To be the Lord's praise

I’m partial when it comes to veterans. I’m particularly grateful for the men and women who shipped out to Europe to fight the Nazis. They fought and died not just for their country, but for mine too, and for a future where all people live in freedom. When white supremacist groups announced their rally in Shelbyville, one of many reasons I had to go there to protest was to honor the sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives to end Hitler’s reign of terror.



Many synagogues burned throughout the night in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings.

To me, it’s a blessed coincidence that every year Veterans Day follows the anniversary of Kristallnacht, that night of terror and destruction on November 9 and 10, 1938, when rioters in the streets of Germany and Austria destroyed synagogues, shattered the windows of thousands of Jewish-owned businesses, and looted their wares. Many synagogues burned throughout the night in full view of the public and of local firefighters, who had received orders to intervene only to prevent flames from spreading to nearby buildings. The pogrom claimed the lives of 91 Jews, and as it spread, units of the SS and Gestapo arrested up to 30,000 Jewish males and transferred most of them from local prisons to concentration camps in Dachau, Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and other towns. On the following Sundaythe liturgical calendar called for observance of the annual Day of RepentanceHelmut Gollwitzer stood in the pulpit of a church in Berlin-Dahlem and said,

Who then on this of all days still has a right to preach? Who then should be preaching repentance on such a day? Have not our mouths been muzzled on this very day? Can we do anything but fall silent? What good has all the preaching and the hearing of sermons done us and our people and our church? How, following all the years and centuries of preaching, have we come to this place where we find ourselves today and as we find ourselves today? What good has it done that God has allowed our people to have so much success? What good has the great gift of peace done that we received with such joy just two months ago [he was referring to the Munich agreement between Hitler and Chamberlain, September 29-30, 1938], so that today each of those Ten Commandments that we have just heard has struck us like a hammer blow right in the face and has knocked us to the ground? What a short blink of an eye separates that report of peace and this Day of Repentance! Back then we told ourselves in this very place that the new peace opens a new space for repentance — and now, so few weeks later, how’s it going? How have we used this period of time? What do we expect God to do, if we come to him now singing, reading our Bibles, praying, preaching, and confessing our sins as if we can really count on his being here and on all this being more than empty religious activity? Our impertinence and presumption must make him sick. Why don’t we at least just keep our mouths shut? Yes, that might be the right thing to do. What if we just sat here for an entire hour without saying a word, no singing, no speaking, just preparing ourselves silently for God’s punishment, which we have already earned? And when that punishment becomes obvious and visible, we will know better than to go running around screaming and railing against it wondering, “How can God let something like this happen to us?” Yet how many of us will do just that and in our blindness not see the connection between that which God allows and that which we have done and brought upon ourselves? We really should prepare ourselves so that we can say when it comes upon us: “O Lord, our sins have earned us this” (Jer. 14:7).[i]

Gollwitzer did preach a fine sermon that Sunday, ending it saying,

Now just outside this church our neighbor is waiting for us — waiting for us in his need and lack of protection, disgraced, hungry, hunted, and driven by fear for his very existence. That is the one who is waiting to see if today this Christian congregation has really observed this national day of penance. Jesus Christ himself is waiting to see.[ii]

Gollwitzer’s sermon was part of a long tradition going back all the way to the prophet Amos, a tradition insisting that the integrity of our worship is determined not by how closely we follow the lectionary or the rubrics or the unwritten rules of whatever we consider to be proper liturgy, not by any of thatthe integrity of our worship is determined by our actions outside the sanctuary.

I hate, I despise your festivals, [says the Lord,] and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos accused the leaders, including the priests of the king’s sanctuary, of perverting justice and cheating the poor in the marketplace. And in the context of such oppression, he told them, their worship, though religiously presented, was no fragrant offering of praise but only ugliness, noise and stench. “The cumulative image of these [lines of Amos’s speech] is God’s holding the nose, shutting the eyes and closing the ears to Israel’s ceremonies.”[iii] Justice and righteousness characterize the God of Israel, and they are to characterize the life of God’s people. Without justice and righteousness, our worship is not worship of the Lord God, but a celebration of religious fantasies. In God’s house, attention to the liturgy must go hand in hand with attention to the well-being of the poor. Without attention to the order of life in the city and beyond, attention to the order of worship is religious distraction at best, and idolatry at worst.

