed him. They heard him teach, they watched him heal, they were amazed at his power and his grace, and now, after all the time they had spent together in Galilee, he was talking about going to Jerusalem. They were staying in Capernaum, and all he did was teach them. No more wandering from town to town, no more disruptions by desperate parents, no more wilderness picnics with hundreds and thousands of guests — just the disciples and Jesus and his teachings. And he talked again about the Son of Man and how he would be betrayed into human hands and killed, and after three days rise again. They had heard the words before, but they did not understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him. Why were they afraid to ask? Perhaps for the same reasons you and I might be afraid to speak up. We don’t want to show our confusion or our doubt, we don’t want to appear slow or clueless or spiritually immature. We’ve been around long enough to believe that it’s best to project confidence and make everybody else believe that we have it all together. Fake it till you make it. It’s all about appearance and perception. Don’t let Jesus or your fellow followers think you’re not a top-notch disciple.

The disciples in Mark’s story — instead of asking questions, instead of digging deeper into the mystery of the suffering and death of the Son of Man — the disciples were jockeying for positions in Jesus’ kingdom administration. Two of them had been talking about sitting at Jesus’ right and left in his glory. One of them probably never missed an opportunity to mention that he had been with Jesus the longest, and another that Jesus had already entrusted him with the office of treasurer.  They were afraid to ask what Jesus meant when he talked about his death and resurrection, but they had no trouble imagining their seats at the big table and their names and titles on the letterhead.

Jesus, we know, is never afraid to ask. “What were you arguing about on the way?” And suddenly they were silent, the whole chatty, ambitious bunch; no one said a word. Why the sudden silence? Had he asked them in private, individually, they probably would have mentioned Theophilus who “thinks he’s the greatest” or Bartholomew who “is dreaming about a seat on the supreme court.”

Three times in the gospel of Mark, Jesus talks about his being rejected and betrayed, being handed over and condemned to death and killed, and rising again after three days. Three times, not just because this is disturbing news that doesn’t sink in easily, but because being a disciple of Jesus is so tied up with that particular path that leads the Son of God to the cross. We don’t understand and we’re afraid to ask not just because we want to keep up the appearance of our intellectual brilliance and our deep spiritual insight. We don’t ask because we’re afraid he’ll turn our world upside down. Because we want Jesus very much to be part of our world, but we hesitate to let ourselves be part of his.

He says, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” In our world, those at the top of the ladder often lord it over those at the bottom. But in the world of God’s reign, earth and heaven do not touch at the top, in the clouds of power, but at the bottom where Jesus stoops to wash the feet of all who come to the table. On the way of Christ, greatness is defined in terms of welcome and service, and the path doesn’t lead up and up and up — it remains at ground level, at kiddy pool level, and it leads to us, always to us, whoever we are, wherever we are.

We all start out little. We all start out completely dependent on being welcomed. We all start out little, needy and helpless, and we all need somebody to see us and hold us and care for us. How much of our drive for greatness, do you think, has to do with that deep need to be seen and welcomed?

Jesus took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” We argue about who is the greatest and Jesus puts a little child among us. Who knew there was a child? Who noticed? We were engaged in important matters. We were making sure our voice would be heard, our contribution recognized in its significance, and our claim to greatness respected, and Jesus puts a little child among us.

What do you see? A precious, cuddly little sunshine or one of the rascals from Capernaum Elementary who is sent to the principal’s office at least twice a week and whose parents dread opening the home folder, afraid there might be another note from a teacher who is at her wits’ end? Mark doesn’t tell us, because it doesn’t matter. This is no photo op. Politicians pick up little children all the time; it looks good on the news and in campaign ads, it makes them more likeable. But Jesus doesn’t pick up a child to draw attention to himself. He does it to draw our attention to the child. He does all his work at ground level to draw our attention away from our high-altitude ego trips and power pursuits.

If you want to be great, notice the little ones outside the circle and bring them in. You don’t have to be great just to escape invisibility. You don’t have to be great to be seen and welcomed. You don’t have to be great, or appear to be great, to belong. You belong because you are loved; you belong because you are forgiven; you belong because you are made in the image of God. You are loved for who you are, just the way you are. Rest in the light of God’s loving gaze, and don’t be afraid to shift your attention to the ones who are not great by any common measure, and welcome them.

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcoming those who are so easily overlooked at the tables of greatness, we welcome Christ himself, and welcoming him, we welcome God. Much of our religious tradition has taught us to wonder and often worry, “What must I do to be worthy to be welcomed by God? Who do I have to be? What kind of person do I have to become? How can I work my way up?”

But Jesus looks us in the eye and says, “I see you. I know you. I love you.” He invites us to live in the world of God’s reign, where even our religious tradition is turned on its head. He turns our attention away from ourselves and our anxious obsession with our status, and toward each other. He stops our lonely ascent to the top and guides our feet into the path of grace where we learn to see and embrace the little neighbor inside and in the other.

[1] See In Nashville, as in most southern cities, public pools were closed rather than integrated; see

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Every neighbor

A woman dressed in thigh-high patent leather boots, little shorts, and a top the size of a postage stamp, walks into a ritzy boutique on Rodeo Drive. Her name is Vivian, she is a prostitute, and she’s shopping for a nice evening dress.

Two women, sales associates presumably, stare at her with surprise and disdain, and they make no effort to hide their feelings. Their eyes and their entire posture make it abundantly clear that this woman does not belong in this store.

Vivian is played by Julia Roberts in the 1990 movie Pretty Woman, and when she tells Edward, played by Richard Gere, the man who is paying for her services and expenses, about her experience in the glamorous world of high-end shopping, he tells her, “Stores are never nice to people, they’re nice to credit cards.”

James describes a similar scene in a Christian assembly. Two persons enter. One a rich, gold-ringed man in splendid garments, the other, a poor man dressed in filthy rags. If people of faith receive them differently, the former being given a seat of honor and the latter told to stand over there or to sit on the floor, they commit acts of discrimination that in James’s judgment are an insult against God.

In the Greco-Roman world of early Christianity, significant divisions existed not only between rich and poor, but between various social strata. There was little that was more clearly assumed and enacted than the differences between various groups of people. Within the household, proper division of responsibilities and honor were to be maintained between men and women, householder and servants, parents and children. Outside the household, the state could only function well if each member of society remained in the sphere of activity for which he or she was intended. This fundamental division between groups of people resulted in unequal distribution of deference and honor, not to mention resources and rights.

The scene James describes not only would not offend ancient sensibilities, it would be the obvious and expected pattern of social interaction. Yet he uses it as an example of conduct that is incompatible with Christian faith.[1]

Members of the Christian community pledge allegiance to a Lord who overturned common assumptions of greatness and lifted up the poor to their full dignity as God’s chosen and heirs of God’s kingdom. Not honoring them according to their status before God is an insult against them and against God, says James, challenging us to examine how we treat persons of less social power, such as refugees or folks in rural areas or whoever it may be that we think of, consciously or without even noticing, as below us. And how is it that, in generation after generation, from ancient times to this day, the prejudices of the world rather than the preferences of God come to be manifested in a community of God’s people?[2]

For James, faith cannot be reduced to a series of statements that people profess to believe, like God’s creation of the world or the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Faith is what is operative in a person’s life. We act on the basis of what we believe to be true, and we must believe in something if we are to act at all. The question is whether the faith that actually shapes our lives is faith in Jesus Christ or something else.

James calls us back to a central teaching of Jesus and says, “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” As followers of Jesus we can be presumed to believe in the centrality of that commandment, right? Why then, James challenges us between the lines, would you be so solicitious toward those above you on the social scale and indifferent toward those below you?[3] What is the faith that actually shapes your lives?

Let me tell you a story that continues to draw me in and push me away, but it just won’t let me go. Will Campbell was born and raised during the Great Depression in rural and very poor Amite county, Mississippi. One year after his birth, the Ku Klux Klan visited the East Fork Baptist Church, providing not only a cash donation for the congregation’s work, but also a leather-bound Bible for the pulpit. Engraved into the Bible’s leather cover were the letters KKK. At age seventeen, the East Fork Church made Will a full-fledged preacher, entitled to buy Coca-Colas at clergy discount.

