In all things love

Mrs. Billy Graham she would have been properly addressed back in 1970s when Ruth Graham attended a ladies’ luncheon with wives of conservative pastors in Germany. She dressed up for the event as you would expect an American woman in the 1970s to dress. A nice suit, modest, but not Amish; something with a little color and a brooch on the lapel. Her simple shoes had short heels, and her hair  well, her hair was big. The pale pink lipstick she had chosen went well with her blue eyeshadow – she had stopped by the ladies’ room to make sure everything was just so, and she was pleased as she quickly glanced at herself in the mirror. She looked like a lady!

The German pastors’ wives didn’t believe women should wear makeup at all, or anything that made them look too worldly. One of them, sitting across from Mrs.  Graham, was so upset by the shameful attire of the famous evangelist’s wife, she started crying with tears rolling down her cheeks right into her beer.

Ruth Graham had no idea what upset the woman so. “What pastor’s wife,” was all she could think, “What self-respecting pastor’s wife drinks beer, at lunch, and when we’re here to plan a big-stadium event with Billy to bring people to Jesus?”

I don’t know if it’s a true story, but it’s a good one.[1]

The apostle Paul wrote to God’s beloved in Rome to introduce himself. He hadn’t founded the church there, but he was planning to visit soon, and he was hoping for  their support. He was on a mission to Jews and Gentiles, telling them the good news of Jesus Christ and calling them to faith, and he had plans to travel as far as Spain to proclaim his gospel. Would the Christians in Rome support his work? There were rumors that he preached lawlessness, that his gospel of grace undermined moral behavior. And those rumors weren’t just fake news cooked up by some kid in Macedonia. There was evidence to give some substance to the charge. In Corinth and Philippi in particular, some understood salvation by grace to mean that all things were lawful.[2]  Certain libertines appeared to anticipate Herod’s caricature of grace by W. H. Auden: “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.”[3] And there was the challenge of men and women from all kinds of religious, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds coming together to share the Lord’s supper Ruth Graham’s luncheon with the pastors’ wives was a walk in the park in comparison. So Paul wrote about an issue that had been particularly disruptive in Corinth and Antioch:[4] what to eat and who to eat with when Jesus is Lord.

“Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” They weren’t fussing over the health benefits of a vegetarian diet or the ecological impact of meat production. In the first-century Mediterranean world most animals were routinely offered to one god or another when they were killed. There were no stockyards or meat packing plants to supply the cities, there were temples. For some Christians, eating meat that was part of a pagan sacrifice was no problem; they knew there was only one God, creator of heaven and earth, and so they ate their meat with thanksgiving to God the giver. For others, this was unthinkable. For them, it amounted to participating in the worship of other gods, and so they reckoned it was best to steer clear of meat altogether.

Paul didn’t take sides in that debate, where some believers condemned others for watering down their commitment to Jesus by not separating themselves more rigorously from the pagan world and other believers looked down with contempt on their less enlightened brothers and sisters who didn’t grasp the true meaning of Christian freedom. Nor did he suggest that meat-eaters and vegetarians organize themselves into separate congregations so they would be able to worship with like-minded believers.

Eating or not eating isn’t the point at all, according to Paul. The one thing that really matters is that you don’t judge each other, but together submit to the lordship of Christ; that you look at each other as persons for whom Christ died; that you welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. “Owe no one anything,” he wrote, “except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”[5] Don’t rise in judgment over each other, but submit to each other in the spirit of Christ. Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.[6]

We all agree that in essentials, there must be unity, and in non-essentials, liberty. We just can’t seem to agree on what those are. One believer’s non-essentials are another’s essentials. Meat, makeup, beer, dancing the list goes on and on. Paul knows that dilemma and reminds us that our unity lies in Christ, not in any pious practices. And because of Christ and his love for us, the final portion of the famous saying is the one we must focus on: In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.[7]

The revolution of the cross is not about turning non-eaters into eaters or vice versa. The revolution of the cross is about our welcoming Christ in each other.

I’m closing with a story Scott Peck told, back in the 1980s , called The Rabbi’s Gift.[8]

The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order … there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. …

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. … As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things.

The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?”

“He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving it was something cryptic was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation.

On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light.

Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred.

But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah.

Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

[1] Based on Mark Reasoner’s version at

[2] 1 Cor 10:23

[3] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being (London: Faber and Faber, 1958) 116. See Calvin J. Roetzel, “Sacrifice in Romans 12-15,” Word & World 6, no. 4 (September 1986), 413-414.

[4] See 1 Cor 8:13; 10:25 and Gal 2:11-14.

[5] Rom 13:8

[6] Rom 12:1

[7] For the history of this lovely statement see; it may not have been penned first by Rupertus Meldenius (aka Peter Meiderlin) in 1627, but by Marco Antonio De Dominis in 1617 (“In necessariis unitas, in non necessariis libertas, in utrisque caritas”).

[8] As told by M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum: Community making and peace (New York: Simon&Schuster, 1987), Prologue. For this sermon, I shortened it minimally.

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Waking from sleep

“You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” the apostle writes. The difference Christ has made in the world is like night and day.

An old Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun. “Could it be,” responded one of the students, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. Another suggested, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Then when is it?” the pupils asked. “It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.”

“The night is far gone,” the apostle writes, “the day is near. You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep.”

Martin Luther, in 1521, preached a long Advent sermon on this text.[1] “Note the analogy between natural and spiritual sleep,” he said.

The sleeper sees nothing about him; he is not sensitive to any of earth’s realities. In the midst of them he lies as one dead, useless; as without power or purpose. Though having life in himself he is practically dead to all outside. Moreover, his mind is occupied, not with realities, but with dreams, wherein he beholds mere images; vain forms, of the real; and he is foolish enough to think them true. But when he wakes, these illusions or dreams vanish. Then he begins to occupy himself with realities; phantoms are discarded. 

The ungodly individual sleeps. … [He] is occupied with temporal, transitory things, such as luxury and honor, which are to eternal life and joy as dream images are to flesh-and-blood creatures. When the unbeliever awakes to faith, the transitory things of earth will pass from his contemplation, and their futility will appear. … But is it not showing altogether too much contempt for worldly power, wealth, pleasure and honor to compare them to dreamsto dream images? Who has courage to declare kings and princes, wealth, pleasure and power but creations of a dream, in the face of the mad rage of earth after such things? The reason for [the mad rage] is failure to rise from sleep and by faith behold the light. 

Awaking to faithif only it were as simple as hitting the snooze button to get just ten more minutes before swinging your legs over the edge of the bed, rubbing your eyes, and giving your arms and back a good stretch to greet the new day. Awaking to faith is more like continuing to see phantoms and dream images while the contours of God’s new creation, a world renewed in the image of Christ, are slowly emerging, revealing what’s really real.

“Pay to all what is owed them,” writes the apostle, “taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves has fulfilled the law. … Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Owe no one anything, except to love one another. In 1861, the autobiography of Harriet Ann Jacobs was published under a pseudonym to protect the identity of the author. Allow me to read a few paragraphs from the opening pages.

I was born a slave; but I never knew it till six years of happy childhood had passed away. My father was a carpenter, and considered so intelligent and skilful in his trade, that, when buildings out of the common line were to be erected, he was sent for from long distances, to be head workman. On condition of paying his mistress two hundred dollars a year, and supporting himself, he was allowed to work at his trade, and manage his own affairs. His strongest wish was to purchase his children; but, though he several times offered his hard earnings for that purpose, he never succeeded. …

When I was six years old, my mother died; and then, for the first time, I learned, by the talk around me, that I was a slave. My mother’s mistress was the daughter of my grandmother’s mistress. She was the foster sister of my mother; they were both nourished at my grandmother’s breast. In fact, my mother had been weaned at three months old, that the babe of the mistress might obtain sufficient food. …

On her deathbed her mistress promised that her children should never suffer for any thing; and during her lifetime she kept her word. … I was told that my home was now to be with her mistress; and I found it a happy one. No toilsome or disagreeable duties were imposed on me. My mistress was so kind to me that I was always glad to do her bidding, and proud to labor for her as much as my young years would permit. … When I was nearly twelve years old, my kind mistress sickened and died. As I saw the cheek grow paler, and the eye more glassy, how earnestly I prayed in my heart that she might live! I loved her; for she had been almost like a mother to me. My prayers were not answered. …

I felt sure I should never find another mistress so kind as the one who was gone. She had promised my dying mother that her children should never suffer for any thing; and when I remembered that, and recalled her many proofs of attachment to me, I could not help having some hopes that she had left me free. My friends were almost certain it would be so. …

After a brief period of suspense, the will of my mistress was read, and we learned that she had bequeathed me to her sister’s daughter, a child of five years old. So vanished our hopes.