In Samaria, where Amos proclaimed the coming of God’s judgment, the citizens came to the sanctuary bearing gifts and dressed in their Sunday best, but they had forgotten how to live as God’s people. You trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, Amos cried. You push the afflicted out of the way, you oppress the poor, and crush the needy. You hate the one who reproves in the gate and abhor the one who speaks the truth. You trample on the poor, afflict the righteous, and push aside the needy at the gate.[iv] You think of yourselves as worshipers of God, but you are tramplers, haters, oppressors, and crushers. You do not see past your own well-being, your own security, and the pleasures of your own lifestyle. Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

In 1935, when the German government’s rhetoric and actions against Jewish citizens was growing increasingly hateful and violent, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only those who cry out for the Jews may also sing Gregorian chant.”[v] Too few were paying attention; too many kept singing their beloved hymns on Sunday morning, folding their hands and bowing their heads in prayer, only to fall silent as soon as they stepped from the sanctuary into the streets where hate and fear ruled. People were grateful for the comforts of a familiar liturgy and the hymns they had known since childhood, but only very few did speak out or stand up on behalf of their persecuted neighbors. The terror didn’t last; the liberators came, but millions had been killed and Europe lay in ruins.

“Liturgy in the absence of justice does not please God; it nauseates God,” writes Nicholas Wolterstorff. Gregorian chants, Genevan psalms, Lutheran chorales, Anglican anthems, Orthodox troparions, Baptist revival songs, and non-denominational praise chorusses can be the most beautiful expressions of worship, but sung in the presence of injustice they disgust God. “Liturgy is for giving voice to life, to lives of faith.”[vi] In our lives, we seek to obey God, individually and collectively; and in the liturgy we praise the one whom we seek to obey, and we confess our failings. In our lives, we show our love of God in all that we do; and in the liturgy we bless and praise the God we love. In our lives, we strive to be like God: holy, merciful, just. And in the liturgy we intercede with God to be our holiness, our mercy, and our justice. But if in our daily lives we do not do what we can for the feeding of the hungry and peace with our neighbors, then interceding with God for the hungry and for peace on earth is a disgusting religious performance. If in our daily lives we do not actively imitate the divine longing for justice and righteousness, then professing devotion to God in worship is a disgusting religious performance. Without connection to lives ordered by God’s love and the demands of that love, worship nauseates God.[vii]

Love demands that we honor our veterans, especially the wounded warriors and those who have come home no longer knowing what it was they were sent to fight for. Love demands that we give them not just medals, but the best medical care our country has to offer, jobs that pay a living wage, and affordable housing. And love demands that we don’t just let them do our fighting for us, but that we give ourselves with courage to the struggle for a better tomorrow for all.

I want to close with a brief quote from one of the church fathers. Sing to the Lord a new song! was the text for one of Augustine’s sermons. He said, “You tell me, ‘I am singing!’ Yes indeed, you are singing. You are singing clearly, I hear you. But make sure that your life does not contradict your words. Sing with your voices, your lips, and your lives. … If you desire to praise [the Lord], then live what you express … and you yourselves will be [the Lord’s] praise.”[viii] Sing with your lives, and you yourselves will be the Lord’s praise.


[i] Hellmut Gollwitzer (November 16, 1938) in Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, ed. Dean G. Stroud (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013), 130.

[ii] Gollwitzer, 138.

[iii] Jannie Du Preez, “Let justice roll on like...”: some explanatory notes on Amos 5:24.” Journal Of Theology For Southern Africa no. 109 (March 1, 2001) 95.

[iv] See Amos 2:7; 4:1; 5:10,12.

[v] My translation; quoted from memory. See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie (München: Kaiser, 1983) 685.

[vi] Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Justice as a condition of authentic liturgy,” Theology Today 48, no. 1 (April 1, 1991), 17.

