Herod's birthday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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And she did

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hardest part: there was nothing he could do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she did.

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

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


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

[2] https://www.abqjournal.com/1191394/garcias-mission-reunite-families.html

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Invading this love-starved world

Human life begins in a little ocean inside the womb. We imagine it to be a world of perfect peace. Nothing can bother us in those first months – food comes to us with the regularity of our mother’s heartbeat; all other noises are muffled, the temperature is always right, we just curl up in the water and float in the complete unity of life – until the water breaks, that is.

Then, suddenly, it’s this assault of gravity and bright lights, cold air, strange, unfiltered sounds, and very soon another terrifying sensation – hunger. The peace is gone, until we’re held and gently rocked, until we’re fed and warm — in a word, the peace is gone until we know we’re loved.

It may well be the fact that we spend the first months of our existence immersed in water like fish in the ocean, that we have this life-long attraction to water. There’s nothing like soaking in a hot tub when your muscles are sore – or your soul. You just float in the warm goodness and the memories of every bath you ever had, and the tensions melt, the muscles relax, and your soul sings. We love water; the pleasures of splashing and swimming; playing in the creek; the fun of zipping down a water slide or doing a canon-ball from a diving board; listening to the sound of rain drops drumming on the leaves of the trees; taking a shower at the end of a long, hot day; we are touched by the beauty of rivers, lakes, and falls, and by the sound of waves rolling up on the beach.

When the crowds who gathered to hear Jesus got larger, he asked his disciples to have a boat ready for him, so he could pull away from the shore and teach from the boat.[1] People heard his stories about the sower scattering seed on the ground with the sound of water in the background, little waves lapping up onto the pebbles and rocks. They listened to his parables while looking out at the vast openness of sea and sky. Let that scene sink in, just for a moment: you’re sitting by the water’s edge, listening to Jesus telling stories about the reign of God and its nearness. You don’t just hear the promise of wholeness, you’re living in it.

On that day, when evening came, Jesus said to the disciples, “Let us go across to the other side,” and leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat. Most of the people on the beach, I imagine, went home; they had things to do, animals to look after, meals to prepare, kids to get ready for bed. But some hung around a little longer and they watched the boat go east. “What business does he have going over there,” some of them must have wondered, “it’s only Gentiles over there, a land full of idol worshippers and all kinds of unholy spirits. They’re not our people over there — what business does he have going to the other side?” Dark clouds were moving in, casting shadows over what had been such a lovely day on the lake shore.

Meanwhile, in the boat, the disciples were enjoying the quiet and the evening breeze — until the wind started picking up, and then a storm broke lose. The waves beat into the boat, and it was being swamped. Chaos had been unleashed, the raging wind whipping the water into a churning frenzy of crashing waves.

Water is one of our most powerful symbols because it represents some of our deepest needs and comforts along with some of our greatest fears. We hear this story, well aware that these aren’t days for smooth sailing, these are stormy days. These are days of fear and anger, of disbelief and outrage, of perplexing silence and helpless shouting. We can’t quite name all that has been unleashed and let loose, but we feel the raging wind whipping the water into a churning frenzy of crashing waves.

A mighty fortress is our God, the church has taught us to sing. A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing, our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. I see a stronghold built on rock, surrounded by raging seas, waves battering the walls relentlessly, but to no avail: this fortress is a mighty one. And though this world with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear. The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them; their rage we can endure, for lo, their doom is sure: One little word shall fell them. One little word. But it is so much easier to sing bravely against the storm from within the walls of a fortress built high on a cliff than from inside a little boat tossed about by the wind and the waves.

The disciples saw Jesus, curled up on a cushion, sleeping like a baby, a picture of peace in the midst of the storm. They woke him, saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Did they need him to help get the water out of the boat or take hold of the rudder? If so, why didn’t they say so or hand him a pail? I wonder if they woke him because they were in the grip of fear and it bothered them that he didn’t seem to be the least bit troubled. “Do you not care that this little boat is going down and all of us with it?” They were panicky and frantic and the fact that he wasn’t only made it worse.

Jesus rebuked the wind and the sea, “Peace! Be still!” and it was so. He spoke and it came to be. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.[2]

One little word, and there was great calm. And the disciples? Jesus said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” There is a popular reading of this story where Jesus isn’t rebuking the wind and the waves, but the disciples for being afraid in the storm. According to that reading, we ought to always remember, no matter how high the waves or how violent the winds, that Jesus is in the boat with us – and that we shouldn’t be afraid, and if we had faith, we wouldn’t be afraid. According to that reading, we ought to tie ourselves to the mast and laugh at the storm, “Bring it on! Is that all you got?” I believe this is dangerous nonsense, because the next time your little boat gets hit by a storm, and you know it will, you will be afraid, and on top of everthing else, you’ll feel guilty for being afraid. As if fear wasn’t enough.

Jesus didn’t rebuke the disciples; he commanded the wind and the waves to be still. Remember, the whole trip was his idea. “Let us go across to the other side,” he said. This was no evening cruise to a restaurant on the other side of the bay. He took them out to sea, away from the land and the life they knew, to the land of the Gentiles. Why? Because idols and demons ruled on the other side and Jesus invaded their territory to bring the kingdom of God. Because sin and death and fearmongering ruled on the other side and Jesus crossed over to bring forgiveness, healing, and wholeness to life. This was no pleasure cruise, this was D-day. Little wonder the forces of chaos tried to stop the little boat with waves bucking like bulls and wind gusts strong enough to break everything in their path.

Jesus’ life and mission is one dangerous crossing after another. His presence, his teachings, and his actions lead to confrontation between the way things are and the way they are to be – around us, between us, and within us. The truth is, when Jesus is near, the storms aren’t far. But when Jesus speaks, we hear the word that brought creation into being. When Jesus speaks, we hear the Author of Life, the One who prescribed bounds for the sea, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”[3]

Ann Schmid used to think about Jesus stilling the storm as something like the scene from Disney’s Fantasia where Mickey, the apprentice, casts a spell while mopping the floor and the mops begin to carry their own buckets of water. The room begins to fill with water, and still the buckets keep coming. As the water rises higher, Mickey tries all sorts of magic spells, but none works. The waves rise higher and begin to toss him about. And just when it looks like he’s a goner, the sorcerer appears. Throwing open the door at the top of the steps, he sees what is happening, speaks a word of power, and the water meekly subsides and drains away. Ann writes,

I used to think about Jesus stilling the storm that way—standing up in the boat, arms raised above his head, powerfully rebuking the wind with an almighty word and commanding the sea, “Peace! Be still!”

And then I became a mother.

When our son was little, he would occasionally have night terrors—those too powerful, too vivid dreams that children can have. In the middle of the night I would hear his frightened wail. By the time I raced down the hall to his room, Wes would be gasping for breath between cries, his body shaking uncontrollably. He’d appear to be awake, eyes wide open in fear, but actually he was caught in the midst of a powerful nightmare.

Ann picked him up, but he couldn’t stop crying. He’d struggle to get out of her arms, the storm inside raging beyond his control. Ann and her husband spoke to him, “Wake up! Calm down! Be still!” with voices loud enough to be heard above his wails. It didn’t work. In time they learned to wrap their little boy in a secure embrace, to talk to him quietly, to soothe him until finally the terror passed and his little heart slowed and his breathing became regular and he fell asleep.