My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” “Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.

I would give much to blot out from my memory that one great wrong. As a child, I loved my mistress; and, looking back on the happy days I spent with her, I try to think with less bitterness of this act of injustice. While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory. …

She possessed but few slaves; and at her death those were all distributed among her relatives. Five of them were my grandmother’s children, and had shared the same milk that nourished her mother’s children. Notwithstanding my grandmother’s long and faithful service to her owners, not one of her children escaped the auction block.

These God-breathing machines are no more, in the sight of their masters, than the cotton they plant, or the horses they tend.[2]

God-breathing machines – I had swallowed hard when I read of the father whose strongest wish was to purchase his own children. And when I read of the mother who weaned her own child so she could nurse the babe of her mistress. And when I read the words, not one of her children escaped the auction block. But God-breathing machines I couldn’t read on after taking in that hard phrase, that revealing combination of cold, brutal fact and profound, prophetic protest on behalf of human dignity.

It was all legalthe import, the breeding, the trade, the possession, the use of God-breathing machines. The contracts were notarized. The purchases were registered. The will was properly prepared and signed by witnesses. It was all legal. And on Sunday the master and the mistress, the notary, the clerk, the attorney, and the auctioneer all went to church, and they all nodded when the preacher read from the letter to the Romans, “Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.” They nodded, but they didn’t awake; they dreamed on; they didn’t rise from sleep.

What are we missing? What phantoms and dream images are we clinging to, convinced of their reality? Harriet Jacobs points us to the place where the darkness tends to linger long.

My mistress had taught me the precepts of God’s Word: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” … But I was her slave, and I suppose she did not recognize me as her neighbor.

Neighbors are given to us to love. Delightful neighbors. Difficult neighbors. Needy neighbors. Grumpy neighbors. Weird neighbors. Kind neighbors. They are given to us to love, not chosen by us according to our dreams of life.

With the devastation brought by hurricanes, wildfires, and an earthquake we can easily see what love demands of us. But who are the ones we don’t recognize as neighbors, as members of God’s household, as brothers and sisters?


[1] The Sermons of Martin Luther Vol. VI (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker) 9-27.

[2] Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself. Public Domain Books, 2009. Kindle edition. Location 50-102.

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To know yourself addressed

Moses at the burning bush. The scene has captured the imagination of artists for generations. It has been painted, sculpted, and dramatized. It has been animated in Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt and rendered in 1950s-epic style in Cecil DeMilles Ten Commandments.

The other day, I caught a glimpse of a facebook debate, triggered by the question, “When there’s a movie based on a book, should you read the book before or after you watch the movie?” Well, I thought, what happened to watching the movie instead of reading the book? Countless high school students made it through English class that way, didn’t they? And when we’re talking about Moses, how about sticking with reading, and not just once, but repeatedly? Your imagination will thank you, because it’s really hard to unsee some renderings of biblical stories that have invaded your mind.

Moses was the child of slaves, but he lived a life of privilege in the palace. His parents were Hebrews, but he was given an Egyptian name. The daughter of Pharao adopted him, and because his big sister was kind and smart, his mother was hired to nurse him. One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people, it says in chapter two of the book. I wonder if he knew that they were his people, his kinsfolk; he had lived in the palace for so many years, and formative years at that, you can’t help but wonder if he thought of himself as a Hebrew or an Egyptian, as a son of Pharaoh's daughter or a brother of those groaning under the whips of their taskmasters.

One day he went out to his people and saw their forced labor and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew that was probably not an unusual scene, was it?  The whole system was built on violence, and degrading language and physical abuse must have been common and quite visible – but the fact that injustice is visible doesn’t always mean it is seen. Martin Buber wrote,

Each of us is encased in an armour whose task is to ward off signs. Signs happen to us without respite, living means being addressed, we would need only to present ourselves and to perceive. But the risk is too dangerous for us, … and from generation to generation we perfect the defence apparatus. All our knowledge assures us, “Be calm, everything happens as it must happen, but nothing is directed at you, you are not meant; it is just ‘the world’… nothing is required of you, you are not addressed, all is quiet.” Each of us is encased in an armour which we soon, out of familiarity, no longer notice. There are only moments which penetrate it and stir the soul to sensibility.[1]

Sometimes events happen that get through to us and wake us, and we know ourselves directly addressed. Big events like Sandy Hook, Charleston, Charlottesville, and Harvey that stir the souls of millions, and much smaller ones that may involve only a handful of people at home, at school, or at the grocery store. A voice says, “You! Say something — do something.”

For Moses, this was such a moment. He couldn’t just walk away as though everything happened as it must happen. He couldn’t wait for someone else to do something. He quickly looked around, and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian. He decided for the victim and against the abuser and acted.

But there had been at least one witness, as he discovered the next day, and he was afraid. It was just a matter of time before Pharaoh would find out and have him killed. And so Moses fled and settled in the land of Midian.

One day he sat by a well, when the daughters of Jethro, all seven of them, came to draw water for their father’s flock. Other shepherds pushed them away, but Moses saw what was happening and got up and came to their defense. Clearly he did not tolerate bullies. The daughters told Jethro about the Egyptian who stepped in to help them, and before long, Moses married one of them, named Zipporah, and she bore him a son whom he named Gershom.[2] The boy’s name, meaning “a stranger there,” spoke of Moses’s lack of a home; he didn’t know where he belonged. He had a good life in Midian, but he had no roots there, and he couldn’t say where his roots were. I imagine he didn’t mind spending days in the wilderness, keeping Jethro’s sheep, although it was a very different life from what he knew as the adopted son of royalty; at least the sheep didn’t ask him where he was from.

It was out there, beyond the wilderness, at Horeb, that he saw the blazing bush. Zora Neale Hurston described the scene as she saw it,

Moses could not believe his eyes, but neither could he shut them on the sight. Because the bush was burning brightly but its leaves did not twist and crumple in the heat and they did not fall as ashes beneath charred limbs as they should have done. It just burned and Moses, awed though he was, could no more help coming closer to try and see the why of the burning bush than he could quit growing old. Both things were bound up in his birth. Moses drew near the bush.

“Moses,” spoke a great voice which Moses did not know, “take off your shoes.” [3]

Moses was told to remove the sandals from his feet. To let his bare feet touch and sink in this holy ground. To let the skin of his feet be covered with the soil in which the blazing bush was rooted. To stand there, really stand there, firmly grounded, in God’s presence.

When I was little, we had this rug, right behind the front door. It wasn’t big, just a small runner, perhaps a foot wide and three-and-a-half feet long. When any of us came home, we would stand on the entrance mat, untie our shoes, and then place them on that small rug, tips pointing to the wall. It was my mom who insisted that we take off our shoes, because she did all of the cleaning. But there was something else going on, something she probably hadn’t thought of when she established the house rule. When you came in, you could tell who was home by looking at the shoes that were lined up behind the door. And every time I walked in, when I bent to untie my shoes, there was this flash of awareness: I’m at home now. This is where I belong.

I like to think that when Moses heard the great voice calling him by name he was no longer an alien residing in a foreign land; that when he bent to untie his sandals, he did it not only with deep reverence, but also with a new sense of belonging. “I am the God of your father,” the voice declared, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

The violence Moses had seen, the injustice he had witnessed had not gone unnoticed in heaven. God had heard, God had seen, God knew the suffering, suffered the suffering of God’s people in Egypt. “I have come down to deliver them,” God said.