After serving in WWII, Brother Will studied at Tulane, Wake Forest, and Yale, and one of his main study interests was racial justice. He was called to serve a congregation in Louisiana, but it wasn’t a long pastorate. He then became Director of Religious Life at Ole Miss, but left after two years when he began to receive death threats for his controversial views on race. He took a position with the National Council of Churches, working closely with civil rights leaders across the south. In 1957, in Little Rock, Arkansas, he was one of four people who escorted the nine black students who integrated Central High School through a hostile crowd; and he was the only white person to attend the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He got used to getting hate mail from the white right.

In the 1950s and early ‘60s, Campbell understood that African Americans were often American society’s “least of these.” Thus, he cast his lot with them. As the decade of the ‘60s unfolded and African Americans  attained civil rights, however, Campbell came to believe that American society was substituting “Rednecks” as the new “lepers.” True to form, he humbly cast his lot with them. He came to admit that he had become little more than a “doctrinaire social activist,” which was very different from being a follower of Jesus.

I came to understand the nature of tragedy. And one who understands the nature of tragedy can never take sides. And I had taken sides. Many of us who were interested in racial justice had taken sides and there were good reasons in history for doing what we did. … We did not understand that those we so vulgarly called ‘rednecks’ were a part of the tragedy. They had been victimized one step beyond the black.[4]

Campbell came to see how he had subverted the indiscriminate love of God for all people without conditions, limits, or exceptions into a ministry of “liberal sophistication.” And now he wanted to give embodied expression to the radical nature of the gospel, that is the full embrace of all people in Christ’s mercy, with these ostracized sisters and brothers. And so he started sipping whiskey with the Ku Klux Klan. He did their funerals and weddings, and even befriended the Grand Dragon of North Carolina, J.R. “Bob” Jones.

“We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway,” he had told his friend P. D. who had challenged him to tell him, in ten words or less, what the Christian message was. “We’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.”[5] And since God’s love for us is indiscriminate, Campbell concluded, he would have to try to let his love for his neighbor be indiscriminate as well. And he started getting hate mail from the left. As a witness to the reconciling love of God, he found himself walking back and forth between the lines, seeking to really fulfill the royal law, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” every neighbor, and not just the few people you’d love to have as neighbors.

In 2004, Parker Palmer started writing the book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. He was in despair about what was happening in the country, about our inability to talk to each other, about democracy going down the drain as big money was becoming more powerful. In the book he proposes that what we call the “politics of rage” is, in fact, the “politics of the brokenhearted” and that there’s heartbreak across the political spectrum. He believes that “violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.”

Whenever people want to argue with him about issues, he tries to say something like “Will you tell me your story? I want to listen. I know I can learn from your experience.” The more he listened to people’s stories and managed to get beyond knee-jerk reactions and ideology, the more he found that suffering is one thing we all have in common. “Animosities are unraveling the fabric of our civic society, degrading democracy’s infrastructure,” he said in an interview. But “the more we learn about other people’s stories, the less possible it is for us to dislike them, distrust them, or dismiss them. Anything we can do to help people form relational ‘habits of the heart’ … will help.”[6]

Palmer calls the space between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible “the tragic gap.” We see greed all around us, but we have also seen generosity. We see division and fragmentation, but we also know of people coming together in community. As we stand in the gap between reality and possibility, the temptation is to jump onto one side or the other.

If you jump onto the side of too much hard reality, you can get stuck in corrosive cynicism. … If you jump onto the side of too much possibility, you can get caught up in irrelevant idealism. You float around in a dream state saying, “Wouldn’t it be nice if ... ?’” These two extremes sound very different, but they have the same impact on us: both take us out of the gap — and the gap is where all the action is.

The gap is where Martin Luther King Jr. stood his entire life, where Rosa Parks and Dorothy Day and Brother Will stood. Palmer calls the gap “tragic” because he doesn’t see it ever closing. He says,

No one who has stood for high values — love, truth, justice — has died being able to declare victory, once and for all. If we embrace values like those, we need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul, and be prepared to die without having achieved our goals.[7]

Yes, we do need to find ways to stand in the gap for the long haul. But the gap is not tragic; it is already bridged by hope. Trusting in the faithfulness of God we can stand in the gap and love as indiscriminately as we can, looking forward to the day when love reigns supremely in all things.

[1] Jeannine K. Brown, “James 2:1-13,” Interpretation 62, no. 2 (April 2008), 173-174.

[2] See Frances Taylor Gench

[3] Craig Koester

[4] Brother to a Dragonfly, 225-226.

[5] Ibid., 220.


[7] Ibid.

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“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world,” we read in James. Caring for orphans and widows in their distress I understand. James reminds us that religion is not so much about the things we have heard and seen and read and come to believe, as it is about the actions these beliefs generate, the lives they shape.

What I don’t understand is the notion of keeping oneself unstained by the world. Wouldn’t that imply that I distance myself from the world, that I limit my interaction with it, and wouldn’t I have to ignore the fact that the world is a part of me and I am a part of the world? And how can we follow Jesus into the world when we’re worried about getting dirty?

Wherever Jesus went, according to the gospel, people gathered. They simply came; they brought themselves, they brought the sick and the possessed, hoping that they might touch the fringe of his cloak. People came because his presence was healing, it was liberating, it was restoring and affirming.

People come to Jesus hoping to find life, new life. Keeping oneself unstained by the world implies a movement away from the world, a withdrawal to some place perceived to be at a safe distance from it, when Jesus’ entire life is a movement into the world, for the redemption and healing of the world.

We read in the gospel that some found Jesus’ proximity to “certain kinds” of people confusing and disturbing. Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem were closely watching him and what he said and did. They didn’t understand why he and his disciples ate with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other known sinners, or why he didn’t observe the sabbath like they did.

The Pharisees were a reform movement within Judaism, and their passion was to live holy lives. God had chosen Israel to be God’s people, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, and the Pharisees sought to fulfill that calling during a time when foreign occupiers determined much of public life. The Pharisees adapted laws written for priests serving at the Temple and applied them to daily home life in an effort to sanctify every aspect of it. Seemingly small, everyday activities became rituals of remembering, “We are God’s people.” Every moment, every action became for them an occasion to bless the God of Israel. Waking up in the morning, going about their daily work, reciting torah, breaking bread, tucking in the children at night, and going to bed – every moment of everyday life an occasion to remember, to bless, to give thanks.

Marcia Falk published a book of Jewish prayers some twenty years ago. In it, she comments on the practice of handwashing before a meal that some Jews observe to this day and others don’t. It’s not about hygiene; it’s about properly receiving the gift of bread. The Pharisees and the rabbis who came after them “saw bread as a double symbol – of God’s gift of sustenance to humanity and of humanity’s sacrificial offerings to God. For the rabbis, the table was an altar and the meal at which bread was served was a reenactment of the devotional rituals of Temple times.”[1] Marcia Falk writes that “In the case of its use before a meal, [handwashing] was originally intended, among other things, to reenact the priestly purification ritual performed when offering a sacrifice at the Temple. One might say that mandating the washing of hands before eating, the rabbis turned every meal in the daily life of ordinary people into a sacred event.”[2]

Every table an altar, every meal an act of worship, every host a priest. In the days of Jesus and the early church, these practices were still emerging and much debated, especially in the church where Jews and Gentiles had to determine which traditions to continue and which ones to abandon.

In Mark’s story, some Pharisees and scribes question Jesus, because they noticed that some of his disciples were eating without washing their hands. To them, it was a matter of faithfulness. Pouring a little water over one’s hands before a meal was one small way to maintain a crucial boundary; it allowed them to live as God’s holy people in a world ruled by pagan idolaters. Some of Jesus’ disciples did not observe that tradition, while others apparently did. The scribes and Pharisees suspected that the carelessness of Jesus and his disciples with regard to the traditions of the elders threatened to undermine their identity as God’s people.

Jesus, according to Mark, showed little patience. Quoting Isaiah, he calls them hypocrites who honor God with their lips, but whose hearts are far from God. He accuses them of teaching human precepts as doctrines while abandoning the commandment of God and holding on to human tradition.

Now if somebody asked us here at Vine Street whether we live by God’s word and will or by human tradition, we would certainly affirm that we seek to live according to God’s word and will. But we would also talk about how our hearing of God’s word and our knowing of God’s will are inseparably tied to human voices, human perspectives, and human traditions. And we would want to talk some more about how this being inseparably connected to human language, human experience, and human weakness does not defile divine things, but rather reflects and reveals them.