On one of those nights as Ann sat rocking her son, she softly started to sing “Jesus Savior, Pilot Me.” She wasn’t sure why that old hymn had come into her mind until she got to the second verse: “As a mother stills her child, thou canst hush the ocean wild ...”[4]

Jesus has taken us into the boat with him. He is taking us with him to the other side in love’s invasion of this love-starved world. He is taking us with him because all things become whole in his presence.


[1] Mark 3:9; 4:1

[2] Genesis 1:7ff.; Psalm 33:9; Psalm 107:29

[3] See Job 38:8-11

[4] Ann Schmid, The Christian Century, January 4, 2017, 24; online at


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Relentless sowers

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? Jesus asks. Some will say, it’s like the garden where it all began. In the kingdom, we walk about among lush, verdant trees and meadows, and the weather is perpetually mild, the sun is never harsh, the rains are always gentle, and delicious fruits, nuts, and seeds ripen year-round, and no creature is afraid of another.

Some will say, the kingdom is like a garden. Others will compare it to a city. A city of great splendor, where the nations of the world come together for the feast of reconciliation, each person offering their gifts to the celebration of life, and all is done to the glory of God, and none shall be afraid.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God? Jesus asks. The task before a small committee, meeting for the first time on a July afternoon in 1776, was of a much different scale. The thirteen colonies had just declared their independence from Britain. Against much resistance from British loyalists who admonished the revolutionaries with words from Paul’s letter to the Romans, to “be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation” (Romans 13:1-2 KJV) — the powers that be always gladly open the Scriptures to these couple of verses, especially when faced with protest for ignoring the commandments about justice for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger — against much resistance the thirteen colonies had just declared their independence from British rule, and now these United States needed an official national seal. Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin formed a design committee and they asked themselves, “With what can we compare this revolutionary adventure?” They discussed various ideas and eventually agreed on a drawing of lady Liberty holding a shield to represent the thirteen states.

Lady Liberty would later have a long career in France, but the members of Congress were not inspired by the design committee report. And so more committees met, and eventually, in 1782 Congress adopted a seal designed by William Barton, showing an eagle with a shield covering its breast, holding in its talons a bundle of thirteen arrows on the left, and a thirteen-leaf olive branch on the right. The new nation was still at war with England at the time, and the fierce-looking bird seemed to be an appropriate emblem. Congress adopted Barton’s design with just one small but significant change: the golden eagle was replaced with the bald eagle, because the golden eagle also flew over European nations.

Not everybody liked the new design. Benjamin Franklin famously frowned at it. In a letter from Paris in 1784 to his daughter he wrote,

For my part, I wish the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched in some dead tree where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing hawk and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for his young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes the fish. With all this injustice, he is never in good case; but like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. Besides, he is a rank coward; the little kingbird, no bigger than a sparrow, attacks him boldly and drives him out of the district.

Franklin argued that eagles could be found in all countries, and that “a true native of America” and “a much more respectable bird” would have been a more appropriate symbol: the turkey. He conceded that the turkey was “a little vain and silly,” but maintained that it was nevertheless a “bird of courage” that “would not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British guards, who should presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”[1]

Royal houses, nations, and empires have long turned to the world of animals for symbolic representations of their power, and in general, predators like the eagle and the lion have been preferred over doves and bees or rabbits and the turkey. When Jesus told his parables about the kingdom of God, a very common symbol for royal power was a tree, the cedar of Lebanon. The book of Ezekiel contains in chapter 31 a particularly beautiful example for the use of this image:

Say to Pharaoh king of Egypt and to his hordes: Whom are you like in your greatness? Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade, and of great height, its top among the clouds. The waters nourished it, the deep made it grow tall, making its rivers flow around the place it was planted, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; under its branches all the animals of the field gave birth to their young; and in its shade all great nations lived. It was beautiful in its greatness, in the length of its branches; for its roots went down to abundant water. The cedars in the garden of God could not rival it, nor the fir trees equal its boughs; the plane trees were as nothing compared with its branches; no tree in the garden of God was like it in beauty (Ezekiel 31:2-8).

But Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, was cut down and fell. Israel’s experience with royal power was that it comes and goes, that kingdoms rise and fall. Ezekiel dreamed of God planting a tender shoot on Israel’s mountainous highlands, a shoot that would send out branches and bear fruit. And it would grow into a mighty cedar, and birds of every kind would nest in it and find shelter in the shade of its boughs.[2]

When Jesus asks, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” it is easy to imagine a towering cedar whose branches extend to the ends of the earth; the tallest, the most magnificent tree of all, forever defining the center of the world; with its top in the heavens and its roots in the depths of the earth; with beautiful foliage and abundant fruit; with shade and food and peace for creatures great and small, representing all peoples and nations. But Jesus tells us a very different story. He leaves the lofty cedar on the mountain heights of the royal imagination, and goes to the field just outside the village where people work every day. The kingdom of God, he says, is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth. Yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs. Yes it does, at this point of the story everybody in the audience is nodding, mustard plants grow to about 5’ tall or when conditions are right, 8-9’ — tiny seed, big shrub, we get it. But then Jesus talks about the humble mustard plant in language borrowed from Israel’s dreams of royal greatness restored, and he tells us that it is the smallest of all seeds on the earth that becomes the greatest of all shrubs and that it is this shrub that puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

Jesus picks up the ancient hope for a kingdom that brings an end to the rise and fall of empires, but at the same time he subverts any imperial dreams of grandeur we might have and our assumptions of majesty and might. There’s nothing mighty or majestic about mustard…

… but it spreads readily on its own. Mustard is fast-growing and drought-resistant; it’s an annual plant, so it doesn’t just grow bigger and bigger year after year, but it reseeds lustily and grows dependably anywhere where there’s just enough soil for the tiniest of seeds to take root.

Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is like this: Someone scatters seed on the ground, and sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows — how, he does not know. Who is this farmer or gardener who scatters seed on the ground, and then nothing is mentioned about watering or weeding or keeping the rabbits away? Are we to think of God as the sower or of Jesus, or perhaps of anyone who plants seeds trusting that they will grow?

The parable invites us to recognize ourselves in the soil in which the seed of Jesus’ life and teachings takes root and grows into a harvest of life, and we don’t know how — and it invites us to see ourselves in the gardener who scatters seeds of God’s reign: seeds of kindness and compassion, seeds of respect and generosity and encouragement, confident that God gives the growth. I hear in these parables a divine affirmation of seemingly small actions by ordinary people, common as mustard. I hear a divine affirmation of the small things we do and say in the name of Jesus, things that may seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of global change, but that are indeed kingdom seeds that grow – we don’t know how – until the harvest comes.

Every small act of kindness matters, especially when the powers that be play political games with the well-being of children and families fleeing from violence. Every yes and no, whether spoken with firm conviction or trembling courage, matters. Every gesture of welcome and hospitality matters.

We are called to live as citizens of the kingdom of God. May we be relentless sowers of small seeds that grow.