[vii] See Wolterstorff, 17.

[viii] Sermon 34, 5-6.

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Brother Martin

On October 31, 1517, the story goes, an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was on the university faculty, the church was the university chapel, and its door was commonly used as a bulletin board. Posting the theses was a public invitation to debate, but this wasn’t merely an academic exercise. Luther challenged the power of the papacy, and he probably had no idea what a massive earthquake he triggered that day.

He chose October 31 to post his theses because it was the day before All Saints Day, and the meaning and role of saints was at the heart of Luther’s argument with the church leaders. The church taught that certain believers were saints, and the argument went that the saints were so good, so perfect in belief and obedience, that they accumulated more righteousness than they needed to enter the gates of heaven. So there was excess righteousness sitting around in heavenly storage, as it were, and somebody in Rome came up with the clever idea to make that surplus available to common sinners. The Vatican issued documents called indulgences, the purchase of which allowed sinners to build up their heavenly account of righteousness, reducing the time they would have to spend in purgatory and expediting their journey to the glorious assembly of the righteous. As an added bonus, people could purchase indulgences not only for themselves but for family members and friends who had already died.

Men and women carried heavy burdens of fear in those days, and the church, or rather those called to lead the church, knew how to turn forgiveness into a lucrative business. In the early sixteenth century, Rome sent out a sales force all across Europe to peddle indulgences—and the campaign was very successful: St. Peter’s basilica in Rome was completed with revenue from the sale of salvation.

Luther wanted to debate that practice. He understood Holy Scripture to teach that salvation is God’s gracious gift to humanity in Jesus Christ, a gift we do not deserve and cannot earn, let alone purchase, but only need to gratefully embrace in faith. To us today it may sound obvious, but at the time it was a revolutionary idea: The Christian faith is not about accumulating righteousness points in one’s heavenly savings account, but about living in gratitude to God for the gift of God’s grace.

The abuses of the corrupt hierarchy meant that talk of saints and the whole concept of sainthood became suspicious and eventually disappeared almost completely from Protestant life. But only almost, because many of the New Testament writings not only mentioned the saints, but were literally addressed to them. The apostle Paul wrote his letters to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi; to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints; to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, including all the saints throughout Achaia; etc. And the apostle wasn’t writing to the few, the proud, the shining stars among God’s people, awaiting their introduction into the Discipleship Hall of Fame, no, he was writing to all who had found new life through faith in Jesus Christ.[1]

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses,[2] that we are not alone in this adventure called church. Those who have gone before us, surround us; and to me it’s a beautiful thing to imagine them watching us and cheering us on as we continue the journey toward the kingdom. Saints, Frederick Buechner wrote are not “plaster statues, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil thing their whole life long. Saints,” Buechner says, “are essentially life givers. To be with them is to become more alive.”[3] They are the men and women who told us the good news of God’s love for the world; who reminded us of our freedom in Christ as sons and daughters of God; who modeled for us what faithful living might mean; who inspired and encouraged us. Some of them may still be around, others have joined the church in heaven. Some of them you may have known in person, others you may have heard or read about. They are your saints, the people through whom God shaped you and made you who you are and continues to shape who you will be. Most likely they are not faith celebrities but ordinary people whose lives showed extraordinary courage and integrity in response to God’s grace, particularly in trying times. They moved forward in hope, trusting the promise and presence of God.

I know I wouldn’t be standing here talking about keeping the faith through these tumultuous days without the example of my grandfather or the courage of Bonhoeffer or the women and men who told me the stories of Jesus when I was a kid. And you know who those people are in your own life: your parents, perhaps, or your grandparents whose love continues to be a palpable presence for you, or a sister, a brother, a teacher who saw in you what, at the time, you could not see in yourself. People of life-giving generosity, kindness, and faithfulness—and they may not even have known it, they simply lived it.

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, with a firework of adjectives, “What makes a saint is extravagance—excessive love, flagrant mercy, radical affection, exorbitant charity, immoderate faith, intemperate hope, inordinate love.”[4] What makes a saint is extravagance of faith responding to God’s extravagance of grace. And extravagance of faith has nothing to do with ostentatious piety.

Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” Oh, we know what he’s talking about, we know that’s not limited to scribes and Pharisees. The preachers preach forgiveness, and struggle with living it. The teachers teach being kind to others, and yell at the driver in front of them. Parents get to the end of their rope and tell their kids, “Do as I say, not as I do.” We know that’s something we all have to work on, not just scribes and Pharisees.

But there’s another layer to this. Jesus said, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” The phylacteries Jesus referred to are small leather boxes with passages of scripture in them. To this day, many Jewish men strap them around the arm and on the forehead during morning prayer. The practice goes back to a passage in the book of Deuteronomy:

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.[5]

The boxes and straps remind those who wear them of the sacred obligation to keep God’s commandments: the one on the arm, a reminder to let all their actions be determined by God’s commandments; and the one on the forehead, a reminder to let God’s commandments guide their outlook and thinking. Jesus accused his opponents of making their phylacteries broad, of wearing them not as reminders to follow God’s commandments, but as objects displayed to impress others with their wearers’ piety, as status symbols of religious conviction and achievement.

Extravagance of faith has nothing to do with ostentatious piety, and everything with keeping the words of God in our heart; words that have the power to awaken faith in us and love. I’m grateful to Luther and many other leaders of the Reformation for redirecting the church’s attention to the word of God and the centrality of faith, but I don’t think celebrating tribal identities with a Reformation Sunday is a good idea. Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer and all the others are part of the great cloud of witnesses, watching us and cheering us on as we journey toward the kingdom, and we honor them together with the others.

One Protestant pastor argued that we should change how we celebrate Reformation Sunday rather than bury it. He wrote,

True, we’ve set our liturgical calendar to commemorate the date on which Brother Martin posted his 95 theses for public consideration. However, one could (and I believe should) point out that there have been moments like this throughout the church’s history, all of which are worthy of being called reformation moments, moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, moved away from the many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic minds can take us.[6]

Reformation moments, I like that. Moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, I like that a lot. But why set aside one Sunday for that? We need every single Sunday the good Lord gives us, not to celebrate past reformation moments, but rather to ask God to re-orient us toward the gospel today, because there are indeed many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic, confused, and anxious minds can take us.

Luther himself was horrified when he heard people referring to themselves as “Lutherans.”

I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? … St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. … I have not been and will not be a master. Along with the church I have the one … teaching of Christ who alone is our master. Matt. 23:8.[7]

When I heard the news of the deadly truck attack in New York city, my heart broke and it broke again when I read about the victims of the attack, particularly the group of guys from Argentina who had planned this big reunion trip for thirty years to celebrate their friendship.

My heart broke for them and for us, for all the violence, the hatred, the fear, the stupidity, the callousness, the recklessness and hopelessness that flood in on us relentlessly from every side, threatening to undo us.

At some point I remembered a line from a medieval chant, In the midst of life we are surrounded by death. The line just kept playing in my head; and then I remembered Brother Martin who stared down hell and all devils and declared the gospel truth, “In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.”[8]

May God grant us grace to believe it and live it: In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.


[1] Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Phil 1:1

[2] Hebr 12:1

[3] Wishful Thinking, 102.

[4] Weavings, September – October 1988, p. 34

[5] Dtn 6:6-9


[7] Admonition Against Insurrection, 1522

[8] See Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), 330.

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Love your Nazi neighbor?

Somebody in the Jewish community, hundreds of years ago, sat down to count all the commandments of God. We don’t know who it was, or when and where, nor how long it took, but the count became part of Rabbinic teaching: there are 613 commandments.[1] Somebody else determined that there are 365 you-shall-not’s (one for each day of the year) and 268 you-shall’s (one for each bone of the human body), and the numbers don’t add up, but the numbers aren’t the point. We are to know God’s will and word in our bones, head to toe, with our whole being, and we are to live God’s commandments faithfully every day of our life.