The people questioning Jesus about the washing of hands wanted to honor the commandment of God, “You shall be holy to me; for I the Lord am holy, and I have separated you from the other peoples to be mine.”[3] To them being associated with the holy God meant avoiding any association with ungodly people and things. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with wanting to keep oneself unstained by the world? What’s wrong with keeping an eye on that line between what is holy and what is not, and not allowing it to get blurry?

“Holiness demands boundaries and quarantine. [And] Jesus’ ministry of table fellowship was dismantling these boundaries and breaking the quarantine.”[4]

They saw him eating with sinners. They saw him crossing the line. But “the Pharisees never once [considered] the fact that the contact between Jesus and the sinners might have a purifying, redemptive, and cleansing effect upon the sinners,” writes Richard Beck.

Why not? The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners. The sinners make Jesus unclean.[5]

When James tells us to keep ourselves unstained by the world, the power sits firmly with the world as the location of impurity that defiles us. The world as  the place where the risen Christ is present and at work through the Spirit doesn’t enter James’s picture. The only move open to the church in James’s picture is withdrawal and quarantine, separation from the world. What he doesn’t consider is that Jesus isn’t rendered unclean by his encounters with human sin no, it’s exactly the other way round: his touch makes us whole, his mercy embraces us, his righteousness includes us, his holiness sanctifies us. We follow him into the world without fear of contamination.

“Listen to me,” says Jesus, “all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Not so fast, I want to say. Not so fast. There is plenty outside a person that by going in can defile. We are not born with our prejudices. We are not immune to the subtle or not so subtle messages that tell us that we are unworthy of love. We are not impervious to the attitudes that defile a person’s dignity. We are not invulnerable. But we can’t pretend that we can create islands of holiness in the sea of unholy chaos that surrounds us. And we can’t pretend that the line dividing the holy from the unholy can be drawn between us and the world, with us safely on the holy side. The line runs through the core of our being.

“It is from within,” says Jesus, “from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” The trouble, says Jesus, doesn’t arise from a world hostile to the holiness of God’s people. Evil cannot be walled out or fenced in or locked away or bombed out of history. The trouble arises from the human heart. And not just the hearts of others, whose intentions, pieties, and visions differ from my own. The trouble arises from my own heart.

If I expect the threat to holy living only to come from outside, then that’s where my attention will be, and I will learn to watch others, and criticize others, and avoid others, and accuse and condemn others. But in the company of Jesus I learn to look at my own heart with greater honesty, and the better I know my own heart, the deeper my compassion for others will be. The more I grasp that God, fully knowing my heart, still loves me, the more I will be capable of showing mercy to others.

Our hearts are defiled, wounded and broken in more ways than we can know, but Jesus isn’t careful not to brush against and touch those places. He has shown us that holiness is not the static quality of a distant and demanding deity. Holiness is a movement into the world, a loving fearlessness that leaps over fences and breaks down walls until it fills all things. Following Jesus we are part of that holy movement, our hearts and lives no longer shaped by fear of contamination, but by the world-redeeming love of God.


[1] The Book of Blessings, 428.

[2] Ibid., 426.

[3] Leviticus 20:26

[4] Richard Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality, 78.

[5] Ibid., 30.

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Temple builders

Several of us went on a trip to Germany last year. It was the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Lutheran reformation, and we toured places where Martin Luther had lived and worked. Before we got on the bus to Wittenberg, Eisenach, and Leipzig, though, we did some sightseeing in Berlin, where our plane had landed.

We got to visit the Bonhoeffer House, and we saw the Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust memorial. The Bonhoeffer House is a rather ordinary house in a suburb, but it was extraordinarily moving to step into the room where Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s small desk was sitting under the dormer window and to think of him sitting there reading and writing. The Brandenburg Gate is just one more example of grandiose, imperial architecture, except that many of us, for many years have only seen it with a wall running across the front of it, dividing the city and the country and the world; seeing the gate without the wall was touching. With people moving freely through the open spaces between the massive columns the place had become a living memorial to freedom and unity. Only a short walk from the iconic gate, an entire city block has been rebuilt as a Holocaust memorial, a large structure reminiscent of a cemetery, an attempt to give, in the heart of the capital, a place to the memory of the systematic murder of millions of European Jews and others whom the Nazis had classified as ‘unworthy of life.’

On our first day in Berlin, though, most of us were tired from the long flight and the seven-hour change in time zones, and so we only planned a short visit to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church was built at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century and in 1943 it was almost completely destroyed in a bombing raid. All that was left standing was a portion of the steeple and the entrance hall, and after the war the remaining structure was turned into a memorial. The construction of the church was part of a Protestant church-building program initiated by Kaiser Wilhelm II to counter the German labor movement by a return to traditional religious values like piety, humility, and obedience. The foundation stone was laid on March 22, 1891, the birthday of the Kaiser’s grandfather, Wilhelm I., and the Kaiser named the church in his honor.

Like I said, much of the church was destroyed in WWII, but when I walked into the entrance hall that houses a historical exhibit, I looked up to the ceiling and the upper walls, framed by Neo-Romanesque arches, and covered with mosaics of colorful figures against a background of heavenly gold – magnificent workmanship. Only where I expected to see Biblical scenes or renderings of prophets and apostles, I found myself looking at images of the Kaiser and his wife and other members of the Prussian aristocracy.

When the Kaiser builds a church, he will tell the whole world that it’s to the glory of God on high, but at the same time he’ll make sure that a good portion of that divine splendor also shines upon his own person and throne. When the Kaiser builds a church, the people do the work they cut the stone, they lay the brick and tile, they install the glass, they carve the wood, they haul the slate up the roof, they assemble the mosaics, and, one way or another, they foot the bill but it’s the Kaiser who determines whose images are installed in proximity to the divine, and by what name the magnificent edifice shall be known.

In 1 Kings we read that King Solomon sent word to his neighbor and friend, King Hiram of Tyre, “I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God.”[1] He ordered cedar and cypress timber from Lebanon for which he paid with wheat and oil from the royal store houses. And he conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men. He sent them to the Lebanon, ten thousand a month in shifts; they would be a month in the Lebanon and two months at home; Adoniram was in charge of the forced labor. Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, besides Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work. At the king’s command, they quarried out great, costly stones in order to lay the foundation of the house with dressed stones.[2]

This detailed description continues for two entire chapters in 1 Kings, but no mention of the thousands of workers: “In the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, he began to build the house of the Lord.”[3] Solomon built the house and finished it. He lined the walls of the house on the inside with boards of cedar. He covered the floors with boards of cypress. He overlaid the wood with gold. He made two cherubim of olivewood and overlaid them with gold. He carved the walls of the house all around. He made doors of olivewood and covered them with carvings and overlaid everything with gold. In the fourth year the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. In the eleventh year the house was finished in all its parts. He was seven years in building it.[4]

And then he filled the house with intricate bronze work and vessels of burnished bronze and gold. And Solomon led the dedication of this magnificent new building. Solomon gave the big speech. Solomon offered the prayer of dedication. Solomon blessed the assembly. And Solomon led the party that lasted seven days.

It makes me nervous when the king builds a temple or Caesar builds a church, because inevitably, royal and imperial interests will shape the building, the order of worship, and the language of the liturgy. It was common in the ancient near east for kings to build sanctuaries for the gods, complete with thrones on which the deity could sit, and it’s difficult to sort out to what degree images of divine rule shaped earthly kingdoms, or conversely, how royal power arrangements became the templates for how people envisioned the reign of their gods.

There is, however, in Solomon’s long and eloquent prayer of dedication, an important memory, a line reminding the king and the people and us that the Lord God of Israel cannot be boxed in, cannot be domesticated: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” the kings asks. And he answers, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

Nothing we build can contain the creator of heaven and earth, no house, no church, no theological system can contain the One who called Abraham and Sarah, who brought Israel out of the house of slavery, who made covenant at Sinai, who spoke through the prophets, who became incarnate and dwelled among us, the One who raised Jesus from the dead and poured out the Spirit on all flesh.

Whatever dreams of containment we may have had, when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.[5] This God will not be domesticated. This God will not be put in a box, be it made of stone or wood or gold or royal  or any other ideology.