[1] “The Great Seal,” New York Times, June 20, 1909 http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archivefree/pdf?res=9405E4DF143EE033A25753C2A9609C946897D6CF

[2] Ezekiel 17:22-24

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Home, finally

Three years ago, I was in Capernaum, a small village on the western shore of Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, not far from Israel’s border with Lebanon and Syria. I walked among the ruins of a synagogue built on the foundations of a synagogue from the time of Jesus, and across the street was a church, built on the foundations of earlier churches, and the bottom layer of rocks belonged to a house, the house of Peter and Andrew, according to tradition.

Capernaum was the home base of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. In chapter 3 of Mark, we are told that Jesus went from the synagogue to the lake, and from there up the mountain with the twelve, and then, it says in verse 20, he went home.

Home has to be one of the most powerful words in any language. After a long day of work, he went home. After a short stay at the hospital, she went home. After three generations of exile, they went home. Home we think about familiar faces, the smell of breakfast, the voice of one who calls us; we hear the laughter of children playing outside, the sound of the rain on the roof at night; we see a table and a bed, a porch or a window, and the way the view changes from hour to hour, season to season. Home – the word is heavy with the promise of peace.

It was good for Jesus to be home, I imagine; to sit in his favorite chair, to put up his feet and look out the window. Where do you imagine Jesus went when it says, he went home? Didn’t he say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”?[1]

Other English versions of this passage stay closer to the Greek by translating, ‘he entered a house.’ Capernaum was the home base of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and the house he entered may well have been the house of Peter and Andrew, just across the street from the synagogue. Going there at the end of a long day of healing and teaching must have felt like coming home, but once more, Mark tells us, such a crowd gathered round Jesus and the disciples that they had no chance even to eat. The house sat like an island in a sea of people who wanted to be near Jesus, people who were drawn to him because they had heard of his power to heal and forgive.

And then his family came; his mother, his brothers and sisters. They were the people who had been with him the longest, the people, presumably, closest to him, the people who knew him best. Only they were there not out of concern for his well-being, that he may not be getting enough sleep or may not be eating right, no, they had come to get him — to restrain him, if necessary. “He is out of his mind,” they said. His own family did not recognize the power at work in him. They thought it was madness and had come for an intervention. They wanted to take him back to the life before he let himself be baptized by John, back to the familiar routines untouched by the proclamation of God’s coming kingdom, back to what they considered to be his home.

And they were not the only ones who were deeply concerned about his actions. Religious experts from Jerusalem were watching and they accused him of being in league with the devil, the master of demons. Like his own family, they did not recognize the power at work in him as the power of God. His teachings, his actions were too disruptive.

His family and the scholars from the city were not slow or willfully blind; they didn’t know they were witnessing the liberating work of God. They were living in difficult times, and like us they wanted to maintain what little stability was left in their domestic life and their religious thought. And Jesus was rocking the boat. He was healing people, freeing them from all that kept them captive to powers other than the love and mercy of God, and he did it regardless of who they were or where they came from or what day of the week it was – there was no proper order to it; his words and actions seemed extravagant and reckless, frightening even. Jesus was too disruptive; to them his power felt like chaos. “He is out of his mind,” his family said. “He’s fighting demons with demons,” the scholars from the city concluded.

The presence and work of God in Christ was not unambiguous, and what was liberating and healing to so many, looked like madness or even the devil’s work to others. Again, they were not slow or blind, but they did not know what to make of the disruptive presence of this man to whom the wounded and oppressed were drawn.

Mark paints a scene for us. It’s a little house with Jesus in it, and in it and around it a throng of people, the mess of humanity in all its diversity, beauty, and imperfection; people of all ethnic backgrounds and political convictions, people on crutches and on stretchers, poor and rich; all of humanity with our hopes and our fears, our flaws and our dreams, with our hunger and thirst for life, and we’re pressing in at the doors and windows, aching to be near Jesus and to touch the hem of his cloak. The only ones to remain on the edge of the scene are the ones who already know what’s best for the family and best for religion, and in their world Jesus must be restrained. In their world, the disruptive presence and work of God need to be brought under control.

Jesus was at odds with his family and in conflict with the religious authorities, and not because he was a young man with wild ideas. When the scribes accused him of being in league with Beelzebul, the master of demons, he pointed out that their charge made no sense. Why would Satan cooperate in the eviction of Satan? If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And Satan, one must assume, would have a strong interest in keeping intact arrangements as old as human memory. But Jesus was about rearranging things significantly and permanently. And to illustrate the point he quoted a line from the burglary manual:

No one can enter a strong one’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong one; then indeed the house can be plundered.

Jesus identified himself as the divine thief who came to plunder the strong man’s house. He had tied up the strong man and now he was ransacking the place.

Jesus is the divine thief who has come to rob the biggest thief of all. Life belongs to God, not to the master of demons, not to the whispering liar who sows the seeds of lovelessness in which our true humanity is lost. Jesus has his eyes on the strong man’s house, a house as big as the world, and he has his eyes on us who are tempted to believe that living in the strong man’s house is as good as it gets. Jesus ties up the strong man, demon by demon, fear by fear, lie by lie, and leads the captives to freedom, leads them home.

Mark paints a scene for us; it’s a little house with Jesus in it. It was first seen in a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, but since then people have found it in countless places around the world, wherever and whenever disciples of Jesus live and proclaim the good news. The little house is where Christ’s power to heal and forgive resides. At times we may be standing outside with those who say he is out of his mind. He his beside himself; he’s completely out of it, they say, and there’s truth in their confusion. Because his life, in contrast to ours, revolves entirely around the will of God, and the whisperer of loveless lies can’t get a handle on him. “He is beside himself,” they say and we, at times, say it with them, and there’s truth to it, because Jesus doesn’t fall into our self-absorbed ways and will not think of himself outside of his relationship with God. He entrusts himself completely to God and with reckless extravagance he offers what he receives.

A crowd is sitting around him and pressing in at the doors and windows, aching to be near him, and they say, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he looks at all the humanity sitting around him, all of us wounded ones, all of us lost ones, all of us with our hunger for life that is really life and not just a prelude to death, and he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus sits in the midst of those who long for healing and freedom, and where Jesus is present, God speaks and shines and rules. The beauty of his mission is that the closer we draw to him with our desire to touch and be healed by his wholeness, the closer we draw to each other. And the closer we draw to the reality of suffering and longing in each other, the closer we draw to him and the wholeness he brings to creation.

There’s a little house with Jesus in it; it was first seen in a village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, but since then people have found it wherever and whenever disciples of Jesus live and proclaim the good news. It’s where Christ’s power to heal and forgive resides. It’s a little house that’s big enough for all of us. It’s home, finally.


[1] Matthew 8:20; Luke 9:58

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These deceptive words

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

One thread of the tradition traces the sabbath all the way to the basic patterns of creation, the rhythm of six days of work and a day of rest. Another thread of the tradition traces the commandment to keep the sabbath day to a labor conflict between the lord of Egypt’s brickyards and the Lord of heaven and earth.

Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and asked for time off for their people. “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’”

Pharaoh said, “Who is this Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will certainly not let Israel go.” There were cities to be built, store houses to be erected, roads to be cleared. “Why are you making the people slack off from their labor? Back to work!” Pharaoh shouted, and that same day he commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, “Don’t supply the people with the straw they need to make bricks like you did before. Let them go out and gather the straw for themselves. But still make sure that they produce the same number of bricks as they made before. Don’t reduce the number! They are weak and lazy, and that’s why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifices to our God.’ Make their work so hard that it’s all they can do, and they pay no attention to these deceptive words.”[1]

In Pharaoh’s mind, talk of rest was talk of unrest; talk of worship and sacred time was talk of wasted time, and talk of slaves honoring any Lord before him or beside him – who had ever heard such a thing, fake news, sprung from idle minds, such deceptive words! Crank up production! Keep them busy! Let them gather their own straw, and don’t you dare lowering the brick quotas!

It was the clash of two economies – God’s economy of gift and grace and sabbath praise and Pharaoh’s economy of oppressive, relentless, and exhausting toil.

In the divine economy, sabbath is the crown of creation, the end and fulfillment of all work.

In Pharaoh’s economy, sabbath is a waste of time.

In the divine economy, human beings are made in the image of God, persons of dignity, partners in caring for creation.

In Pharaoh’s economy, human beings are means of production.

Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

The sabbath is not merely a day off for “recharging the batteries.” The sabbath is a day of remembering, practicing, and living into an order of time in sync with the rhythms of God’s creative and redemptive work. As human beings made in the image of God we are invited to work with God and to enter into God’s rest, the completion of creation in unending joy and peace. “Rest in peace” is not just one last wish for us to write on each other’s grave markers; it’s what God does on the seventh day and we are meant to do, and God will not rest until we have been set free from all that keeps us in bondage.

How does one keep the sabbath? How does one keep this holy day holy? “Jewish liturgy and law say both what should be done on Shabbat and what should not,” writes Dorothy Bass.

What should not be done is “work.” Defining exactly what that means is a long and continuing argument, but one classic answer is that work is whatever requires changing the natural, material world. All week long, human beings wrestle with the natural world, tilling and hammering and carrying and burning. On the Sabbath, however, observant Jews let it be. They celebrate the created world as it is and dwell within it in peace and gratitude. Humans are created too, after all, and in gratefully receiving the gift of the world they learn to remember that ultimately it is not human effort that grows the grain and forges the steel. By extension, all activities associated with work or commerce are also prohibited. Indeed, one should not even think about them.[2]

The debate over what should and should not be done on the sabbath began long before Jesus was born. The prophet Amos attests that eagerness to get past the sabbath is not a recent development, and that the sabbath has always been a gift God’s people found difficult to receive. “Hear this,” Amos writes, “you who trample on the needy and destroy the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?’”[3] Why let sabbath memories disrupt valuable market days? Why let talk of divine purposes and God-given human dignity disrupt the selling  of goods and services to consumers?

Again Dorothy Bass,

Within the rhythms of the global marketplace, work, shopping, and entertainment are available at every hour. As a result, work and family life are being thrown into new and confusing arrangements, not only among the technological elite, but very widely indeed as the United States moves steadily toward a 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week, 365-days-a-year economy. Meanwhile, the free time people do have comes as fragments best fit for channel-surfing. It is not the lack of time but rather its formlessness that is troubling in this scenario. One can see human lives becoming ever more fully detached from nature, from community, and from a sense of belonging to a story that extends beyond one’s own span of years.[4]

Fragmentation. Formlessness. Isolation. The debate over how to keep the sabbath, how to keep sacred time sacred is not just for religious nerds; it goes to the heart of how we imagine, think, speak, defend, and live human life.

Jesus insisted and insists that the sabbath has to be more than a day of religiously observed work stoppage. Work stops for us to remember that we live in God’s time. Work stops for us to remember our dignity as creatures made in the image of God. Work stops for us to remember our liberation from Pharaoh’s economy. Work stops for us to remember that God wills our release from all the forces that enslave, oppress, exploit, bind, and burden us.

When Jesus encountered in the synagogue the man who had a withered hand, his first thought was not whether or not curing him violated any rules of sabbath observance. He saw what was needed for that man to know the joy and peace of the sabbath, and so he restored the man’s withered hand. For Jesus, the sabbath is a reality into which God invites God’s people, and Jesus, in communion with the One who made the sabbath, opens the door for all to enter. For Jesus, to keep the sabbath holy means not just to rest in peace, but to give access to this rest to others.

The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. And the sabbath was made not just for humankind in general, but also for this particular human being, this man whose affliction, what Mark calls a withered hand, may have prevented him for who knows how long from doing the kind of work he dreamed of doing, or from making a living and providing for a family.

I’ve thought a lot about this man in the past few days. A withered hand is a hand that hasn’t always been like that, not always weak, its fingers not always stiffly curled in or limp or clenched in a tight fist. Perhaps it withered slowly over months, perhaps suddenly, over night, like a small plant that didn’t have deep roots, and when the rains didn’t come, it dried up.

I’ve thought a lot about this man, let myself see myself in him, thought about what’s withered in me, because something does wither when dear people leave; something does wither when good things come to an end. I’m a man whose soul has some withered leaves. I’m a man whose soul thirsts for the Lord of the sabbath and I imagine you know what I mean. You have been in relationships that withered. You have witnessed how trust can wither, how joy, even faith, can wither.

The man in the story doesn’t speak a word, did you notice? He didn’t ask to be cured. He didn’t add his own comments to the sabbath debate between Jesus and his opponents. He didn’t express wonder or gratitude. Jesus told him to come forward, and he did. Jesus told him to stretch out his hand, and he did. I imagine he stretched out his hand toward Jesus and perhaps he could see how in this simple movement life returned to every muscle, sinew, and bone, and wholeness was restored. The gospel story invites us to draw closer to Jesus with all that is withered in our lives, to let him see what we see, to let him see what we cannot see, to let him draw us into the fullness of life that God has prepared for God’s people.

Over the past couple of years and especially the past few months we have done some of the hardest work we have ever had to do, physically and emotionally draining work, soul-withering work. We have made heartbreaking decisions, we have given ourselves to the labor of dismantling old structures of ministry, and we have begun to build new ones.

But we remember we’re not toiling in Pharaoh’s brickyard. Our master is not asking us to meet and exceed our daily brick quotas. “Make their work so hard that it’s all they can do, and they pay no attention to these deceptive words,” Pharaoh said. Our master is all about what Pharaoh called “these deceptive words,” words of promise and life, like these from the beginning of the book of Psalms:

Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,

which yield their fruit in its season,

and their leaves do not wither.[5]


[1] Exodus 5:1-9

[2] Dorothy C. Bass, “Christian formation in and for sabbath rest,” Interpretation 59, no. 1 (January 2005), 29.

[3] Amos 8:4-5; see also Jeremiah 17:19-27; Nehemiah 13:15-17.

[4] Bass, 32.

[5] Psalm 1:1-3

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Reclaiming Jesus

On Thursday evening, in Washington, D.C., bishops, elders, and other leaders from various denominations gathered for worship at National City Christian Church. Organizers said as many as 2,000 people attended the service, more than the sanctuary could hold. People were spilling out the doors of the church on to the steps and the street and an overflow room across the street.