When I try to visualize 613 commandments I don’t see some 120 tablets of stone, I see a tree. I see a big tree with a massive trunk, thick branches, tender twigs, and leaves in various shapes and shades of green. I see a tree, rooted in the heavens, with its branches reaching into the remotest corners of the earth, touching every imaginable moment of human life – birth and death, food and drink, what to wear, when to work and rest, how to worship, how to raise children, all of it. But who can remember all 613? And who can apply them faithfully in every circumstance?

Teachers and sages were often asked to summarize the commandments in a succinct teaching: What is the essence of our faithfulness to God?[2] Is there one commandment that represents the trunk of the tree? Can we identify one commandment in which all the others come together? Is there a way to comprehend God’s will in its entirety by embracing the tree near its root?

Rabbi Aqiba said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself; this is the great principle of Torah.”[3] The Apostle Paul makes a similar statement in his writings. In his letter to the Galatians we read, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”[4] And in Romans, Paul declares, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”[5] The whole law summed up in a single commandment is the trunk of the tree from which all other branches emerge. Many Jewish and Christian teachers gave similar answers, identifying the demands love makes on us as the heart of God’s law. Other voices urged greater caution, insisting that all commandments were of equal importance and that any attempt to rank or summarize them was presumptuous. What did Jesus say?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.[6]

Every last little detail of the law and the prophets matters, he insists, but he also calls his opponents hypocrites for giving to God a tithe of every herb from their kitchen garden, but neglecting the more important matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith.[7] Even the smallest stroke of a pen in the law matters, but woe to us if our attention to honoring God with our dill, mint and parsley keeps us from addressing injustice in our communities and the great hunger for mercy and faith.

When we ask Jesus, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” he doesn’t name just one. There are two, and the two are one. They are different, and yet they belong inseparably together: Love God with your whole being and love your neighbor as yourself. The tree that is rooted in the heavens has the love of God pulsating through it. Love flows through the trunk and into every branch, into every twig and sprig and leaf: every commandment, even the smallest letter and stroke of a pen pulses and beats with that love. As creatures made in the image of God and called to live in covenant with God we are to know this love in our bones and live it every day in every aspect of our life.

How can I know this love in my bones? How do I love someone whom I can neither see nor touch? I trust the word, I trust the promise, I trust the One who made it. I come to know myself and every human being made in the image of God as God’s beloved. I come to know the world in its brokenness as embraced and held by God’s faithful, unsentimental, unrelenting, and vulnerable love. Loving God is our free response to the One who made us in love together with all things, who is redeeming us in love, and who is bringing all of life to completion in one community of love. Loving God involves our whole being – our wonder, our trust, our intellect, our will, our desire, our hands and feet, our neighbor – yes, our neighbor, because we cannot be who we are made to be without each other. Douglas Hare writes,

Warm feelings of gratitude may fill our consciousness as we consider all that God has done for us, but it is not warm feelings that [the commandment to love God] demands of us but rather stubborn, unwavering commitment. Similarly, to love our neighbor, including our enemies, does not mean that we must feel affection for them. To love the neighbor is to imitate God by taking their needs seriously.[8]

How do you love your Nazi neighbor? I have asked myself for years. How do you love angry white men with their arms raised, giving the Hitler salute, shouting ‘blood and soil’ in the streets of Charlottesville and Shelbyville? David Brooks wrote on Monday about a series of experiences over the past two weeks that left the impression that everybody on earth is having the same conversation: How do you engage with fanatics? There was the guy at a baseball game, unleashing a 10-minute profanity-strewn tirade at Brooks and his family. Then there were the students at the University of North Carolina at Asheville debating whether extremists should be allowed to speak on campus. Then he went to Madrid, where a number of Spaniards told him that the leaders of the Catalan independence movement were so radical there was no way to reason with them. Then he went to London where he was with pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit activists trying to have a civil conversation with one another. Everywhere he went, the scenes were so very similar. The only way to confront fanaticism, Brooks wrote — agreeing with an argument Stephen Carter made in a book twenty years ago — the only way to confront fanaticism is with love.[9]

It’s not a twenty-year-old argument; the commandment is much older. Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[10]

How do you love a fanatic? When you have a chance to talk to one, do it. Save your arguments, you won’t convince him. Listen to what he has to say, ask questions, hear him out, give him a sense that you heard him. On my way home from Shelbyville yesterday, the TED radio hour was on WPLN, and I was listening to a conversation Guy Raz was having with Celeste Headlee, a radio host and author from Georgia.