When Jesus was arrested, witnesses came forward who said, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”[6] The next day Jesus was crucified and those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!”[7] He didn’t come down, but in three days this son of David began to build a house of God not made with hands. A house built not with forced labor or any kind of coercion, but with compassion and forgiveness and the call to loving service. A structure made of living stones.[8]

In Ephesians, the apostle writes, “In [Christ] the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”[9]

We have long known that any place can be the place of encounter with the living God and that no place can contain the presence of the Holy One. But now Jesus is building the temple, and he challenges us to see every encounter with another person as the place where God is at work, extending the holy of holies.

When King Solomon asked, “Will God indeed dwell on the earth?” it was a rhetorical question tempering the monarch’s royal ambition. But in Revelation, John of Patmos describes with powerful images his vision of creation come to completion and life fulfilled. This is the horizon against which he invites us to see our own lives unfold:

I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
[God] will dwell with them;
they will be [God’s] peoples,
and God … will be with them…”

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.[10]

In John’s vision, there is no temple in the city because humankind is at home in God and God is at home in humankind, finally.


[1] 1 Kings 5:5

[2] 1 Kings 5:13-18

[3] 1 Kings 6:1

[4] See 1 Kings 6:14-38

[5] Mark 15:38

[6] Mark 14:58

[7] Mark 15:29

[8] 1 Peter 2:5

[9] Ephesians 2:21-22

[10] Revelation 21:2-3, 22

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Kingdom dreams

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.

These are the opening words of Psalm 72, something like the job description of Israel’s dream king.

May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.

May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

May his foes bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.

May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.

May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun.

You noticed how many of the verses begin with the wishful sounding may. The psalm is not a job description; it belongs to Israel’s poetry of hope, formed by generations of royal disappointment.

In 1 Samuel 8, the people ask for a king, and the prophet Samuel delivers a warning. “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you” and then there’s no hopeful may he, but only a litany of matter-of-fact he-will’s:

He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself … some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to … his officers and his courtiers. He will take … the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work … and you shall be his slaves.[1]

The prophet’s warning looms over the whole account of the rise and fall of the monarchy in the books of Samuel and Kings. Solomon is presented as a test case for the opportunities and temptations of kingship.

King David is dead, and through carefully choreographed deception and with the help of powerful allies, Solomon has secured for himself the highly contested succession to the throne. After that, the first thing we hear about him is that he made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt – of all the princesses of all the neighboring kingdoms he married Pharaoh’s daughter! It’s not a very subtle hint of the proximity of kingship to slavery, but at this point it’s only a hint. He is young, his reign has only just begun: Oh, the promise!

Oh! The places he’ll go!

He’ll be on his way up!

He’ll be seeing great sights!

He’ll join the high fliers

who soar to high heights.

Solomon goes to Gibeon, one of the local shrines, a holy place, to sacrifice, and there, at night, the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, “Ask what I should give you.” This dream is not like the fairy tale where the fairy godmother grants you three wishes, or the Disney movie where the genie does the same for Aladdin. “Ask what I should give you,” is an offer that comes without a cap. Solomon could just check off a laundry list of everything any king has ever wanted, anything any king could ever want think of the possibilities!

Then the young king speaks, and he presents himself with such piety, sincerety, and humility. He speaks of God’s loyal love toward David and of David’s faithfulness, righteousness, and uprightness of heart toward God. “And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.”

He’s so humble, he doesn’t even say “I” until he points out how young he is and inadequate to the solemn task. And then he asks for one thing only: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

Can you imagine? A man who has just stepped into a unique position of power and authority and all he asks for is an understanding mind to govern the people, able to discern between good and evil? Not the vanquishing of his enemies, not wealth, not fame, not the unceasing admiration of an awestruck public an understanding mind.

The phrase “understanding mind” is more closely translated, “listening heart,” with the heart being, in Hebrew anthropology, the center of thought, intention, and will. The one thing Solomon asks for is a capacity for attentiveness to the needs and hopes of God’s people. He knows that a listening heart is the antithesis of a hard heart, an inability to notice or care for or take seriously the people he governs. Walter Brueggemann wonders if “in using this phrase [Solomon] is perhaps aware that he is married to Pharaoh’s daughter, Pharaoh being the quintessential hard-hearted guy.”[2] A listening heart is a heart receptive to the purposes of God and responsive to the needs of the people whom God has brought up from Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

The Lord is pleased with Solomon’s answer. He promises to be a king after God’s own heart, and God promises to give him, beyond his asking, wealth and honor beyond compare.

In the chapters that follow, we’re told in detail of his magnificent building projects the temple is an extravaganza of gold! of his global fame and of the trade policies that bring never-before-seen wealth to his house and the city. But while he is credited with wisdom, the narrative itself shows a foolish overreach of inordinate greed that proves unsustainable. He uses forced labor and heavy taxes to build up his kingdom, and he worships other gods, gods more in line with his style of governance. Wealth and honor distort the wisdom he asked for that night in Gibeon and his heart no longer listens. His heart is no longer in tune with the heart of God, no longer attentive to the needs of God’s people, no longer faithful. He has forgotten that the God who appeared to him in his dream did not just promise wealth and honor and long life; God also spoke of walking in God’s ways and keeping God’s commandments, particularly the Torah that instructs God’s people and their leaders in the attentive care for widows, orphans, and migrants.

Governing God’s people well, it turns out, is not merely a matter of successful management  or economic growth or impressive capital projects ultimately it means attentiveness to the socially and economically vulnerable members of the community. The wisdom that Solomon did not learn is how to be and remain attentive to those for whom the God of the exodus has special attentiveness.

Kingdoms are born of all kinds of dreams of power and prestige and wealth and fame. But the dream of freedom for the oppressed, the dream of justice for widows, orphans and migrants, the dream of righteousness is the deep wisdom of human hearts in tune with the heart of God.

So, if you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? “A heart in tune with the heart of God” would be the Sunday school answer, and a good one at that.

Wisdom? The book of Proverbs confirms that putting wisdom first is recommended, and not just for young royal dreamers:

Happy are those who find wisdom,
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold.
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;
those who hold her fast are called happy

If you were in charge of a kingdom, what would you ask for? The question is not a hypothetical one, because we are. Only we are not the ones on the throne. And ultimately that may well have been what Solomon in all his wisdom forgot: that the kingdom wasn’t his, but God’s.

Jesus says in the sermon on the mount, “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” You cannot serve God and ambition. You cannot serve God and power. And he continues,

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.[4]

When Solomon asked for a listening heart, God was pleased and promised to give him not only what he asked for, but also wealth and honor. And soon the king and, according to First and Second Kings, just about every king after him, forgot that they were servants in the kingdom of God and they made idols of wealth, fame, and power.

Kingdoms are indeed born of all kinds of dreams and the dream of freedom for the oppressed, the dream of justice for widows, orphans and migrants, the dream of faithfulness and righteousness has given birth to God’s kingdom on earth in the person of Jesus. And when we strive first for this kingdom, he reminds us, all that we need and all that anyone needs will be given to us as well.


[1] 1 Samuel 8:11-17

[2] Walter Brueggemann

[3] Proverbs 3:13-18

[4] Matthew 6:24, 28-33

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Zealous hero?

Jezebel was a Phoenician princess; she was the daughter of the king of Tyre, a port city on the Mediterranean, just north of Israel. She was married to Ahab, king of Israel, not because they were madly in love, but because their parents wanted to strengthen an alliance between their houses against rivals in the region. It was all part of the ancient game of thrones. The alliance meant that those with connections to Ahab’s court were doing quite well, due to new opportunities in trade. Those lacking those connections were dealing with increased economic and social stresses, due to the disruption of traditions.

Take, for example the story of Naboth.[1] He had a vineyard in Jezreel that was next to the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. Ahab ordered Naboth, “Give me your vineyard so it can become my vegetable garden, because it is right next  to my palace. In exchange for it, I’ll give you an even better vineyard. Or if you prefer, I’ll pay you the price in silver.”

Naboth responded to Ahab, “Lord forbid that I give you my family inheritance!”

So Ahab went to his palace, irritated and upset at what Naboth had said to him. He lay down on his bed and turned his face away. He wouldn’t eat anything.

Jezebel came to him and asked, “Why aren’t you eating? Why are you upset?”

He told her about his conversation with Naboth, and Jezebel couldn’t believe it: “Aren’t you the one who rules Israel? Get up! Eat some food and cheer up. I’ll get Naboth’s vineyard for you myself.”