As dusk fell, a procession of clergy and people of faith silently carried votive candles from the church to Lafayette Square, a park facing the White House. There, several church leaders, among them former General Ministers Dick Hamm and Sharon Watkins of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), took turns reading out a letter. It is a letter of pastoral concern as well as a call to renewed confession of Jesus Christ as Lord.

I thought about sharing this letter with you via email, facebook, and twitter – it’s so easy, so convenient – but decided to use a much older means of sharing. It’s a good tradition in the church, going back to the first generation of believers, to read letters, such as the letters of Paul, during worship, that is, to consider them part of the church’s proclamation and teaching.[1]

Reclaiming Jesus

We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.

It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography—our identity in Christ precedes every other identity. We pray that our nation will see Jesus’ words in us. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).

When politics undermines our theology, we must examine that politics. The church’s role is to change the world through the life and love of Jesus Christ. The government’s role is to serve the common good by protecting justice and peace, rewarding good behavior while restraining bad behavior (Romans 13). When that role is undermined by political leadership, faith leaders must stand up and speak out. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state.”

It is often the duty of Christian leaders, especially elders, to speak the truth in love to our churches and to name and warn against temptations, racial and cultural captivities, false doctrines, and political idolatries—and even our complicity in them. We do so here with humility, prayer, and a deep dependency on the grace and Holy Spirit of God.

This letter comes from a retreat on Ash Wednesday, 2018. In this season of Lent, we feel deep lamentations for the state of our nation, and our own hearts are filled with confession for the sins we feel called to address. The true meaning of the word repentance is to turn around. It is time to lament, confess, repent, and turn. In times of crisis, the church has historically learned to return to Jesus Christ.

Jesus is Lord. That is our foundational confession. It was central for the early church and needs to again become central to us. If Jesus is Lord, then Caesar was not—nor any other political ruler since. If Jesus is Lord, no other authority is absolute. Jesus Christ, and the kingdom of God he announced, is the Christian’s first loyalty, above all others. We pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). Our faith is personal but never private, meant not only for heaven but for this earth.

The question we face is this: Who is Jesus Christ for us today? What does our loyalty to Christ, as disciples, require at this moment in our history? We believe it is time to renew our theology of public discipleship and witness. Applying what “Jesus is Lord” means today is the message we commend as elders to our churches.

What we believe leads us to what we must reject. Our “Yes” is the foundation for our “No.” What we confess as our faith leads to what we confront. Therefore, we offer the following six affirmations of what we believe, and the resulting rejections of practices and policies by political leaders which dangerously corrode the soul of the nation and deeply threaten the public integrity of our faith. We pray that we, as followers of Jesus, will find the depth of faith to match the danger of our political crisis.

I. WE BELIEVE each human being is made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). That image and likeness confers a divinely decreed dignity, worth, and God-given equality to all of us as children of the one God who is the Creator of all things. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God (the imago dei) in some of the children of God. Our participation in the global community of Christ absolutely prevents any toleration of racial bigotry. Racial justice and healing are biblical and theological issues for us, and are central to the mission of the body of Christ in the world. We give thanks for the prophetic role of the historic black churches in America when they have called for a more faithful gospel.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the resurgence of white nationalism and racism in our nation on many fronts, including the highest levels of political leadership. We, as followers of Jesus, must clearly reject the use of racial bigotry for political gain that we have seen. In the face of such bigotry, silence is complicity. In particular, we reject white supremacy and commit ourselves to help dismantle the systems and structures that perpetuate white preference and advantage. Further, any doctrines or political strategies that use racist resentments, fears, or language must be named as public sin—one that goes back to the foundation of our nation and lingers on. Racial bigotry must be antithetical for those belonging to the body of Christ, because it denies the truth of the gospel we profess.

II. WE BELIEVE we are one body. In Christ, there is to be no oppression based on race, gender, identity, or class (Galatians 3:28). The body of Christ, where those great human divisions are to be overcome, is meant to be an example for the rest of society. When we fail to overcome these oppressive obstacles, and even perpetuate them, we have failed in our vocation to the world—to proclaim and live the reconciling gospel of Christ.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT misogyny, the mistreatment, violent abuse, sexual harassment, and assault of women that has been further revealed in our culture and politics, including our churches, and the oppression of any other child of God. We lament when such practices seem publicly ignored, and thus privately condoned, by those in high positions of leadership. We stand for the respect, protection, and affirmation of women in our families, communities, workplaces, politics, and churches. We support the courageous truth-telling voices of women, who have helped the nation recognize these abuses. We confess sexism as a sin, requiring our repentance and resistance.

III. WE BELIEVE how we treat the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner is how we treat Christ himself. (Matthew 25: 31-46) “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” God calls us to protect and seek justice for those who are poor and vulnerable, and our treatment of people who are “oppressed,” “strangers,” “outsiders,” or otherwise considered “marginal” is a test of our relationship to God, who made us all equal in divine dignity and love. Our proclamation of the lordship of Jesus Christ is at stake in our solidarity with the most vulnerable. If our gospel is not “good news to the poor,” it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ (Luke 4:18).

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the language and policies of political leaders who would debase and abandon the most vulnerable children of God. We strongly deplore the growing attacks on immigrants and refugees, who are being made into cultural and political targets, and we need to remind our churches that God makes the treatment of the “strangers” among us a test of faith (Leviticus 19:33-34). We won’t accept the neglect of the well-being of low-income families and children, and we will resist repeated attempts to deny health care to those who most need it. We confess our growing national sin of putting the rich over the poor. We reject the immoral logic of cutting services and programs for the poor while cutting taxes for the rich. Budgets are moral documents. We commit ourselves to opposing and reversing those policies and finding solutions that reflect the wisdom of people from different political parties and philosophies to seek the common good. Protecting the poor is a central commitment of Christian discipleship, to which 2,000 verses in the Bible attest.

IV. WE BELIEVE that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition, whose vocation includes speaking the Word of God into their societies and speaking the truth to power. A commitment to speaking truth, the ninth commandment of the Decalogue, “You shall not bear false witness” (Exodus 20:16), is foundational to shared trust in society. Falsehood can enslave us, but Jesus promises, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32). The search and respect for truth is crucial to anyone who follows Christ.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life. Politicians, like the rest of us, are human, fallible, sinful, and mortal. But when public lying becomes so persistent that it deliberately tries to change facts for ideological, political, or personal gain, the public accountability to truth is undermined. The regular purveying of falsehoods and consistent lying by the nation’s highest leaders can change the moral expectations within a culture, the accountability for a civil society, and even the behavior of families and children. The normalization of lying presents a profound moral danger to the fabric of society. In the face of lies that bring darkness, Jesus is our truth and our light.

V. WE BELIEVE that Christ’s way of leadership is servanthood, not domination. Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (the world) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:25-26). We believe our elected officials are called to public service, not public tyranny, so we must protect the limits, checks, and balances of democracy and encourage humility and civility on the part of elected officials. We support democracy, not because we believe in human perfection, but because we do not. The authority of government is instituted by God to order an unredeemed society for the sake of justice and peace, but ultimate authority belongs only to God.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT any moves toward autocratic political leadership and authoritarian rule. We believe authoritarian political leadership is a theological danger that threatens democracy and the common good—and we will resist it. Disrespect for the rule of law, not recognizing the equal importance of our three branches of government, and replacing civility with dehumanizing hostility toward opponents are of great concern to us. Neglecting the ethic of public service and accountability, in favor of personal recognition and gain often characterized by offensive arrogance, are not just political issues for us. They raise deeper concerns about political idolatry, accompanied by false and unconstitutional notions of authority.