“We need to start actually talking to one another, not at one another,” she said.

And Raz asked, “At this point in our history, a lot of people have a hard time talking, and exchanging ideas and hearing other points of view. So where do you even start?”

And Headlee responded, “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. There have been people who were able to have productive, and respectful, and human, warm conversations with others whose views were absolutely repugnant to them.” And then she talked about Xernona Clayton and Calvin Craig. Xernona Clayton, a civil-rights activist, and Calvin Craig, a grand dragon in the KKK. They met, and over the course of months, they would just have conversations, and then he announced — he had a press conference and said, “I’m leaving the KKK; my mind has been changed by Xernona Clayton.”

Headlee said, “I’ve spoken with Xernona a few times, and she said, ‘I didn’t try to change his mind; I just listened to him.’”[11]

There were some two hundred Nazis in Shelbyville yesterday, which changes the conversation significantly. Hope and I and a good number of colleagues weren’t there to listen to their hateful chants and repugnant slogans. But we weren’t there to drown out their shouts with even louder, angrier ones either. And so we stood across the street from them and we sang.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine… Here in Shelbyville, I’m gonna let it shine… Murfreesboro too, I’m gonna let it shine… Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine…

We sang for two hours. Soon and very soon. Jesus loves the little children. O come, O come Emmanuel. Be thou my vision. I’ll fly away. We are one in the spirit. Marching to Zion. Victory in Jesus. Come thou fount of every blessing. And many more hymns and songs. We sang for two hours; we sang until they left. We sang of God’s vision of life amid the shouting; that’s how we loved our Nazi neighbors.

God loves the world, broken as it is by the power of sin, and it is God’s will that the world be whole. We grow up and live in this world, broken as it is by the power of sin. We are made in the image of God, but the world has a way of shaping us in its own distorted likeness and convincing us that this is who we are. And so we don’t know who we are, who we really are, until we know that we are loved and made for love of God and neighbor, every last one of us. Until we are all recreated in the image and likeness of Christ and nothing but the steady heartbeat of God’s love shapes our life together.


[1]Tanhuma 16b: “R. Simlai has said: Six hundred and thirteen commandments were spoken to Moses on Sinai; then David came and brought them to eleven [Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors; in whose eyes the wicked are despised, but who honor those who fear the Lord; who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent. Those who do these things shall never be moved (Psalm 15:2-5)]; Isaiah brought them to six [Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, who despise the gain of oppression, who wave away a bribe instead of accepting it, who stop their ears from hearing of bloodshed and shut their eyes from looking on evil, they will live on the heights (Isaiah 33:15)]; Micah brought them to three [What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)]; Amos brought them to two [Seek me and live; but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beer-sheba (Amos 5:4)]; Habakkuk brought them to one [Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)].”

[2] Sometimes the question was frivolous: Once a heathen came to R. Shammai and said to him, “I’ll become a convert if your can teach me the whole of Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai became angry and drove him off with a tool he had in his hand [I hope it was a pen and not a hatchet!]. He came to R. Hillel with the same proposition. Hillel said to him, “Whatever you dislike, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study [i.e., learn the commentary]” (b. Sabb. 31a).

[3] Kedoshim 4:12

[4] Galatians 5:14

[5] Romans 13:10

[6] Matthew 5:17-20

[7] See Matthew 23:23

[8] Douglas Hare, “Matthew,” Interpretation Commentaries, p. 260.

[9] David Brooks in the NYT Oct 23, 2017

[10] Matthew 5:43-44


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Howard Jacobson writes about fashion for a British newspaper. This is from a recent column of his:

At the opera the other day, I was suddenly struck by my conspicuousness: I was the only man there wearing a suit and tie. Or at least the only man in my row wearing a suit and tie. I checked out the other men during the [intermission] and, yep, only me.