She arranged for false witnesses to testify that Naboth had cursed both God and king, so the people would stone him to death. It worked like a charm. As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take ownership of the vineyard of Naboth, which he had refused to sell to you. Naboth is no longer alive; he’s dead.” And so he did.

Elijah went to see the king and said, “This is what the Lord says: In the same place where the dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, they will lick up your own blood.”

The people who recorded this story for future generations did not belong to Ahab’s court. At the end they added a comment,

Truly there has never been anyone like Ahab who sold out by doing evil in the Lord’s eyes—evil that his wife Jezebel led him to do. Ahab’s actions were deplorable. He followed after the worthless idols exactly like the Amorites had done—the very ones the Lord had removed before the Israelites.[2]

From the perspective of the people who wrote down these stories, Ahab’s actions were deplorable, but Jezebel was to blame, the foreign princess with her idols and her foreign ways. To them, she was the embodiment of all that led Israel astray — away from the covenant and the commandments and the righteousness of God. Jezebel and the prophets of Baal who ate at her table.

Elijah, however, was the champion of the Lord, and he issued a challenge to Ahab: Send a message and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel together with all the prophets of Baal and Asherah.

When they had gathered, Elijah said to the people, “How long will you hobble back and forth? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.”

The people gave no answer.

Elijah said, “I am the last of the Lord’s prophets, but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty. Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers with fire—that’s the real God!” They thought it was an excellent idea.[3]

The prophets of Baal prepared one of the bulls, and they called on the name of their god from morning to midday, but nothing happened. Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!” They went on and on, but nothing happened.

When evening came, Elijah repaired the Lord’s altar, dug a trench around it, added the wood, butchered the bull, and placed the bull on the wood. Then he told the people to douse it all with four jars of water. And they did. “Do it again!” he said. So they did it a second time. “Do it a third time!” And they did. Elijah prayed. And suddenly the Lord’s fire fell and it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench.

The people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed. Elijah told them, “Seize Baal’s prophets! Don’t let any escape!” So they seized the prophets, and Elijah killed them.

Sounds like something made for HBO, doesn’t it? The evil queen, the pint-size king, the gawking crowd, and the lone hero of Mount Carmel, wiping off the blood of his sword. Parental discretion advised.

When Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done she sent a messenger to Elijah to tell him, “May the gods take my life if I have not taken yours by this time tomorrow.” 

Now we see a very different Elijah. He’s afraid. He flees for his life. He goes far to get away, all the way to Beersheba, way down south, ten days on foot, away from Jezebel. And then he walks another day’s journey into the wilderness, sits down under a solitary broom tree, and tells the Lord, “It is enough; take away my life,” and lays down and falls asleep.

Is he exhausted from the showdown on Mount Carmel or from the long journey south?

If he’s ready to die, why didn’t he just let Jezebel take care of it?

And if she wanted to do to him what he had done to the prophets, why did she send a messenger to announce it, instead of an assassin?

Elijah wakes up when someone touches him, and for a second he doesn’t know if this might be someone sent by Jezebel or someone else. “Get up and eat,” the stranger says, and there is bread and a jar of water. It’s a moment of profound and simple grace; bread in the wilderness. Elijah eats, he drinks, goes back to sleep.

A second time the angel of the Lord touches him, and tells him to eat and drink, for otherwise the journey would be too much for him. And Elijah goes in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God, the place where the commandments were given, the covenant place. It turns out he traced Israel’s steps all the way back to this place of promise. And here he the word of the Lord comes to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

I wonder why this word comes to him now, and why not earlier during the violent spectacle on Mount Carmel. “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

“I have been very zealous for the Lord.”

I have stood up for you. I have spoken up for you. I have confronted the king for you. I have ridiculed idols for you. I have killed for you. I have been zealous, very zealous, for you. “For the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

He feels like he’s been left alone in the epic struggle. He sounds like he’s been expecting perhaps a little more zeal from the Lord. Some fire-from-above action to make Jezebel forsake her idolatrous ways, some display of divine power that would cause Ahab to repent and walk in righteousness, and God’s people to return to the Lord.

There was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces — but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

It was as though Elijah’s zeal, his rage, his desire for complete and lasting change was on display all around him in spectacular fashion, but the Lord was not in any of them. There was only the sound of their absence; the astonishing sound of sudden silence; the sound of no sound in the immediate wake of very loud sounds, a kind of presence that can only be described as the absence of all that. And from that silence again a voice, asking, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

His answer was the same as before, but again he wasn’t commended for his zeal, nor confirmed in his assessment of Israel’s apostasy, nor comforted about his precarious circumstances. He was told to go back on his way, to make himself again available for God’s disruptions of the idolatrous royal routines of Israel and her neighbors in the name of God’s reign.

And perhaps that is one thing we can keep from these ancient super hero stories: to make ourselves available for God’s disruptions of our idolatrous routines; to seek to serve God’s purposes, and not to identify too confidently our own passion with God’s; and to take our hints for the character of God’s reign not from the palaces, not from any palaces, but from Jesus.





[1] See 1 Kings 21:1-19

[2] 1 Kings 21:25-26

[3] 1 Kings 17:19-24

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Parker Palmer had given a speech in Saskatoon, Canada and he boarded a 6 a.m. flight home to Wisconsin. “Our departure was delayed,” he writes, “because the truck that brings coffee to the planes had broken down. After a while the pilot said, ‘We’re going to take off without the coffee. We want to get you to Detroit on time.’” Palmer was up front where all the “road warriors” sit — a surly tribe, especially at that early hour. They began griping, loudly and at length, about “incompetence,” “lousy service,” etc.

Once they got into the air, the lead flight attendant came to the center of the aisle with her mike and said, “Good morning! We’re flying to Minneapolis today at an altitude of 30 feet…” That, of course, evoked more scorn from the road warriors. Then she said, “Now that I have your attention… I know you’re upset about the coffee. Well, get over it! Start sharing stuff with your seatmates. That bag of five peanuts you got on your last flight and put in your pocket? Tear it open and pass them around! Got gum or mints? Share them! You can’t read all the sections of your paper at once. Offer them to each other! Show off the pictures of kids and grandkids you have in your wallets!” As she went on in that vein, people began laughing and doing what she had told them to do. The surly scene turned into an excursion of happy campers!

An hour later, as the attendant passed by his seat, Palmer signaled to her.

“What you did was really amazing,” he said. “Where can I send a letter of commendation?”

“Thanks,” she said, “I’ll get you a form.”

Then she leaned down and whispered, “The loaves and fishes are not dead.”[1]

The story of Jesus feeding a multitude is the only miracle story told in all four Gospels, and in Matthew and Mark, it’s even told twice; it’s a rich and generative story. In it, we hear echoes of Israel’s wilderness journey with Moses and the mighty acts of Elisha, and it tells of Jesus who is both a part of that history and its completion. It is a story of overflowing grace and abundant life that points to Jesus as the enfleshed presence of God. Palmer writes,

As far as I’m concerned, that story doesn’t involve any magic. It’s about the miracle of sharing in community, an everyday miracle that anyone with some courage can pull off. [2]

I agree that the story doesn’t involve any magic, but reducing it to an everyday miracle that anyone with some courage can pull off rips out the heart of the story, Jesus. John has no interest in introducing us to the man who orchestrated the miracle of sharing in community so that we may learn how it’s done. John tells us about Jesus so that we may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.[3]

A crowd of five thousand, a boy’s lunch of five barley rolls and some fish, and all ate as much as they wanted until they were satisfied. At the end of the picnic, the disciples went around and picked up the broken pieces, and they filled twelve baskets. Five plus two, divided by 5,000 equals fullness for all and baskets of leftovers. That’s kingdom math. Palmer is right, the story doesn’t involve magic; it is the testimony of the first witnesses about Jesus in whom we encounter the life-giving power of God. Grace flows freely and abundantly from the source of life, the heart of God, the hands of Jesus, into our hands, our hearts, our lives grace as tangible as bread.

John tells us that Passover was near, the festival of liberation. Passover was very near indeed, not just on the calendar, but in the events about to unfold. Passover was near in the person and work of Jesus. When he saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

John says it was a test, and who can blame Philip for starting to think about budgets when it was Jesus who talked about buying bread? Philip quickly did the math he knew. He understood that it wasn’t a matter of knowing where the nearest bakery was. “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little,” no need to mention that none of them had that kind of cash. It wasn’t a math test. And it wasn’t part of an interview for the position of Director of Procurement and Purchasing. The question for Philip and the rest of us was and is: where do you turn for the gift of life and the gifts that sustain it?