Moses was driven by a deep sense of justice a desire to intervene for the victimized and the mistreated, wherever he saw injustice taking place, and now he knew this desire was holy, that his heart was beating in sync with the very heart of God.

“I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” Good. Very good. Very promising. But God was not done speaking to Moses. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” This is what happens when you realize that your heart is beating in sync with the heart of God. You become part of what God is doing.

“Come, I will send you,” God said to Moses.

And Moses objected, “Who am I that I should go to Pharao?”

“I will be with you,” God promised.

“Well, if I go, what do I tell your people? Who do I tell them sent me?”

“I am who I am,” God responded.

“But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me? … I have never been eloquent … I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” Moses said, naming every reason for not going he could think of, before begging, “O my Lord, please send someone else!”[4]

This is what happens when you realize that your heart is beating in sync with the heart of God. You become part of what God is doing – and there is no “someone else” to do your part for you. Generations after Moses, the prophet Isaiah said,

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. … The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene (Isaiah 59:14-16).

God is not calling you to do Moses’ part. God is not calling you to do Mary’s or anyone else’s part. Only yours. Sometimes events happen that get through to you and wake you, and you know yourself directly addressed. A voice says, “You! Say something — do something.” Reading the Scriptures – no movie will do this for you – reading the Scriptures, you will become familiar with the voice that addressed and sent Moses and the prophets, the same voice that called and sent the disciples, and you will learn to trust the One who speaks with that voice, and you will step out in faith.


[1] Martin Buber, Between Man and Man, 12.

[2] Ex 2:13-22

[3] Zora Neale Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, 125.

[4] Ex 4:1,10,13

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Who do you say he is?

The Sunday school teacher said, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)...” No hands went up. “And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)...” The children were looking at each other nervously, but still no hands raised. “It jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)...”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The teacher quickly called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer must be ‘Jesus’ ... but it sure sounds like a squirrel!”

The old joke is a revealing commentary on the pitfalls of Christian education. I laughed hard when I first heard it; it was so spot-on. You have seen the billboards, declaring in 10-foot letters, Jesus is the answer. There are Sunday school classrooms like that. Jesus is the answer, regardless of what the question might be. The little boy had been in that classroom long enough to get it, almost to the point of no longer trusting his own imagination and thinking. Apparently he’s not supposed to think; he’s supposed to know the answer.

We don’t teach like that; I think it’s because Jesus didn’t teach like that. He and the disciples were in Caesarea Philippi when he asked them two questions. The first was, “Who do people say that I am?”

Oh, yes, if you put it that way, there’s an abundance of answers: everyone has an opinion. From the tv preacher who sweats through his suit in under three minutes and the plumber with a fish sticker on his truck, to the scholar at the Divinity School, the blogger at the Huffington Post, and your neighbor from across the street everyone has an opinion. Who do people say that Jesus is? Thumb through the gospels, and you’ll notice that people say a lot of things about Jesus. He is Mary’s boy. He is the light of the world. A friend of sinners. The son of Joseph. The King of the Jews. Jesus is the one who can heal your child, cast out your demons, forgive your sins, and raise your hopes. He is a prophet, a rabbi, a healer, a builder, and a pain in the neck. He is alive, he is dead, he is risen, he is on his way. People say Jesus is a lot of things. And they say it standing on soap boxes, sitting at kitchen tables, and kneeling by hospital beds. They say it in pulpits and classrooms, on talk radio and twitter, on the street and in the locker room. In just about any context you can imagine, people say all kinds of things about Jesus, because everybody has an opinion, and those of you who remember the Doobie Brothers can hum another famous answer with them, Jesus is just alright…

Who do people say that the Son of Man is? That’s the safe question, a question for journalists and pollsters; you do a quick survey, make a few phone calls, and list your results: “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” People say all kinds of things, you report. You could spend the rest of your life collecting all those statements, sorting them into categories, tracking changes over time, and become the world expert on what people say about Jesus. You can fill entire libraries with that kind of knowledge.

But then Jesus asks the disciples the second question: “Who do you say that I am?” Which is another way of asking, “Why are you here?”

Do you tell him what your grandma taught you? Do you tell him what you learned in Sunday school? Do you tell him all that you learned in seminary? Do you tell him what you think he wants to hear, or do you know him better than that? How do you get from what people say to who Jesus is to you?

Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus said, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Blessed are you, because that’s no textbook answer; that’s a different kind of knowledge, a gift from God.

We all begin with what people say. We all begin by listening to parents and grandparents, teachers and preachers, by carefully observing the people who seem to know Jesus very well, by reading the scriptures and a thousand little things we pick up along the way, articles, interviews, biographies – until the moment when you respond no longer by repeating what people say, but by adding your voice to the confession of the church and letting your whole life be your answer. Until the moment when, in the company of Jesus and his disciples, your life feels different, because you can tell you’re moving toward a future he has opened, and you don’t know whether it was you who discovered the truth about him, or him who found you and revealed himself to you.

Knowing who Jesus is is no academic matter, but it is also not about the need to find your own answer, your own personal Jesus, a personalized accessory to fit your lifestyle and your political and spiritual sensibilities. Knowing who Jesus is cannot be separated from letting him make you part of the community he calls his church.

They were in Caesarea Philippi, a beautiful spot at the foot of Mt. Hermon, about twenty miles north of Lake Galilee, when Peter confessed that Jesus was God’s Messiah, God’s Anointed One, the Son of the living God. There’s a prominent rock outcropping at the site, and a cave with an abundant spring creating one of the tributaries of the Jordan river. Perhaps Jesus was looking at that huge rock when he said to Peter, “Simon son of Jonah, you are ‘rock’, and on this rock I will build my church.”

But there was more in Caesarea Philippi than an impressive rock and abundant water. Caesar’s name hovers over this scene. Herod the Great – the infamous Herod who, with murder on his mind, questioned the magi who had come to pay homage to the newborn king – Herod the Great had built a temple to Caesar Augustus there, and his son Philipp enlarged it to a regional capital, calling it Caesarea Philippi, Philipp’s Caesarville, in honor ofCaesar Tiberius.

Jesus raised the question, “Who do you say that I am?” in the shadow of Rome’s powerful presence, and Peter gave the politically charged answer, “You are the Messiah.” Caesar enjoyed being honored as the ‘son of god,’ and Peter called Jesus ‘Son of the living God,’ countering the imperial claim to global rule with the prophetic proclamation of the kingdom of God. Caesarea Philippi was a lush and leafy resort for Rome’s generals during the Jewish War, and when the gospel of Matthew was written, they had celebrated their victory there, after the destruction of Jerusalem. Peter called Jesus God’s Messiah in the deep shadow of idolatry’s oppressive power. And it was there, with the temple to Caesar in the background, that Jesus promised to build his church, the community of God’s kingdom, and that the gates of Hades, nor anything they could unleash, would prevail against it.  And it was there that Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matthew 16:21).

When we confess with Peter and the whole church that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world, we declare that the gates of Hades are no match for the faithfulness of God. And with Peter and the whole church which Jesus continues to build we make our confession in the shadow of powerful, idolatrous counter claims. In the darkness of hopelessness, we point to his light. Amid the hideous noise of hate speech in our streets and on our screens, we speak of his grace and truth. In the tangle of injustice, inequality and abuse, we seek to embody his compassion and pursue his justice. We call Jesus God’s Messiah in a threatened world, and we let ourselves be built into his church and make ourselves available for the saving purposes of God. Christian education cannot be about learning to give the right answers; it must be about preparing ourselves to let Christ claim us for God’s redemptive mission.