VI. WE BELIEVE Jesus when he tells us to go into all nations making disciples (Matthew 28:18). Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. The most well-known verse in the New Testament starts with “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). We, in turn, should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants, rather than seek first narrow, nationalistic prerogatives.

THEREFORE, WE REJECT “America first” as a theological heresy for followers of Christ. While we share a patriotic love for our country, we reject xenophobic or ethnic nationalism that places one nation over others as a political goal. We reject domination rather than stewardship of the earth’s resources, toward genuine global development that brings human flourishing for all of God’s children. Serving our own communities is essential, but the global connections between us are undeniable. Global poverty, environmental damage, violent conflict, weapons of mass destruction, and deadly diseases in some places ultimately affect all places, and we need wise political leadership to deal with each of these.

WE ARE DEEPLY CONCERNED for the soul of our nation, but also for our churches and the integrity of our faith. The present crisis calls us to go deeper—deeper into our relationship to God; deeper into our relationships with each other, especially across racial, ethnic, and national lines; deeper into our relationships with the most vulnerable, who are at greatest risk.

The church is always subject to temptations to power, to cultural conformity, and to racial, class, and gender divides, as Galatians 3:28 teaches us. But our answer is to be “in Christ,” and to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable, and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)

The best response to our political, material, cultural, racial, or national idolatries is the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Jesus summarizes the Greatest Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, your soul, and your mind. This is the first commandment. And the second is like unto it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:38). As to loving our neighbors, we would add “no exceptions.”

We commend this letter to pastors, local churches, and young people who are watching and waiting to see what the churches will say and do at such a time as this.

Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair. If Jesus is Lord, there is always space for grace. We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ—to whom be all authority, honor, and glory. It is time for a fresh confession of faith. Jesus is Lord. He is the light in our darkness. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).


[1] See 1 Thessalonians 5:27, “have this letter read aloud to all the brothers and sisters” and Colossians 4:16, “when this letter has been read among you, have it read also in the church of the Laodiceans.”


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Divine solidarity

We know, the Apostle Paul writes, we know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. And we are not alone in our groaning, for the Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.

Santa Fe, Texas, a rural town somewhere between Galveston and Houston, another school shooting, ten confirmed dead, ten wounded but who keeps track of how these violent events wound all students and teachers? And who keeps track of how the relentless return of this perverse ritual of death wounds all of us?

The groans you feel rising from deep inside of you before anyone can hear them, the groans you feel slowly erupting from the depth of your soul when you are reminded yet again how hateful we can be, how violent, how cowardly, how greedy and self-absorbed the groans you hear then are God’s as much as they are yours. They come from the place where God who abides with you in the profound solidarity of love inspires and empowers life that longs for wholeness. The groans come from the place where God is calling you to resist the temptation to despair.

Did you hear Bishop Michael Curry at the royal wedding? Did you hear what the Bishop said? “Imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine our homes and families when love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods where love is the way. Imagine governments and nations where love is the way. Imagine this tired old world when love … sacrificial love is the way.” It begins with our imagination; it begins with an imagination steeped in God’s love and the wide horizon of hope faith opens for us.

An old professor asked a room full of divinity students, “How many of you want to go to heaven when you die?” Everybody raised their hand, some with a little more hesitation than others, uncertain of what to make of such an immense word, heaven, but all raised their hand. Then the professor asked, “How many of you would like to go tomorrow if you could?” And all the hands went down. Then he teacher rephrased the question:

“How many of you would like to wake up tomorrow in a world where no one was afraid to play on the street at night? How many of you would like to wake up in the morning to the news that there was a party on the streets of Jerusalem, with musicians and food trucks from Gaza, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Israel, and all over the Arab Peninsula, people dancing in the streets, celebrating the end of war. How many of you would like to wake up tomorrow in a world where no child is abused, no spouse betrayed, no neighbor robbed, and no worker cheated? A world where no one ever pointed a gun at another human being, no one starved, nobody ever put you down because you’re different? How many of you would like to wake up tomorrow in a world where love is the way?” And all hands went up again.

“Then you want to go to heaven tomorrow, because that is what biblical hope is about,” the old professor said. “God created this world and the good Lord is not that interested in getting us off of it. What God is interested in is getting us to embrace the way of love.”[1] God created this world not merely as a testing ground to find souls worthy of living the life eternal way beyond the blue. God’s desire is for life on earth to flourish and for God to be at home among mortals.

“Because God is a God of life and blessing, God will do redemptive work, should those gifts be endangered,” writes Terence Fretheim. “The objective of God’s work in redemption is to free people to be what they were created to be. It is a deliverance, not from the world, but to true life in the world.”[2] When we talk about heaven we often get dangerously close to abandoning the earth, the very earth God has made and has given us. In Romans 8, Paul writes that “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”[3] It’s not just human beings who long to be who we really are, who we are meant to be as creatures made in the image of God; the whole creation is waiting, because its freedom is tied to ours.

We have a particular calling in God’s creation. Human beings are created in the image of God to subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing on the land, in the sea, and in the air.[4] And dominion in God’s creation is all about naming the wonders, and knowing them, and caring for them with the same attention, wisdom, and passion for life as God does. But our dominion becomes oppressive and abusive, because sin distorts our relationship to God and to each other, to ourselves and to all of creation. We consistently get freedom and power wrong, choosing self-assertion over love. In our hunger to own the world, we lose our place in it and live like exiles far from home.

And our exile impacts not just us. Listen to this lament by the prophet Hosea,

There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing.[5]

The land mourns, and all who live in it languish, because human beings consistently get freedom and power wrong.

“How long will the land mourn, and the grass of every field wither?” laments Jeremiah.[6]

And Isaiah cries, “The heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth.”[7]

We know, says Paul, we know that the whole creation has been groaning until now. But God is a God of life and blessing, and God will do redemptive work, should those gifts be endangered. Israel knows this because God made a way for them out of bondage in Egypt. The Israelites groaned under the yoke of slavery, and cried out, and God heard their groaning.[8] And because God is true to God’s promises, God will be faithful to God’s creation. No groan will go unheard.

Our freedom from bondage to sin and death and creation’s freedom from bondage to decay go hand in hand. The resurrection of Jesus the Messiah has opened the horizon of our hope to include the redemption of all that God has made. Our hope is not for a seat in heaven, but for the redemption of heaven and earth, for the communion of Creator and creation. In hope we were saved, and we wait with patience for our hope to be fulfilled. In faith our hearts and minds were opened to recognize the way of Christ, the way of love … sacrficial love, as the way of life that opens to true life. And we are not alone in imagining or seeking to follow that way. God abides with us in the profound solidarity of love, suffering with us, groaning with us, enduring with us, and again and again inspiring in us a longing for wholeness.