There are echoes of the Exodus story. When the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness on their way to the land of milk and honey, they were tired and hungry, and soon they began to remember the house of slavery as a land of fleshpots. “If only we had meat to eat!” they cried. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Moses turned to God and said, “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’” Moses didn’t have meat to give them, and their memory was being clouded by rosy illusions: the fish they used to eat in Pharaoh’s brick yards, they imagined they ate it for nothing. They were reimagining the reality of slavery as a story of free food.

Jesus’ question to Philip and to us echoes that wilderness scene and implicitly he asks us where we turn for the gift of life: do we think of life as something we buy in exchange for our labor or as the gift of God on whose faithfulness we can depend?

Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

Nobody asked them if they were Gentile or Jew or Samaritan. Nobody inquired if they were rich or poor, or asked to see their papers. They all ate, male and female, young and old, foolish and wise – all ate until they were full. The fragments left over filled twelve baskets – enough for every tribe in the nation; enough for every month of the year, or perhaps simply enough, more than enough. Whether it was wine at the wedding feast or bread at the picnic by the lake, there was, there is, there will be enough for all to be filled until they want no more.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus doesn’t ask this question here, but it is the one lingering in the background. When the people saw the sign that Jesus had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” They had tasted life in abundance, and they began to draw their conclusions. In the framework of their experience, they tried to identify the place where Jesus fit in, and they called him the prophet, one like Moses, sent to lead God’s people. And when Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him to make him king, he withdrew.

Why did he withdraw? Why didn’t he let them crown him? He healed people, so obviously he knew how to make healthcare affordable and accessible. He fed people, so clearly he knew a thing or two about the economy. He taught people, so he had a passion for education. His character was flawless; there was not even a hint of corruption. Some people may have questioned his positions on gun ownership or divorce – but still, wasn’t he the best man for the job? Why did he withdraw? Why did he withdraw at the precise moment when he was about to be confirmed as king by public acclamation?

Jesus gives all that he has to give without claiming worldly power. He is no king in the mold of the Roman emperors who distributed free grain in the capital to keep the people from rebelling. He doesn’t conform to our systems of power by taking over the spot at the top, but rather subverts our dreams of dominion by giving life and the freedom to live as children of God to all. He is indeed teacher and healer, prophet and king, but his life redefines and transfigures all these terms.

Bread tells stories. In recipes handed down generation to generation, bread tells us about our ancestors. In its journey from the field to the table, bread tells stories about farms and cities, about kitchens, bakeries, and factories, about immigration and labor relations.

In much of the world, bread is the very essence of food and life. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray – and with bread we pray for all that is needed for people to thrive and life to flourish. Dennis Linn recalls how

During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But, many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night the bread reminded them, “Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.”[4]

Bread tells stories. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[5] He himself is the goodness and fullness we long for, and he freely gives himself to us that all may have life, and have it abundantly.[6]



[2] Ibid.

[3] John 20:31

[4] Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1995), 1.

[5] John 6:35

[6] John 10:10

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Life, someone said, is what happens when we have made other plans. We never know when somebody will come knocking at the door needing our help, and we don’t know until we open if it’s a friend, a neighbor, or a stranger. We never know when our plans will be interrupted by the needs of others.

Jesus had sent the twelve out two by two, and now they were coming back, tired, I imagine, but also full of stories and questions. Perhaps the weight of responsibility felt a little heavier to them, now that they knew what it meant to be Jesus’ sent ones. He had called them away from their fishing boats, their families, and their plans, to follow him. And follow they did. They tried to keep up. They watched. They listened. They were astounded. They wondered. But then he sent them out, two by two, with the authority to teach and heal and drive out demons. He sent them out to participate in his mission, and they discovered how being bearers of the good news was quite different from just being hearers or observers. Now they gathered around Jesus, eager to tell him what they had done and taught. They wanted to share their joys and frustrations, to get feedback and encouragement, and perhaps a bite to eat. They were excited and exhausted at the same time, and Jesus knew just what they needed and what a joy it must have been for them to hear him say, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

They heard the promise of refreshing solitude. Some of them envisioned mountains, meadows, and trout streams, others could almost feel the sand between their toes as they imagined themselves strolling along a wide beach with waves rolling up on the shore, and another three or four saw themselves sitting on a deck overlooking hills covered with forests, with the setting sun painting the sky in purple, red, and orange hues.

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” What a sweet commandment, and what a pleasure to keep it. So they climbed into the boat and sailed away. They pulled away from shore, away from the crowds, the needs and the demands.

Just to be out on the water was great. The town noise was quickly fading, and soon they heard nothing but the sound of the bow cutting through the water. It didn’t last, though. When they were pulling up on the other shore, they discovered that a crowd had already gathered there, people who had hurried there on foot from all the towns. They just couldn’t get away from it all. Perhaps the Twelve sensed how the loving care they felt for the people and their needs was slowly turning into resentment. Perhaps they were feeling guilty for not being more loving, more giving, who knows.

At this moment, Mark draws our attention away from the twelve and the ways in which we recognize ourselves in them, and he points to Jesus. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. Like sheep without a shepherd – what does that mean?

Andre Dubus remembers the first year he and his family lived in New England, in a very hold house in southern New Hampshire.

The landlord wanted someone to live in it while he was working out of state, the rent was a hundred dollars a month, the house was furnished, had seven fireplaces (two of them worked), and in the backyard was a swimming pool. There were seventy acres of land, most of it wooded except for a long meadow, hilly enough for sledding. There were also three dogs, eight sheep, and a bed of roses. … The landlady wanted the roses there when she came home after the year, and the landlord wanted the sheep. They were eight large ewes, and he bred them. They were enclosed by a wire fence in a large section of the meadow. … All we had to do about them was make sure they didn’t get through the fence, which finally meant that when they got through, we had to catch them and put them back in the pasture.

That sounds doable, doesn’t it? Dubus writes,

The sheep did not want to leave their pasture, at least not for long and not to go very far. One would find a hole in the fence, slip out, then circle the pasture, trying to get back in. The others watched her. Someone in our family would shout the alarm, and we’d all go outside to chase her.

At first we tried herding the ewe back toward the hole in the fence, standing in the path of this bolting creature, trying to angle her back, as we closed the circle the six of us made, closed it tighter and tighter until she was backed against the fence, and the hole she was trying to find. But she never went back through the hole, never saw it, and all our talking and pointing did no good. Finally we gave up, simply chased her over the lawn, around the swimming pool, under trees and through underbrush until one of us got close enough, dived, and tackled. Then three of us would lift her and drop her over the fence, and we’d get some wire and repair the hole.

Upon arriving in New Hampshire, Dubus had about as much experience with sheep as probably most of us have had.

When I was a boy, sheep had certain meanings: in the Western movies, sheep herders interfered with the hero’s cattle; or the villain’s ideas about his grazing rights interfered with the hero’s struggle to raise his sheep. And Christ had called us his flock, his sheep; there were pictures of him holding a lamb in his arms. His face was tender and loving, and I grew up with a sense of those feelings, of being a source of them: we were sweet and lovable sheep. But after a few weeks in that New Hampshire house, I saw Christ’s analogy meant something entirely different. We were stupid helpless brutes, and without constant watching we would foolishly destroy ourselves.[1]

Dubus and his family weren’t shepherds, though; they were sheep tacklers at best. James Rebanks was born into a shepherd family with father, grandfather, and generations of shepherds who have tended sheep in England’s Lake District as far back as the Middle Ages, and he is the rare shepherd who wrote a book about the trials and the beauty of the shepherd’s life.[2]

Once he saw an ad by the National Trust for a shepherd for one of its farms in Wales, and he imagined it catching the eye of bored city-dwellers everywhere in the UK, with their dreams of abandoning the “rat race” to live a different life closer to nature. The romantic voice in his head said: great! Some poor lost soul can escape urban drudgery to become a shepherd. But having written the book about the shepherd’s life he also felt he might be guilty of fuelling such escape fantasies. So he wrote a brief article for the Telegraph to shed some light on the attributes any applicant would need:

You need to be tough as old boots. Imagine working for weeks on end in the rain, and then snow, and lambs dying of hypothermia, with the difference between life and death being you and your knowledge. Even if you do your best they still die, and you will need to keep going. The romance wears off after a few weeks, believe me, and you will be left standing cold and lonely on a mountain. It is all about endurance. Digging in. Holding on. …

You will need a couple, or more, great sheepdogs (Training a sheepdog takes a couple of years, so hopefully you started a while ago, or you’ll have to spend thousands to buy them ready-trained). A shepherd without great dogs is just a fool running around a mountain waving their hands achieving nothing.