The churches we have built don’t always resemble the church Jesus is building, but he has promised to be with us until the end of the age, building his church with love and great patience; and that’s why sometimes the messy church we know is brave and beautiful, and it shines like a city on the hill: In those moments when men and women crippled by guilt hear the word of forgiveness and raise their heads. And when refugees find welcome and the courage to start over far away from home. And when victims of abuse discover hope and begin to trust again. And when a young couple don’t have to spend the night on the street because the manager of a motel is a generous woman. Every day, in ten thousand places, people are lifted up, fed, clothed, sheltered, healed, given another chance, forgiven, because Jesus is building his church. Every day, in ten thousand places, the peace of the kingdom disrupts and dismantles the deadly routines of the world. And we, you and I, get to live toward the fullness of God’s reign.

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Glory eclipsed

The forecasts say the sky will be clear midday tomorrow, and we hope there are no heavy clouds anywhere in Middle Tennessee that could move in last minute and ruin the moment. Thousands of us will stand outside, our faces turned to the sky, sporting dark glasses with cardboard frames, waiting to “see the sun slowly but inexorably consumed.”

A dark circle will slide over it, and the air will turn colder in an instant, as though someone had opened an Earth-sized freezer door. Warm air will stop rising from the ground and the wind will change direction, all while the [lunar shadow] sweeps the land, making the sky so dark that stars emerge. Birds will hasten back to their roosts. At the moment of total eclipse, the sun will darken entirely, leaving only a halo of fire.[1]

Annie Dillard described a total eclipse decades ago, writing

Abruptly, it was dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. The hole where the sun belongs is very small. A thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed.[2]

We know what to expect, it’s been calculated down to the fraction of a second for every GPS location on a wide swath of land stretching from the Oregon to the South Carolina coast, we know exactly when and where to expect one of the great spectacles in this part of our galaxy, but we don’t really know what to expect. Will it be beautiful? Will it be terrifying? Both at the same time, perhaps?

In ancient China, solar eclipses were especially feared; it was thought that a great dragon was trying to devour the sun. Occurrences in the sky were believed to directly mirror those on earth, and the emperor’s power rested entirely on his status as the Son of Heaven. He was most interested in getting accurate predictions of eclipse events so that preparations could be made for people to gather and produce great noise and commotion, banging on pots and pans and drums to frighten away the dragon. In Chinese, the term for solar eclipse, rishi 日食 ends with the character shi, “to eat.”[3] You can imagine the emperor’s relief when the dragon didn’t swallow and eat the sun, but spit it out on account of the people’s fearsome noise. Better to sit on the throne with a little dragon drool on the sleeves of the imperial robe than not to sit there at all…

The cosmic spectacle of a total eclipse has invited, perhaps demanded, interpretation ever since our ancestors first looked up in wonder and in terror. The English word eclipse comes from the Greek ἔκλειψις, meaning disappearance, abandonment, a word tapping into our deepest fear. The perfect Sun-Moon-Earth alignment is an extraordinary cosmic coincidence. “The tiny, humdrum moon” is 400 times smaller than “the gigantic, raging sun,” but it covers the sun’s disc because it is 400 times closer to the Earth.[4] And that is, of course, a wonderful metaphor. A tiny chunk of rock blocking the glorious, life-giving sun around whose gravity, light and warmth just about everything revolves we know and hold dear, including ourselves. A tiny chunk of rock turning day into night like hatred and violence eclipsing love and justice. Like hatred and violence looking big enough to block love and justice, when in truth they are mere shadows, nothing but temporary negations with no substance of their own. The haters, the supremacists, the sowers of fear and death look so big, when all they can do is eclipse for a brief moment that which sustains life. They have already lost.

In the gospel of Luke, the metaphor of the eclipse is used to describe the dread and abandonment of Jesus’ death on the cross:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light was eclipsed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two.[5]

We did our worst, condemning and executing the author of life, but God’s love and mercy shine brighter: Jesus was raised from the dead and we are awake with hope. We are meant to reflect nothing but the glory of God and we will, because God is faithful.

“Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles,” says Jesus. He is teaching in a context where rules about food and rituals of purification are seen as essential to properly maintain boundaries between God’s people and pagans. And he tells the crowds not to worry too much about what they put into their mouth, but to pay close attention to what comes out: to the words they use, to the topics they address, to the situations in which they speak up or choose to remain silent. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles,” he teaches the disciples. “For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

And then they cross into the territory of Sidon and Tyre. They cross from the land where ‘almost everybody is one of us’ to the land where ‘almost everybody is one of them;’ where they speak with foreign accents, follow foreign customs, eat foreign food, and worship foreign deities it’s hard to imagine a place more “outside” than this. And there this woman draws near and speaks to him, crossing line after line of what’s considered lady-like and appropriate. We don’t know why Jesus crossed the border, but we know why she does. We know what having a sick child can do to a parent. The barriers between her and the man from Nazareth are high, barriers of custom, language, ethnicity and religion, but she crosses every one of them, out of love for her child. She shouts without any restraint, begging Jesus to free her daughter from the demon that’s tormenting her. And he doesn’t answer her. It’s like she’s invisible, she’s not even there. The disciples are clearly embarrassed by the scene and they urge him to send her away.

Finally he answers. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” he says. What then is he doing so far outside the house of Israel? Why is he there if he wasn’t sent there? By now she is kneeling before him and she begs him, “Lord, help me.”

How long has it been since he taught the disciples, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles”? He opens his mouth, and what comes out is, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Don’t you wish Matthew had edited this passage to have one of the disciples say this rather than Jesus? Dividing the world into children and dogs and telling the mother that she and her daughter belonged to the latter? I can’t help but hear echoes of the hateful chants they bawled in the streets of Charlottesville. You. Will not. Replace us. You. Will not. Replace us. What’s to keep the children, seated around the table, well-fed and happy, from making sure that those whom they have learned to regard as dogs stay where they belong, under the table?

Many have wrestled with this scene, trying to reconcile the Jesus they thought they knew with the man who shows no compassion for this mother and her daughter, but rather contempt. Some have suggested that he didn’t really mean it, that the whole scene is merely a test of the woman’s resolve. Others have suggested that Jesus wasn’t testing the woman’s but the disciples’ faith, that he is waiting for one of them, just one to stand with her and say, “Lord, have mercy.” Well, if that’s what’s going on here, count me in. I’m standing with her.

Throwing the bread to the dogs would be wrong, Jesus told the woman, since it was the children’s bread. And now she responds with great calm, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” What she asks of him won’t take away anything from the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Crumbs of mercy will be plenty to save her child. He had just fed 5,000 people with a lunch that looked like nothing to his disciples, and when all had eaten and were full, there were twelve baskets of broken pieces left. She has been paying attention; she knows that there is more than enough for all: more than enough bread, more than enough power to heal, more than enough love. Now Jesus finally sounds like himself again. “Woman, great is your faith!” he says, “Let it be done for you as you wish.”

Division, prejudice, and fear have been our lot for as long as any of us can remember, and the demons of bigotry, white supremacy and loveless self-assertion have long shackled and bound us but they can only eclipse for a moment the glory we are meant to reflect and the fullness of life for which we were made; they are no match for the fearless, persistent love of this mother, no match for the liberating and healing mercy of God.

Mark Twain wrote in 1869,

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of[humans] and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.[6]

Travel is not just about going to far away places. It’s about getting out of our little corners. It’s about crossing lines of familiarity and custom. It’s about encountering God on the other side.



[2] Annie Dillard, “Total Eclipse” in Teaching a Stone to Talk.



[5] Luke 23:44-45 ἐκλιπόντος

[6] The Innocents Abroad

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God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear,
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.[1]

Psalm 46 begins with a bold assertion of fearlessness. I suspect it was composed during peaceful, tranquil days, not when the waters were roaring and foaming. Just a few days ago, I looked across a lake in Austria, and the morning was so quiet and peaceful, the water made a perfect mirror for the mountains and the blue sky. “Be still, and know that I am God,” the Holy One of Israel says in Psalm 46.[2] It’s not difficult to be still when the morning is still under the rising sun or when the night is quiet under a blanket of stars. It’s not difficult to be still when you let your eyes follow the clouds instead of the relentless stream of likes, texts, adds, chats, snaps and tweets on your phone.