Paul calls the gift of the Spirit to the church “the first fruits,” which sounds like the beginning of the harvest season. It sounds like the joy of seeing and tasting the first strawberries after long months of waiting. Paul speaks of the great harvest of redemption for which the life of Jesus was the seed. The gift of the Spirit poured out on all flesh is the first fruits, the first taste, the first glance of the redeemed creation. The gift of God’s Spirit kindles in us a fire of holy restlessness that cannot put up with the world as it is. First fruits – we know there’s more where that came from, and we lean forward into that promise. That’s what our hope is, a leaning forward into the promise of resurrection for all of creation.

And that is no facile hope. Audrey West writes, “This is hope as a woman in labor hopes: breathing through the pain, holding tight to a companion, looking ahead to what cannot yet be seen, trusting that a time will come when this pain is but a memory.”[9] Many of us have struggled to hope like that when dealing with broken relationships, devastating illness, unending losses, or simply the daily avalanche of life-draining news. Some of us have landed in a place where there is not one ounce of strength left to endure what is before them.

You are not alone. The groans that rise from the depth of your heavy heart are God’s own as much as they are yours. They are the Spirit praying with you and for you, with sighs too deep for words. God abides with you in the profound solidarity of love, suffering with you, groaning with you, enduring with you, inspiring in you a longing for wholeness, and kindling in you a fire of holy restlessness.

God will not put up with what the world has become. And God wants you to be part of the change.


[1] After Lewis Smedes, 1993 http://www.csec.org/csec/sermon/smedes_3709.htm

[2] Terence Fretheim, “The Reclamation of Creation: Redemption and Law in Exodus,” Interpretation 45, 359; my italics.

[3] Romans 8:18-21

[4] Genesis 1:26-28

[5] Hosea 4:1-3

[6] Jeremiah 12:4

[7] Isaiah 24:4-6

[8] Exodus 2:23f.

[9] Audrey West http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1306

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Taken up

In some of the older churches in Europe, you can see a round opening in the ceiling, right above the altar. Some call it the Holy Spirit hole. In medieval times, a small Christ figure would be pulled up through it on Ascension Day, forty days after Easter. The Christ figure, made of wood or ceramic, would stand on the altar, with a rope tied around it. When the story was read of how Christ was taken up to heaven, liturgical stage hands up in the attic pulled in the rope and Christ went up and vanished from sight.

Ten days later, on Pentecost, members of the worship committee were again up in the attic and waited for just the right moment in the reading from Acts to lower a white dove carved from wood through the hole, followed by showers of red flower petals falling on the congregation like little flames. In some towns, the people responsible for special effects during the liturgy dropped a live white dove through the hole, and you can imagine the whole congregation looking up and watching it fly, wondering what the bird or the Holy Spirit might be up to. And in some churches, the showers of flower petals were followed by showers of almonds, nuts, raisins, and other sweet delights – the joy of heaven come down to earth, for all to taste and see.

The Reformation put an end to such theatrical gospel illustrations, in some places more successfully than in others no more statues ascending and descending, no more treats from the Holy Spirit hole for the children of Protestants.

You have probably seen depictions of the Ascension paintings in museums, stained glass windows and frescoes in churches, art projects in Vacation Bible School. The old masters show Jesus floating upward in flowing robes, clouds around his feet, while the disciples look up, their faces expressing a wide range of emotions from fear to wide-eyed wonder and devotion. In one painting from the early16th century, the body of Jesus has all but disappeared, and at the upper edge of the frame, you can only see the hem of his robe and his feet, still bearing the marks of his crucifixion.[1] It looks like his toes would disappear any moment now, and then the disciples would be on their own again.

All the stories that tell us about encounters between the disciples and the Risen One reflect experiences of absence and sudden presence, of Jesus appearing, abiding, and disappearing. Coming to know Jesus as risen is a matter of familiarity and loss, of grief and joy, of expectation and surprise. You could say that the fact that we celebrate seven Sundays of Easter, is a reflection of this process: the resurrection of Christ is a truth that takes time to sink in; it challenges our ways of seeing and thinking and knowing; it is a reality we cannot fully grasp, but are nevertheless invited to enter.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses,” the Risen One taught the disciples. Then he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. Luke describes the disciples as standing there, gazing up to where they last saw Jesus, when suddenly two men in white robes appear, as they did on Easter morning, and ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” For forty days – in biblical lingo that means a good long time – Jesus had presented himself alive to them, appearing to them and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. The painful absence after his death on the cross had turned into new life; it was a roller coaster of joy and confusion, of faith and doubt, and just when they thought they knew him again like they hadn’t known him before, just when they thought that maybe now the world was ready for God’s kingdom to be restored in glory, the one who was supposed to take the throne slipped away again. No wonder they looked intently to where they had last seen him; it was like their world had a hole in it in the shape of their hope.

What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer, writes Barbara Brown Taylor.

Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever. [2]

Where do you turn when your sense of God’s presence suddenly vanishes?  Where do you turn when the visible becomes invisible, the tangible, intangible; the answer, a question; the presence, an absence?

Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t go away, but that he was taken up. Paul writes that God exalted Jesus and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.[3] God has exalted Jesus – the same Jesus who ate and drank with sinners, who suffered and died in shame – God has exalted Jesus as Lord. The friend of sinners is seated on the throne of heaven.

And we? What about us? What are we supposed to do now? “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you,” says Jesus; “and you will be my witnesses.” The absence will again become powerful presence, and we will be witnesses of the love that has found us; we will be messengers of reconciliation; we will announce the Lord’s reign to the ends of the earth. Our gaze is stuck on that spot behind the cloud where we last perceived God’s presence in the person of Jesus, and the heavenly messengers gently redirect our attention down to earth.

It’s no use looking up if it’s him we want to see. He will come to us. In the meantime, our attention needs to be where his attention was when he walked on the earth. On the margins of our communities where life is far from flourishing. On the poverty of purse and of spirit that drains us of life and keeps us from recognizing each other as brothers and sisters in the one household of God. We let his attention direct ours, we do what he taught us to do, and we wait. He will come to us.

We will be clothed with power from on high. Or so he told them, so he told the few who would become his apostles. But those were different times, simpler times, we imagine. For them, back in those days, it was just natural to believe in the promises of God and follow, and they, of course, weren’t nearly as busy as we are—or so we like to think. Annie Dillard has written beautifully about this odd assumption:

A blur of romance clings to our notions of “publicans,” “sinners,” “the poor,” “the people in the marketplace,” “our neighbors,” as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead — as if innocence had ever been — and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.[4]

No need, then, to paint the past in a rosy glow, whether it’s the days of the apostles or the years of innocence when tall steeples went up like grass after a spring rain. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God. Us and the promise that God is at work in the world. Us and the promise that we will be clothed with power from on high and be just right – just right, you and me, just right to participate in Christ’s continuing mission to the ends of the earth.

Jesus has been taken up, and now his presence is no longer restricted by the boundaries of time and space. Now he is available to all people everywhere, all of the time, through the Holy Spirit. He has been taken up, not away. He has been exalted to a place of powerful presence. Still bearing in his resurrection body the wounds of our sin, Jesus has been taken up into the heart of God. And from the heart of God, the Spirit pours forth like a shower of sweet almonds and raisins, foretaste of the world to come, and the work of redemption continues: In the company of Christ’s witnesses we proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins in his name, we seek to embody Christ’s compassion and obey his law, we walk in his way of humble service and declare his justice to the nations until he comes.