You’ll need the patience of a saint, too, because sheep test you to the limit, with a million innovative ways to escape, ail or die. For all these reasons this probably isn’t a job for someone unfamiliar with the mountain, its sheep, and its people. The apprenticeship period for a shepherd is … about 40 years. You are just a “boy” or a “lass” until you are about 60: it takes that long to really know a mountain, the vagaries of its weather and grazing, to know the different sheep, marks, shepherds, bloodlines, and to earn the respect of other shepherds. This isn’t just fell walking behind sheep with a dog friend – it requires a body of knowledge and skills that shepherds devote decades to learning.

So by all means apply for this job if you are looking to escape your urban woes. But recognise that doing so without the right experience and skills is a bit like turning up at Nasa and telling them you’d like to be an astronaut. [3]

In the Bible, shepherding is a metaphor for ruling and leading.

Good kings are good shepherds who establish justice and righteousness so life in the community can flourish.

Bad shepherds? They feed themselves, not the sheep. They don’t strengthen the weak, they don’t heal the sick, they don’t bind up the injured, they don’t bring back the strayed, they don’t seek the lost. They rule with force and harshness. They scatter the sheep.[4]

As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

Jesus didn’t let the needs of the people on shore interrupt his retreat plans, as much as it may look like that at first glance. He let his compassion, the very essence of who he is, who God is, he let his compassion interrupt all the ways in which we diminish and destroy the gift of life. He let his compassion interrupt our self-centeredness, our need to control, our harshness, our desire to be gods rather than creatures of God.

Mark says, he began to teach them many things – not just the folk on the shore, but also the twelve apprentices in the boat. He began to teach them not how to be good sheep regardless of who claimed to be shepherd – no, he began to teach them and all of us how to be shepherds, how to let his life, the life of the good shepherd, be ours.

The apprenticeship period for a shepherd, according to Rebanks, is about 40 years. That sounds about right for our life as disciples and emissaries of Jesus as well; it’s a lifelong project. Walking with him we become for each other what he is to us.


[1] Andre Dubus, “Out like a lamb,” in: Broken Vessels: Essays by Andre Dubus (1991)

[2] James Rebanks, The Shepherds Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape (New York: Flatiron Books, 2015)

[3] James Rebanks

[4] See Ezekiel 34:2-6

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Herod's birthday

You could be watching the soccer world cup final now. Instead you’re listening to the preacher who is wondering what you might make of the gloomy story you just heard. You were hoping for a little something to feed your soul, weren’t you? Good news of great joy. Glad cries of deliverance. Gospel. You’re wondering what the preacher was thinking to have you listen to this tale of a ghastly birthday banquet like something straight out of Game of Thrones. Intrigue. Seduction. Fear. Ambition. Brutal violence.

It was Herod’s birthday. This was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. He loved it when people called him king, because that’s what he dreamed of being someday: somebody with enough power to make the truth whatever he wanted it to be. The title the Romans had given him after the death of his father, Herod the Great, was Tetrarch, “ruler of a quarter” in English, because rather than trusting one with the whole realm, they divided it between him and his brothers. Antipas got Galilee.

So this was his birthday, and he had invited government officials, business leaders and dignitaries to a banquet at the palace. There was plenty to eat, and before, during, and after dinner, plenty to drink. This wasn’t the kind of dinner party we imagine Queen Elizabeth II would host. Speaking of the queen, it was common for the women had they been at the banquet at all to leave the room after the meal, and then there would be more drinking and after-dinner entertainment. Herod was in a splendid mood the wine, the food, the lavish praise of flattering toasts and he asked the daughter of Herodias to dance for his guests.

Herodias was his wife, his second wife, to be exact, but she used to be his brother Philip’s wife, and she wasn’t a widow. No big deal in Roman law, particularly among the leading families, but in Jewish law this kind of marriage was forbidden. John the Baptist, the wilderness prophet, was very clear about it: “It is not lawful for you to have her.”[1] The fact that Herodias was also Herod’s niece apparently was no cause of concern. Anyway, Herod, not known in his realm and the empire as a proud supporter of free speech, had John arrested, bound, and put in prison. Mark presents this as some kind of compromise, protective custody, as it were, because Herodias wanted the Baptist killed. ‘Let him tell his truth to the dungeon walls,’ Herod may have suggested to his vengeful wife.

So, after dinner Herod asked the daughter of Herodias to dance for him and his guests. Feel free to imagine a young princess dressed in a pink tutu, delighting the guests with a sequence from Swan Lake, but this was not that kind of dance. Let’s just say this was something typically done by professionals, and not the kind of dance the average dad would want his daughter to perform in front of a bunch of drunk men. But Herod wasn’t your average dad and so he did ask and he watched and he was pleased and he promised on oath to grant her a wish.

“Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

“Kingdom” was a big word, of course, too big, really, but he did dream of becoming king one day, and he may have had a few drinks too many, and he wanted to impress not just the girl with his wealth and generosity, but his guests.

“Whatever you ask me, I will give you.”

She didn’t ask for a pony. She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”

“The head of John the Baptist,” Herodias replied.

And the girl rushed back to Herod, “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The platter was the girl’s idea, and the dish was brought in like it was the last course at the banquet.

Herod did not really want to grant the request, but he couldn’t afford to lose face in front of his VIP guests, who had heard him make the foolish promise. Not if he wanted to continue to be the empire’s man in Galilee and Peraea; not if he wanted to hold on to his kingdom dreams. So he sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. Death was the final course at the palace, and the closing line of this terrible story speaks of John’s disciples who came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

What do you do with a terrible story like that? What do you do with a story that ends in a tomb like that? Do you find anything resembling life and hope in that horrifying tale of fear dressed up as power and producing only death? Do you find anything resembling life and hope in the daily stories of fear and greed and dreams of domination?

Mark tells us a larger story, one that helps us see beyond the tomb. Mark inserts this tale right after telling us about the rejection Jesus experienced in his hometown and how he responded by sending out the twelve two by two. Be prepared for rejection when you proclaim the nearness of God’s reign! And they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. And they cast out all kinds of evils that bind and oppress people and they brought hope and healing to many communities. Proclaiming repentance, they did what John had done before he was arrested. Driving out demons, they did what Jesus did, with awesome power, and when Herod heard of it, he was afraid, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” He thought the fearless truthteller was on the loose again. He himself had sent men who arrested and bound John and put him in prison, and he himself had sent a soldier of the guard to bring him John’s head …

Mark tells us how Jesus sent the twelve to liberate and heal, and in the next scene he tells us about Herod who sent men under his authority to bind and lock up and kill. It’s the clash between the empire of death and the kingdom of life. The story is a flashback to what Herod did to John, and a flashforward to what Pilate will do to Jesus. The world, Mark wants us to recognize, does not gladly receive the reign of God as a gift of liberation and new life, but rather sees it as a threat to its own dreams of domination and greatness. And so Mark tells those who follow Jesus as servants of God’s kingdom, to be prepared not only for rejection and ridicule, but also for violent resistance from the servants of empire.

And like the world, we do not gladly receive the reign of God as a gift of liberation and new life, but rather see it as a threat to our own dreams of power and control, our own dreams of being masters, kings and queens. We would be fools to believe that the line between the servants of God’s kingdom and the servants of empire can be drawn as clearly between us and others as it was between Herod’s banquet hall and the dungeon down below; the line runs through us. The real struggle is not against the servants of empire, regardless of where we see them or how we label them. The real struggle for us as followers of Jesus is to live as servants of God’s kingdom, to hear again and again the call to repentance and to discipleship and to mission, and to follow that call, again and again, with trust in the faithfulness of God, and to resist the whispers of fear and greed and despair.

The larger story Mark tells us, helps us see beyond the tomb and beyond all that buries our hope: The killing of the prophet does not stop the truth of God. The crucifixion does not stop God’s desire to bring wholeness to creation. And persecution will not stop the church’s participation in God’s mission in the world.