Jesus wanted to have some quiet time when he heard the news that Herod had killed John the Baptist, but the crowds followed himand his compassion for them was greater than his need for some time alone. He stayed, and he healed the sick, and when it was evening, and the disciples wanted to send the people away to the villages to get something to eat, he hosted a feast of abundance: it began with five loaves of bread and two fishes, and only ended when all had eaten and were filled and twelve baskets of leftover pieces had been taken upenough to feed any who hungered.

Then Jesus went up the mountain by himself to pray. He dismissed the crowds and told the disciples to get in the boat and go on ahead without him. This was the first time since Jesus had called them to follow him that he told them to go on without him. When night fell, he was alone on the mountain, praying, and they were alone in the boat, out on the lake, far from land, with the wind against them, working hard to keep the course. The contrast of the mountains shaking in the heart of the sea and the stillness of resting in the presence of God, that contrast from the psalm is also reflected in our gospel reading; but in the gospel it’s the contrast of Jesus alone resting in the presence of God up on the mountain and the disciples alone in the boat, facing the roaring wind and foaming waters.

Since apostolic times, the church has recognized itself in this small boat on its voyage to the other side of a wide sea. In Matthew, this is the second time that we are invited to recognize ourselves in those seafarers rather than pretend we’re watching them from shore. The first time, Jesus was in the boat with the disciples when a wind storm arose; the boat was being swamped by the waves, but he was asleep.[3] He was right there with them, but to them it was as if he wasn’t there at all. They woke him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We are perishing!” And he said, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. Why be afraid when God-with-us is in the boat with us?

Well, in today’s passage of the sea crossing Jesus is not in the boat. It is dark, and they are far from land because the wind is against them – but they are not afraid. They don’t panic; apparently they know what to do. Despite the wind and the waves and the unpredictable currents, they stay the course. But then Jesus shows up, walking on water. Now they are terrified, convinced they are seeing a ghostpeople don’t walk on water, after all. The wind and the waves they could handle, but Jesus showing up like that out of nowhere, that is frightening. “Take heart,” he says, “it’s me; don’t be afraid.”

The church has continued to tell and dwell in this story because it reminds us who Jesus is: not somebody we left behind on a distant shore when he sent us, but one who is with us, one who is coming to us; one whose voice and word we recognize: “It’s me; don’t be afraid.” That’s very close to “Be still, and know that I am God.”

Now what got into Peter that he responded, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”? It’s a good question to ask. Followers of Jesus have asked themselves for generations, and some suggest that Peter climbing over the side of the boat is a great example of daring discipleship. They paint a portrait of Jesus calling us o’er the tumult of our life’s wild, restless sea and bidding us to come to him. Like Peter, we are to heed his call and find the courage to get out of the boat and walk. Don’t be afraid, step out; just keep your eyes on the Lord and keep walking. They think it’s perfectly OK for a follower of Jesus to want to walk on water, and if Peter hadn’t taken his eyes off the Lord, he would have hiked up and down the waves like it was just the thing to do out on the lakethe implication being that if you just kept your eyes on the Lord, you could and would do the same, walk on water. But you may have noticed that Jesus didn’t tell Peter or any of the disciples to get out of the boat. Jesus didn’t come to them walking on the sea and saying, “It’s me; get out of the boat and let’s walk together.” That sudden urge to climb over the side of the boat was Peter’s impulse, and that doesn’t make him an example of daring discipleship, but of ordinary humanity.

The Jesus we follow is not far away on a mountain resting in the presence of God. The Jesus we follow is indeed with us and continues to come to us in unexpected ways. “Take heart, it’s me. Don’t be afraid.” You are not alone on the journey to the fullness of God’s reign; I am with you. We hear the words, we hear the promise, while the boat hits wave after wave of chaos and fear, and like Peter, we go back and forth between the courage of faith and the need for certainty, back and forth between the courage to stay the course together and the urge to climb over the side of the boat on a solitary quest for certainty that demands more than a promise and a word.

“Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”, Peter said. In all of Matthew there are only two other scenes where someone addresses Jesus with this kind of conditional language. In one, the devil comes to Jesus in the wilderness, saying, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”[4] And in the other, at the crucifixion, some who pass by say, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”[5] We want more than the word and the promise, and that puts us in the company of those who tempt and scorn the Son of God, it puts us in the company of those who put God to the test. Nevertheless, Jesus didn’t scold Peter, but said, “Come.”

As we follow the Risen One who is with us and who is coming to us we must learn to trust his word and promise and be attentive to his voice and call. Our faith, like Peter’s, resides in the tension of courage and fear; it is a blend of deep-down trust and an anxious need for certainty, an experience of sinking and being held. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck,” we learn to pray with the words of another Psalm. “I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”[6] The world floods in on us with heart-breaking and gut-wrenching experiences, with unimaginable loss, violent death, hate-filled rhetoric and action, with wave after wave of anger and pain over what becomes of the world when love is absent and justice like a distant dream. Just a few days ago Nancy, the kids and I were in the former concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich, quietly reflecting on the rise of the reign of terror and destruction in Germany and across Europe, and we came home to Nazi slogans and white supremacist terror in the streets of Charlottesville. These days, it’s like you’re coming up for air only to be hit by yet another wave, isn’t it?

You long for the mountain. You long for the experience of God’s presence encountered in stillness, and it is a holy longing. However, Matthew’s witness reminds us that Jesus came down the mountain in the darkness before dawn; he came down to meet his friends at sea; he came down to let us know that we are not alone. God is with us in this chaos. When Peter began to sink and the waters were about to close over him, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” No more “Lord, if it is you,” only the voice of humanity crying out of the depths—and there it was, the saving power of God in the hand of Jesus.

Faith is not about walking on water; it’s about daring to trust that in Jesus we encounter the presence and power of God. Faith is about daring to trust in that presence, that saving power, that God amid the wind and the churning waves, in the middle of the sea, far from land and far from the day. What else will give us the strength to stay the course against the forceful headwinds of fear, ignorance, hatred, and apathy? What else will give us the courage to journey on in the direction Jesus has pointed this little boat that has room for every human being?

[1] Psalm 46:1-3

[2] Psalm 46:10

[3] Matthew 8:23-27

[4] Matthew 4:3, 6

[5] Matthew 27:40

[6] Psalm 69:1-2

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Between sowing and reaping

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells a story about a farmer.

“This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvest time.”[1]

I bet folks fell in love with that story the moment they first heard it; many of them were farmers and they knew how much back-breaking work they had to put in before harvest time. Jesus’ story was full of promise and hope, and he made it sound effortless. Someone scatters seed and the earth produces crops all by itself; all the farmer does between sowing and reaping is sleep and wake. They loved hearing that story and they told it again and again, and it appears that by the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, it had absorbed some of the questions followers of Jesus had begun to ask: The kingdom, is it really that effortless? Aren’t we supposed to do more than sleep and wake and wait for the harvest? Yes, the seed of God’s reign is sprouting and growing, and we don’t know how, but we can see signs of it all around, but some other seed, nasty seed is also doing mighty well and showing no signs of withering away. What if it overwhelms the kingdom crop? Believers had questions like these, and the questions shaped how the story was told and retold; and when the gospel of Matthew was composed, weeds had become part of the story along with several other characters besides the sower.

Most scholars agree that the weed in the parable is darnel, an annual grass that grows plentifully anywhere wheat is grown.[2] The trouble with darnel is that its seeds are poisonous to people and livestock, and since they are similar in size and weight to wheat, they are very difficult to separate. No one really knows in what part of the world darnel evolved along with other grasses, but its seeds were found among burial gifts of wheat in the pyramids of ancient Egypt, so whoever had picked through the wheat for bad seed must have missed a few kernels… Very early in the history of agriculture, wheat became one of the most important crops, and like a stowaway on the ship of wheat’s success, darnel spread around the world. Darnel blends in; when it sprouts it looks just like wheat, and the earliest you can tell the two apart is when the ear appears on top of the stalk, and by that time, their roots are so tightly intertwined that pulling it up does more damage than good. Darnel blends in — some call it cheat wheat.