Christ has shown us that the movement of God is not up and away from the world, but ever closer to the world and deeper into its brokenness in order to heal it.

Christ bears in his body the wounds of our sin and the pain of creation, and he carries them into the heart of God, where all that is broken is healed and life is renewed.

And out of the heart of God flows the Spirit like a healing river to inspire and empower us to participate in God’s movement in the world, serving, healing, forgiving, and reconciling in Christ’s name.


[1] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/110001279

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley, 1995), 75.

[3] Philippians 2:9-11

[4] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 56-57.

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Isn't it curious?

Luke’s first book is the Gospel that bears his name. His second book is called The Acts of the Apostles, and we could also call it The Acts of the Holy Spirit Poured out on all Flesh. It’s the story of Christ’s first witnesses who struggle to keep up with the movement of God’s Spirit from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

The opening chapters of Acts are centered in Jerusalem, but soon we hear about Philip’s witness in Samaria and the wilderness baptism of a man on his way back to Ethiopia – the Spirit and the witnesses are beginning to spill over the boundaries of Judea. But it’s not geography that presents the most difficult challenges for the first witnesses; it’s how they’ve learned to think about themselves and others.

The ancient Jewish world was divided into Jews and Gentiles – God’s people who live in righteousness and holiness, and the Gentiles who live far from God in the darkness of their idolatrous ways. For the good news of Jesus to spill over and reach the ends of the earth, the witnesses had to find the courage to cross boundaries that had been in place for generations. Luke masterfully compresses this gradual, very difficult, and contested development into a sequence of dramatic scenes with Peter as a key character.

Peter is in Joppa, a port on the Mediterranean, on the edge of the Jewish heartland, where he’s staying at the home of Simon the tanner. Tanners worked with animal carcasses, and their occupation made it very difficult for them to remain ritually clean. Pious Jews would have chosen a different place to stay on a visit to Joppa. So Peter is not just on the edge of the Jewish heartland; he’s also right on the boundary line where assumptions of holiness turn into assumptions of the opposite, where inside turns into outside, and belonging into exclusion.

Now Luke takes us to Caesarea, about forty miles up the coast from Joppa. Caesarea is a thoroughly Gentile port city, which Herod the Great built up as the governor’s residence for the Roman province of Judea. Here we meet Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. He was a devout, God-fearing man. They knew him at the synagogue, and they liked and respected him. He participated regularly in the daily prayers and shabbat services and he gave generously to those in need. Cornelius was as close to being a Jew as a male Gentile could be without undergoing circumcision. One afternoon Cornelius had a vision. He saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius! Your prayers and gifts to the poor have ascended as a memorial before God. Send messengers to Joppa and bring back a man named Simon, who is known as Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” When the angel had left, Cornelius called two of his servants and a soldier from his personal staff. He told them everything that had happened and sent them to Joppa.

About noon the next day, as their journey brought the three close to the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he had a vision. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being lowered to the earth by its four corners. In it were all kinds of four-legged animals, as well as reptiles and birds. And a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Absolutely not, Lord!” Peter exclaimed. “I have never eaten anything that is impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times. Then the sheet was pulled back into heaven. Three times you’d think a heavenly voice wouldn’t run into such resistance, wouldn’t you? You can tell a lot was at stake here for Peter. What he was told to do went against some of his most deeply held convictions, things he had been taught since he was a little boy.

Now while Peter was wondering what to make of this very persistent vision, the men sent by Cornelius arrived at the gate, and the Spirit interrupted his thoughts, “Simon, three men are looking for you. Get up and go downstairs, and do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”

So Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for. Why have you come?”

“We’ve come on behalf of Cornelius, a centurion in Caesarea; he is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is well-respected by all Jewish people. A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”

Peter invited the men into the house as his guests, and the next day he went with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along.

They arrived in Caesarea the following day. Anticipating their arrival, Cornelius had gathered his relatives and close friends. As Peter entered the house, Cornelius met him and fell at his feet in reverence. But Peter made him get up. “Stand up,” he said, “Like you, I am just a human.” Perhaps word had traveled from Joppa to Caesarea that it was Peter who had prayed for Tabitha to be brought back to life from death, and his prayers were answered. The power of God had been palpably present in that miracle, but for Peter to enter the house of a Gentile was an equally miraculous step into a radically new life.

Peter went inside and found a large gathering of people. He said to them, “You all are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. However, God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean. So when I was sent for, I came without raising any objection. May I ask why you sent for me?”

Cornelius told him the whole story. “Four days ago about this time, three in the afternoon, I was praying at home. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayers and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is known as Peter. He is a guest in the house of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ So I sent for you immediately, and it was good of you to come. Now we are all here in the presence of God to listen to all that the Lord has commanded you to tell us.”

And so Peter proclaimed the good news of Jesus to a Gentile audience for the very first time. “I now realize that God shows no partiality to one group of people over another. Rather, in every nation, whoever worships him and does what is right is acceptable to God. This is the message of peace God sent to the people of Israel by proclaiming good news through Jesus Christ: he is Lord of all! You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he traveled around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was him. We are witnesses of everything he did in Judea and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and allowed him to be seen, not by everyone but by us. We are witnesses whom God chose beforehand, who ate and drank with im after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” And while Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. God was indeed pouring out God’s Spirit on all flesh, sanctifying all flesh, sharing the divine holiness with all flesh, and Peter declared, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water; they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

An ancient boundary, deeply embedded in Jewish life and tradition, was dissolving. It wasn’t long before the apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them?” You crossed the line that separates holiness and idolatry what were you thinking?

Peter told them the whole story. He told them about his vision and the vision of Cornelius and all that they precipitated. He ended by recalling the sermon he preached at the house of the Gentile. “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”

When they heard this, they were done complaining and they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”

Even to the Gentiles. The church in the first generation moved from a carefully bounded ethnic identity to an international, multi-ethnic, Christ-centered identity, and it wasn’t the church’s doing. The initiative was God’s and the church followed – slowly, hesitantly, but it followed.

Perhaps you wonder, is Luke’s story about the conversion of Cornelius and his household or the conversion of Peter and the church? Which of the two received the greater blessing, Cornelius or Peter?

Both were given visions that allowed them to see themselves and one another in radically different ways.

Both were given new identities as equal recipients of God’s mercy.

Both were given new purpose as witnesses to the wideness of God’s embrace of the whole human family.

Isn’t it curious that for centuries, conversion meant that others have to become like us in order to be acceptable? In the story of Cornelius and Peter we have been given a powerful corrective to that view: in obedience to the Spirit’s guidance people welcome one another despite all that divides them. They welcome the stranger or enter the house of the stranger, not to convert, but to be converted by the barrier-erasing Spirit of Christ.

The Spirit is moving ahead of us, always working ahead of us to draw us into the fullness of life God desires for all of us. Somebody said recently we’re not living in an era of change but a change of eras. And yet, amid the seismic shifts we’re experiencing we trust that wherever we go, God is there, preparing a place for our continuing conversion into the likeness of Christ.

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