In verse 30, not part of today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, but very much part of the context that sheds light on this gloomy story, Mark tells us the apostles gathered around Jesus, and they told him all that they had done and taught. They told him about their struggle to live as servants of God’s  kingdom in the world, and even then, they were surrounded by a great crowd of people, men and women longing for life, for healing and forgiveness so many, they had no leisure even to eat. And that’s when we hear about the other banquet, the birthday banquet of the world to come where thousands eat, and the leftovers from five loaves and two fish fill twelve baskets.

You came here hoping for a little something to feed your soul, didn’t you? At Herod’s party of bending tables and overflowing bowls you’d be hard-pressed to find even a morsel that won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth. You’d eat and drink ambition, intrigue, seduction, fear, and brutal violence. But outside the palace, Jesus is hosting the feast of life. Where do you go with your hunger?

I don’t want to be at Herod’s party any more and I don’t want a piece of his cake. I want to go where there’s bread for all. I want to go where Jesus is leading us. I want to live in the kingdom of God.



[1] Leviticus 18:13-16; 20:21

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And she did

They wanted to touch him. People came to Jesus in great numbers, for he had cured many, Mark says, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him (Mk 3:10). They had heard how Jesus, moved with pity, stretched out his hand and touched a leper, and said to him, “Be made clean!” (Mk 1:41) and other stories like it.

Mark paints a scene of people being drawn to Jesus from every direction, bodies everywhere. Among them a man who somehow makes his way to Jesus and throws himself at his feet. He’s a synagogue official of some kind, an important man, which is possibly why the crowd gave way and let him through; his name is Jairus, Mark tells us.

But Jairus doesn’t behave like an important man. He’s on his knees, his forehead touching the ground; he can smell the dirt, he can feel the grit of sand and gravel against the tips of his fingers. He behaves like a desperate man, a man on the verge of losing it for helplessness and fear. His daughter is at the point of death, only he doesn’t say “my daughter,” he says, “my little daughter,” the little girl he has known since he first held her on the day she was born and she was barely bigger than his hand. “She’s dying,” is what he’s there to tell the man from Nazareth, she’s dying. Nothing else matters for him anymore; not a thought about propriety or social conventions: his little girl is at the point of death.

I see Jairus in the company of the desperate mothers and fathers at the border fences of the world. They have come from Syria and Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, parents whose lives have a single focus: that their children may live.

Jairus is an important man, a man with a name, and love has made him a beggar. She is dying—he says it repeatedly, “my little daughter, she’s at the point of death— and he says, “Come and lay your hands on her.” Come and touch her like you have touched others with healing. Lay your hands on her, he says, perhaps he’s seen it done, perhaps he’s done it himself, kneeling by her bedside, willing to let his own life flow through the palms of his hands to let it be hers, if that was what it took, but he couldn’t give her what he so desperately wanted to give her. “Lay your hands on her, so she may be made well, and live,” he says to Jesus.

He remembers when she was little, how, in the middle of the night when the house was too quiet, he used to get up to make sure she was breathing. He never told anybody, men of status and importance didn’t do such things, but now he is no longer afraid to reveal his love and helplessness in front of the whole town.

In one of his memoirs, Frederick Buechner recalls his own helplessness as a father whose little girl was very sick.

One of our daughters began to stop eating. There was nothing scary about it at first. It was just the sort of thing any girl who thought she’d be prettier if she lost a few pounds might do – nothing for breakfast, maybe a carrot or a Diet Coke for lunch, for supper perhaps a little salad with low calorie dressing. But then as months went by it did become scary. Anorexia nervosa is the name of the sickness she was suffering from.

The hardest part: there was nothing he could do.

No rational argument, no dire medical warning, no pleading, or cajolery or bribing would make this young woman we loved start eating normally again. … The psychiatrists we consulted told me I couldn’t cure her. The best thing I could do for her was to stop trying to do anything. [But] the only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her – to move heaven and earth to make her well, and of course, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have … the power to make her well.[1]

“My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live,” Jairus begged, and Jesus went with him, Mark tells us. Surrounded by people on every side, bodies everywhere, Jesus suddenly stopped and turned about and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

The disciples were like, “You’re kidding, right? All this humanity pressing in on you — how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’”

They didn’t know what just happened. They didn’t know that a woman — having been bleeding for twelve years, and having suffered greatly from many physicians, and having spent all she had, and having benefited not one bit but rather having gone from bad to worse, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind — had touched his cloak. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” They didn’t know those words had been her mantra as she made her way through the crowd.

That was all the faith she had, a mixture of desperation and magical thinking. She was too tired and poor to be afraid anymore, too single-minded to worry that her condition would render those who touched her ritually unclean. She was determined to touch his clothes and she did. And immediately she felt that she was healed. Immediately she felt that life was no longer slowly draining from her, but filling her. And when Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched my clothes?” she didn’t just say, “I did.”

She fell down before him and told him the whole truth. She told him of the twelve years of her suffering and poverty, she told him of her loneliness, her shame, her isolation – how life had slowly dripped away from her physically, emotionally, and socially.

And Jesus heard her out and said, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” He called it her faith, this curious blend of desperation and magical thinking, this unbending determination to touch him because life was his to give and restore and make whole. The single-minded focus she found when she got to the end of her rope, Jesus called faith.

Ruben Garcia works at Annunciation House, a Christian shelter for migrants in Albuquerque. The guests who have stayed there over the years have fled war in Central America, drug cartel violence in Mexico and violent gangs in Central America. They’re seeking a safe haven and increasingly asylum.

“The people that are leaving now are fleeing what is the classic, low-intensity warfare,” Garcia said, adding that their right to file an asylum claim when they arrive at the border and have a judge review their case is protected by U.S. law. In recent weeks, he has escorted a few families seeking asylum through ports of entry because U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been turning people away.

“We’re walking up the bridge, and all that I can think of is … they’re the poorest of the poor, and they come to the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world, and look at what we’re making them do … We have no idea what hope means,” he said. “The people who are poor will teach us what it means to hope.”[2]

When Jesus says to the woman, “Daughter, your faith has made you well,” he reminds us that the poor also teach us what it means to live with faith. And he calls her “daughter,” which is such an important part of the whole truth, because she is not just some anonymous impoverished woman in the crowd, but a child of God, a member of God’s family.

And calling her “daughter,” Jesus reminds us that the divine parent’s love for the human family is like Jairus’s for his little daughter. And suddenly we remember the urgency with which that father begged and pleaded, “Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

But live she doesn’t any longer. “Your daughter is dead,” they tell Jairus. They have come from his house, they know what they’re talking about. Nothing anybody can do about it now; too late. End of story. “Why trouble the teacher any further?” they tell him.

But Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe.” Believe what? What is a man to believe when his whole life has blown up in his face? And before we begin cobbling together answers, we notice that Jairus didn’t ask; he went to his house and Jesus went with him, along with Peter, James and John.

There the funeral was already underway with people weeping and wailing, and when they heard Jesus say, “The child is not dead but sleeping,” they laughed at him, they didn’t know what else to do. They had been there when it happened, he had just walked in the door.

Jesus put them all outside, and then the six of them went in where the child was. And Jesus doesn’t speak to the grieving parents, he doesn’t speak to the disciples who are probably still wondering what he meant by “not dead but sleeping,” — Jesus takes her by the hand and says to her with great tenderness and care, “Talitha cum.”

We don’t speak Aramaic as Jesus and his first followers did, and Mark is kind enough to translate the words for us, so we don’t think it’s some kind of magic spell or secret incantation, but he keeps the words in Jesus’ native tongue in his Greek text, because somebody in that room remembered them, and they take us a little closer to the sound of Jesus’ voice, “Talitha cum — little girl, get up!”

And she did.

Wherever Jesus went, Mark tells us, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed (Mk 6:56). That is one side of this wondrous pair of stories we heard this morning. It is about our desire to touch Jesus, our deep desire to connect with the divine source of life and blessing.

The other side is about God’s desire to touch us. When we are in the place where hope has withered, courage shrunk, where joy is gone and we can barely imagine what it might mean to believe, and when they come and tell us it’s too late — it’s not. It never is. Because Jesus has entered the room where the child was. And he took her by the hand and spoke the words of life restored and renewed, “Talitha cum – little girl, get up!” And she did.


[1] Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets: A Memoir (HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), pp. 23, 26


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