Field, seed, and weed make powerful metaphors. Here’s an excerpt from an article written by someone who appears to have concerns very similar to the ones expressed by the servants in Jesus’ parable:

“He who leaves the plants in a garden to themselves will soon find to his surprise that the garden is overgrown by weeds and that even the basic character of the plants has changed. If therefore the garden … is to lift itself above the harsh rule of natural forces, then the forming will of a gardener is necessary, a gardener who, by providing suitable conditions for growing, or by keeping harmful influences away, or by both together, carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds which would deprive the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun.”[3]

The forming will of a gardener is necessary who carefully tends what needs tending and ruthlessly eliminates the weeds. The passage is from an article titled, Marriage Laws and the Principles of Breeding, written in 1930 by Richard W. Darré, one of the leading Nazi ideologists, who served as Hitler’s Minister of Food and Agriculture from 1933 to 1942. Field, garden, seed, and weed make powerful and dangerous metaphors. Let me give you another example. In the year 1002, King Æthelred ordered the massacre of all the Danes in England, declaring that “all the Danes who had sprung up in this island, sprouting like cockle amongst the wheat, were to be destroyed by a most just extermination.”[4] Speaking of weeds takes us chillingly close to the language and the practice of elimination and extermination. Darré knew exactly what weeds were depriving the better plants of nutrition, air, light, and sun, and who the better plants were, and King Æthelred clearly expressed the forming will of a gardener when he compared Danes in England to cockle amongst the wheat.

In the parable, the slaves see the mixed crop and they worry and ask the householder, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” The master knows it’s the work of an enemy.

“Then do you want us to go and gather them?”

“No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest.”

The master has great confidence in what he sowed in his field, only the servants are anxious. Darnel and wheat look too much alike, let them grow together, we hear him say. Anything that’s not supposed to grow in this field will be taken care of come harvest time. Don’t you worry, the good seed is in the earth, and it’s growing. The kingdom is in the world, and there’s not a spot where it’s not already at work. God’s reign doesn’t come unopposed, other things are growing, too, but don’t you worry, harvest time is coming. The world is messier than you want it to be, but the seed is in the earth. Your own life is messier than you want it to be, but God’s reign is already present. The church is messier than you want it to be, with all those people, including yourself, stumbling through ministry with barely a clue what it is God wants the church to be and do in this time, in this part of the world, but don’t you worry, the seed is in the earth. Nothing will stop the coming of God’s reign. The wheat and the weeds, let both of them grow together until the harvest. The enemy of God’s good and righteous reign can do nothing except sow the seeds of fear, pride and suspicion. So be careful — for once you’re convinced of your own goodness and the unquestionable righteousness of your cause, the enemy’s work is done: you’ll take it from there. You’ll look at the field of the world and the mixed up mess that’s sprouting and growing there, and you’ll start identifying the weeds. You’ll point the finger at anyone who doesn’t fit the patterns of your piety, your morals, your politics, your design of the perfect garden. You’ll quickly forget that the field of the world doesn’t just stretch before you, from your nose to the horizon, but rather within you.

The master reminds us that we are not farm workers standing on the edge of the field and talking about weed control; we are the mixed up crop that grows there. We are this entangled mess of wheat and weeds, all of us together and each of us personally. One commentator wrote,

[The enemy] has no power against goodness in and of itself: the wheat is in the field, the kingdom is in the world, and there is not a thing he can do about any of it. Evil, like darnel, is a counterfeit of reality, not reality itself. But the enemy has to act only minimally on his own to wreak havoc in the world; mostly, he depends on the forces of goodness, insofar as he can sucker them into taking up arms against the confusion he has introduced, to do his work. That is precisely why the enemy goes away after sowing the weed: he has no need whatsoever to hang around. Unable to take positive action anyway – having no real power to muck up the operation – he simply sprinkles around a generous helping of darkness and waits for the children of light to get flustered enough to do the job for him. Goodness itself, in other words, if it is sufficiently committed to plausible, right-handed strong arm methods, will in the very name of goodness do all and more than all that evil ever had in mind.[5]

Jesus calls us to trust the growth of God’s reign in the field of the world and to be patient. He calls us to live as his disciples, receiving and sharing the grace he embodied among us. Under grace, we become less afraid to look at ourselves with honesty, and over time, by the grace of God, we become a little less certain of our own perspectives and opinions, and a little more willing to welcome each other in our shared imperfection. Opposition and resistance against God’s reign is happening not just out there, but first and foremost in our own thinking, our own speaking and doing. That is why Jesus calls us to follow him in practicing mercy and trusting the judgment of God, and he warns us against the destructive impulse to imagine a paradise of purity we can create by ridding the world of weeds. He calls us to welcome each other in our shared imperfection and to trust God’s power to deliver us all from evil.


[1] Mark 4:26-29 CEB


[3] As quoted by Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Maldon, MA: Polity Press, 1991), 113-114.

[4] A Social History of England, 900–1200, edited by Julia Crick, Elisabeth van Houts (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 218.

[5] Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2002), 87.

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Manifold meaning

I love watching nature shows on tv, especially the ones the BBC has produced in recent years. They combine solid science, great camera work, and good story telling to create stunning visual experiences. These documentaries take viewers close enough to see the face of an ant milking an aphid and tens of thousands of feet above ground to show how spawning herring change the color of the sea on the Alaska coast from steely blue to milky white.

And nothing beats watching nature shows with Nancy, my beloved. We’re looking at a beach full of seals and some of the baby seals with their big round eyes are on their first outing down to the water line, completely unaware of the dangers lurking under the surface of the vast ocean, when suddenly the waters part and a huge Orca swims up on the beach and grabs one of the unsuspecting pups for lunch. Nancy jumps up from the couch, shouting, “No!” and instructing the Orca to leave the pups alone and eat one of the old bulls who’ve done their part for the procreation of the species, or, better yet, become vegetarians.

Another night, we’re watching a large, heavy sea turtle emerge from the ocean in the shelter of the night, heaving herself up the sandy beach. At a point beyond the high tide water line, she makes a nest digging a deep hole in the sand and filling it with dozens of eggs. Hours later, with the same slow determination, the turtle pushs sand back into the hole to protect the clutch, and then she returns to the sea without looking back. Many days later, a small army of little baby turtles push through the layer of sand and without a moment’s hesitation they race toward the water’s edge. It’s a race against death: hundreds of sea birds and crabs have been waiting for this annual feast. But some of the little turtles make it to the water and quickly paddle away – not to safety, though, because the fish are hungry, too. Many baby turtles die within hours of their hatching, more die in the first few days of their life – but some grow up and mature, and years later, the females among them return to the place where they were born. In the shelter of the night, they emerge from the ocean, heave their heavy bodies up the sandy beach and lay their eggs.

Life is awesome and I praise God for the altogether magnificent wonder of its grand cycles and intricate systems and how all things come together just so for the miracle to continue. But when Nancy and I were watching those baby turtles running down the beach, we weren’t just awed by the spectacle, we were rooting for the little guys. One of them was just inches away from the water when a seagull swooped down to grab a little something to eat. Nancy, of course, was on her feet, clapping her hands and shooing the seagull away, and we cheered as the little turtle rushed into the end-zone and the big bird flew away empty. It wasn’t that we didn’t want the seagull to get its food, we just couldn’t stand the thought that this tiny turtle, this miracle of new life should never be more than a bird’s snack, only minutes after hatching. Life is awesome, but life also has very little respect for individuals.

Jesus never told a turtle story. He talked about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, he told stories about fish and rocks, about trees and vineyards, sheep and goats, and all of his stories proclaimed the great story of God’s kingdom on earth a kingdom in which every individual matters greatly. When I hear the parable of the sower I think about extravagance: I think of spawning herring and the little helicopter seeds maples launch in the spring and the delicate seeds of the dandelion sailing on the wind, and I think about turtles, how many of them are born, year after year, and what a deadly dangerous place the world is for them, and how there is, year after year, another generation. They are like seed scattered by a sower, and the same kind of deep wisdom at work in the flourishing of life, says Jesus, is at work in the coming of God’s kingdom on earth. We’re invited to trust the extravagance and faithfulness of God.

What do you make of the story of the sower, and where do you find yourself in it? Do you identify with the sower who scatters seed with abandon? Or do you identify with the seeds? Have you felt thrown into places where your life is for the birds, or bound to wither after what looked like such a promising start, or choked by thorns? Have you wondered what it might be like to know that you’re on good soil? Or do you think of yourself as the ground, the four different soil types, wondering how receptive or unreceptive you are to the word of the kingdom?

Every parable contains a multitude of stories, depending on how you hear it, how you turn it, how long you’re willing to sit with it, how deep you’re willing to let it sink in. A man once visited a dying friend, a writer, and he asked him about a particular story that wouldn’t let him go, “What does it mean?” The writer responded, “If I tell you, that’s all you will ever see there.”

When the disciples were facing a difficult time, when all their work of proclamation seemed in vain, when the word of the kingdom they spread seemed to go unheard and unheeded, they remembered the story of the sower, and they asked Jesus, “What does it mean?” He said,

“When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”[1]

This reading of the parable comes with the authority of Jesus himself, but it is not the only meaning, it is not all we will ever see there. Jesus told parables of the kingdom to encourage us to continue to listen and understand and become fruitful in obedience. In a Bible study group, participants let the words of the parable sink in, and then they spoke about what they heard. “I am the sower,” one of them said, “and the seed is my life. The story encourages me to invest my life in the good soil of the kingdom, where it will bear fruit beyond my imagining.”

Another suggested that God is the sower and that the seed is God’s word. “Our lives aren’t always smooth, dark, rich soil. There are times when we have been trampled on so much, our lives resemble hard, dense dirt roads, too hard for God’s word to penetrate. There are rocky patches where hope springs up, only to wither away in the heat of hard days. And then there are times when God’s word really does take root, but the weeds of worldly worries overwhelm the seedlings. The sower, however, keeps sowing. The sower keeps sowing until some of that seed falls on good ground and bears fruit. I love that story – as long as the sower keeps sowing, there’s hope for us.”

And yet another said, “You’re right about the rocky patches. I heard this old Arabic folk tale: When God created the world he entrusted all the stones to two angels. Each had a full bag. As they flew over Palestine, one of the bags broke, spilling half the stones that were intended for the whole world. Sometimes I feel like the angel’s bag broke over my life, leaving no room for new things to grow. I like the thought that God will keep sowing until perhaps just one seed falls on that hidden spot of deep, rich soil in my life, and there it will sprout and take root – like a tree whose roots reach deep below the rocky surface.”

Yet another said, “The story makes me think about how receptive I really am to God’s word. When my faith seems weak, perhaps it is because I have allowed busyness and cares to fill my life, too many distractions and false loves, which threaten to choke off my faith like thorns overgrowing a seed-bed. Or have I become so set in my ways that my paths have become ruts, and I can hear nothing new, not even the word that can break me open?”

So many beautiful, thoughtful, fruitful insights… Jesus scatters parables like seeds, seeds that produce a rich harvest of listening and understanding, a harvest of words and acts of grace that in turn become seeds of the kingdom and doesn’t Jesus encourage us to scatter them with the same extravagant trust in God’s faithfulness that characterized his life? May it be so for you and for me.


[1] Matthew 13:18-23

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A sacrament of heaven

Our friend Jack read the Scriptures for us in worship last Sunday. The first reading was a passage from Romans 6, and before Jack read from Matthew 10, he made a comment saying he hoped that I would preach on that text, because the words of Jesus in that passage seemed so difficult and demanding, almost unbearable:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.[1]

Three times the words come down like a hammer, “not worthy of me.” I’m not worthy of Jesus if I love my daughter more than him? Our kids not worthy of him if they love their mom and dad more than him? Terrifying. And even if that’s not what he’s saying here and he isn’t what else could the children possibly hear? We made sure they had already left for children’s worship before Jack read those very difficult lines last Sunday.


All of chapter 10 in Matthew is a send-off speech Jesus gives to the disciples and the church. At the end of chapter 9, we see Jesus looking at the crowds, and he has compassion on them because they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” So he tells his disciples that “the harvest is plentiful” and that they should “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” And before they can ask, he sends them out gives them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness” and sends them out. “Proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” He sends them out, because he has compassion on the crowds who are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. He sends them to act as his envoys, shepherd’s envoys, the king’s ambassadors servants of the kingdom, traveling light no money, no bag, no extra clothing, entirely dependent on the hospitality of others for shelter and food. He also prepares them for rejection. They will not be welcomed everywhere, and they can expect to experience some hostility since he is sending them out “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” They may also have to face painful division within their own families; their closest and most important relationships may be ruptured because of their loyalty to Jesus and the kingdom of God. He clearly doesn’t send them off on a mission triphe sends them into a whole new life where their relationship with him, and through him with God, would shape them more deeply than any of their most intimate relationships.


Today’s three verses from Matthew are the final paragraph of Jesus’ send-off speech to the first disciples and to the church. Something is different in these closing lines. There’s a shift in focus from the trials of those who are sent to the rewards for those who receive them.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

There’s a shift from high demand to promise. It is in these closing verses that it becomes clear that Jesus is not just addressing the twelve who are about to go on the road, but all his disciples. You and I are no less part of this mission than Simon, Andrew, James and the rest of the twelve. In our life together, in our proclamation and ministry, in our everyday witness to Christ and the kingdom of God, Jesus himself is present, and wherever our witness is received with welcome, the One who sent him is received.

By the time the gospel of Matthew was composed, congregations of Christians already existed in many cities and towns around the Mediterranean. Itinerant Christian apostles, prophets and teachers were not unusual at all; on the contrary, early Christian writings suggest that at times they may have become a burden to the small communities. Not only did they need a place to stay and something to eat (and occasionally overstay their welcome), sometimes they also disagreed with each other. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Thessalonians, “We appeal to you, brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you; esteem them very highly in love because of their work … Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good.”[2] In the Didache, a Christian teaching document from around the turn of the first to the second century, churches are admonished to

welcome every apostle on arriving, as if he were the Lord. But he must not stay beyond one day. In case of necessity, however, the next day too. If he stays three days, he is a false prophet. On departing, an apostle must not accept anything save sufficient food to carry him till his next lodging. If he asks for money, he is a false prophet … if someone says in the Spirit, “Give me money, or something else,” you must not heed him. However, if he tells you to give for others in need, no one must condemn him.[3]

In his writing, Matthew is not merely recalling and recording Jesus’ instructions to the first disciples; he is also addressing contemporary communities of disciples to whom he is connected, speaking directly to those first readers of his gospel, telling them that there is still need to send out laborers into the harvest, to send prophets and teachers, and still those sent depend on communities of believers to welcome them.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”

Congregational life in Matthew’s day was very different from ours, we know that. But I imagine that life was also very similar. No community is too eager to welcome a prophet, either because things are going just fine or because things are a little unsettled already, and whether you’re comfortable with the way things are or a little nervous, you don’t want some outsider coming in and stirring up trouble.

I hear Jesus addressing both sides here. To the prophets he says, “Don’t be afraid. Speak the word you have been given without fear. Proclaim the gospel: The kingdom of heaven has come near.” And to the settled disciples he says, “Welcome without fear anyone who speaks in my name, whether you agree with them or not. Receive the fullness of the gospel: The kingdom of heaven has come near.” There aren’t a lot of itinerant prophets around anymore, but there’s plenty of settled Christianity in our city, and there are Christian voices and accents among us that come to us like those of strangers who are passing through. Do we welcome them?

“Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”

What’s a prophet’s reward? We won’t know unless we welcome the prophet. We live far from the the early days of itinerant prophets and house churches, but to be sent and to receive are aspects of being church together that never become a thing of the past. Jesus calls us to be fearless when we venture out with the word we have been given, and equally fearless in receiving the word of life when it comes to us – to listen, to test, and to hold fast to what is good. Not even the smallest gesture of welcome is too small.

“Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because they are my disciples—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

This refreshing word points ahead to the final judgment where the heavenly judge says to the righteous, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” There is no act of welcome more basic and beautiful than giving somebody a cup of cold water, and Jesus says he is the thirsty one. And the reward? There’s the joy of being able to do what the Lord has taught us and to serve him in the stranger, the prophet, the littlest ones. And there’s the joy of us little ones being welcomed by Christ in our hunger and thirst for righteousness and sharing the bread of life and the cup of salvation.

Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.” Who are the righteous and what is their reward? Again, the word points ahead to the final judgment when the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”[4] To welcome one another is to receive Jesus himself, and to welcome Jesus is to receive the one who sent him, and to become heirs to all that God has to give.

I see a prophet sitting on a hot sidewalk, tired from calling the city to repentance so that he too might have a place to lay his head. I see a waitress stepping out of the restaurant across the street, carrying a small tray with a tall glass of water; I can hear the ice cubes tinkling as she crosses the street and kneels beside him.

“You look thirsty, brother,” she says.

It’s just a glass of water, but between them it’s a sacrament of heaven.


[1] Matthew 10:34-38

[2] 1Thessalonians 5:12-13, 20-21

[3] Didache 11:4-5, 12

[4] Matthew 25:34

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Paul's story and ours

Paul wanted to write a letter to the church in Rome, and he knew how to do that, just like you know how to put the name and address on the front of the envelope with the stamp, and your own name with the return address on the back. In Paul’s day, you’d write your own name first and then the name of the intended recipient. It was simple, like, “Paul, to the church of God which is at Rome, greetings!”

What did he do? He wrote the letter in preparation for an upcoming visit, to a congregation he hadn’t founded, so he introduced himself. Paul, he wrote, a servant of Jesus Christ, he wrote, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, and then it was like he couldn’t stop: the opening sentence, Paul’s address line, as it were, is six verses long!

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ—to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.[1]

Paul couldn’t introduce himself without telling a story—not just any story, but the gospel of God, the good news of Jesus Christ, the story that had become so central to his own life that it was in a sense what made him who he was, Paul.[2]

When I met David the other day, he said, “Hi, I’m David!”—“Pleasure to meet you, David. I’m Thomas.”— there was that very brief moment when we were shaking hands, both of us quickly determining if it was OK to chat a little. You know how these things go, one of us will ask the other, “So, what brought you here?” or, “What do you do?” And then it’s on to “Are you married?” and “Do you have children?” and before long comes the question, “I detect a slight accent. Where are you from?” … “Oh, Germany? What brought you here?” I remember the days when it took me ten minutes to answer that one; the current version is much shorter.

We build relationships by telling little pieces of our story, beginning with our name. I get the sense that Paul didn’t have much patience for chit-chat; the story that made him who he was was too urgent to be revealed only in bits and pieces. I imagine he was the kind of man who doesn’t move around much at a cocktail party; you introduce yourself and he tells you the story of his life—and in Paul’s case, that’s the story of life, the story of the new creation, the story of sinful humanity embraced by God’s grace and redeemed.

We all live from within a unique story, the narrative of how we became who we are. It’s a story of ancestors and places, of a language and a culture, or a mix of languages and cultures, a story shared to some degree with a particular generation and the experiences that shaped it, but always our story of our childhood with our family, for good or ill. It’s a story we tell others and ourselves, a story we have composed from the bits and pieces that seemed most important to us, our own memories along with stories others have told us about ourselves, and we keep braiding the strands into a whole as we get olderthe parts we love to share, the parts we tell only reluctantly, and the parts we’d rather forget but can’t.

The story Paul tells us is cosmic in scale. It’s so big, it contains all the stories of humankind. And it only has five characters. It begins with God who makes Adam. “Adam” means “ground” or “dust” and so also “the human creature made of dust,” something like “earthling,” the ancestor and representative of us all. Adam’s name speaks of our origin and our destiny as dust creatures who desire to be human without God“you are dust and to dust you shall return,” God said; you remember that line.[3] Something fractured the communion between humankind and Creator, between humans and our fellow creatures, something introduced by the human creature made of dust. The third character in Paul’s story is sin.[4]

In chapters 5-8 of his letter to the Romans, the noun “sin” occurs 42 times, often as a subject of a verb: sin entered the world (5:12), sin increased (5:20), sin exercised dominion (5:21), sin produced (7:8), sin revived (7:9), sin dwells (7:17). “Sin,” writes Beverly Gaventa, “clearly has a leading role in this letter.” And not just in this letter. Paul has a story to tell, and in it, Sin is the third character. Sin is not a lower-case transgression, not even a human disposition or flaw in human nature—in the story Paul tells, Sin is an upper-case Power that enslaves humankind and stands over against God. Humanity’s refusal of God’s lordship meant that God conceded humanity to the lordship of another—upper-case Sin, the personification of our desire to be human without God, to live self-centered, rather than God-centered, lives. If Paul had written a comic book, Sin would be the supervillain, the Dark Lord of Doom, who, like a cosmic terrorist, unleashed Death, the fourth character in Paul’s story. No one could escape from Sin’s dominion of death.

Until the fifth character entered Sin’s dominion, and in obedience and faithfulness to God bore the full weight of Sin’s oppressive rule, was crucified and died—and on the third day God raised him from the dead. The power of Sin and Death was broken, shattered by the power of God, shattered by love. And just as many were enslaved by sin through the disobedience of one, Adam, so the many were set free for righteousness through the obedience of one, Christ Jesus. That is the story that made Paul who he was, the story of humanity’s exodus in Christ from slavery under sin to freedom in the dominion of grace. As Pharaoh’s power was broken when Israel passed through the sea, so sin’s power was broken when we passed through the waters of baptism. Paul speaks of it as our immersion into Christ’s death, our burial with him. Christ’s solidarity with us means that our lives are so intertwined with his, that his death becomes ours, and when we are raised from the waters, we no longer belong in the Adam-world, but begin to walk in newness of life. Set free from all other lordships, we live in complete and trusting surrender to God.

Paul tells us his story, the gospel of our redemption, to invite us into it so we recognize it as the story of our life, a story big enough for all of us, empowering us to give up, abandon, and renounce other stories as well as bits of our own story that have shaped our lives in false or distorting ways.[5] In the ancient church, new believers who wished to be baptized into Christ, took off their clothes as symbols of their former life and, leaving them in a pile somewhere near the baptistery, entered the water naked as they were when they were born. When they emerged from the water, a deacon dressed them in a white robe – but not silk for some and scratchy wool for the rest; no, the same white robe for all. In the new creation, the former divisions of humanity along ethnic or gender lines, or by class and status no longer apply. Or as Paul put it, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”[6] We are one in Christ, because he has made us his own. In the deep solidarity of God’s love he has embraced us, never to let go, to free us from the perverse solidarity of sin that makes us one in Adam.

When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the moment and the place or who it was that lowered us into the water. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you are dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ.  It is a way of saying: Be who you are. And: Remember to whom you belong. In Paul’s story, everyone belongs. But we are not meant to belong to Sin and be slaves to Sin while fancying ourselves to belong to no one but ourselves. We are meant to live in the covenant of Love that binds us to God and to each other, serving the One whose kingdom has no end.


[1] Romans 1:1-7

[2] See Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans, xix.

[3] Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans, p. 58

[4] See Beverly Gaventa, “The Cosmic Power of Sin …,” Interpretation 58, no. 3 (2004), 229-240.

[5] See Walter Brueggemann, Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism (Nashville: Abingdon, 1993), 10.

[6] Galatians 3:27-28

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