Just so there’s no confusion, this was an evening performance (not a rehearsal) at a major opera house (not the back of a pub) of a major opera – Mozart, for God’s sake! – in early autumn. So, no special pleading on the grounds of heat. … What excuse did they have for not wearing suits?

I accept that I happen to like wearing suits … but this is about more than what a man happens to like himself in. This is about the efforts one should make to commemorate the specialness of an occasion, to ensure that every hour of the day is not like every other. Dressing up, we call it. Up. The preposition tells you all you need to know. We dress up not to succumb to down.

The curse that’s fallen on men’s tailoring is leisurewear. I won’t lie: I didn’t see a single man wearing a tracksuit, exactly, but I did see several wearing [sneakers]. So here’s a question: why, where the men were companioned by women, hadn’t the women forbidden them to leave home until they’d changed into something more celebratory both of the occasion and of them? For the women hadn’t come to the opera looking as though they’d just rolled in from losing again at the [soccer match]. No, they strutted in their feather shrugs, glimmered in their silky maxi dresses, towered on their killer heels. They were perfumed. They were bejewelled. They quivered in every sequin to the music. The only bum fashion note they struck was the man on their arm.[1]

Jacobson suggested they take a lesson from Lysistrata and withhold certain pleasures from the man on their arm. He didn’t suggest that the ushers bind the t-shirt-wearing offenders hand and foot and throw them into the outer darkness where there’s no Mozart, only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

In chapter 6 of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches,

Do not worry about your body, what you will wear. Is not the body more than clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet, I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?[2]

Jesus teaches us of little faith not to worry but to trust God who knows us and loves us to provide for us. I don’t know how to square that with the question from chapter 22, where the king turns to one of the guests at the wedding banquet and says, “Friend” — and it doesn’t sound friendly at all — “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?” What happened to “consider the lilies”? Are the guests supposed to come to the king’s banquet dressed like Solomon in all his glory after all? “Do not worry about your body, what you will wear…” — I don’t know, I’m a little bit worried, I’m as speechless as the underdressed fellow at the wedding. In the parable, the kingdom of heaven is compared to a wedding hall full of people, and then the king comes in and notices one guest who is not wearing the proper attire – how can you hear that and not worry, “That poor fellow, why wouldn’t that be me?” And could somebody please tell me what I’m supposed to wear to the wedding banquet of the king’s son?

I love the part of the story where the servants go out on the streets, all the way to the ends of the realm, and they invite everyone to come, good and bad, and I love the king’s generosity in inviting people like us, people who had never dreamed of being included in this kind of a party — but whereas before we never had to worry about how to get in, now we fret and agonize over what to wear so as not to get thrown out! Instead of trusting God who will clothe those of little faith, we worry about the dress code for the great kingdom banquet. What could it be? The hairshirt of penance? The mantle of prophecy? The robe of righteousness? The sweaty T-shirt from last year’s mission trip? The servant’s towel, still wet from washing feet, wrapped around the waist? You are looking at a closet full of options, but you don’t know what to wear.

Perhaps you heard the story about 9-year-old Cady Mansell from St. John, Indiana. Like Howard Jacobson, she likes suits, and she proudly wears her them, complete with suspenders and a bow tie, for school pictures, daddy-daughter dances, and to mass every Sunday. But when it was time for her first Holy Communion, the priest told her parents that Cady could not participate if she wore a suit. Cady’s mom felt the newly issued dress code requiring all girls to wear long sleeve white dresses was created to single her daughter out. “He said we’re raising our daughter wrong for not making her dress in a feminine way,” Mansell said. “Cady just wants to wear pants while worshipping the Lord and receiving the Eucharist with her classmates.” But when the first communion ceremony began, Cady was not allowed to participate.[3] She was excluded for not wearing the right kind of outfit — but at least she knew exactly what the dress code was, wrong as it was.

Some readers of Matthew have suggested that the wedding robe is a metaphor for acts of justice and compassion in which the faith of those who have been called to enter the kingdom becomes visible and tangible. They point to passages like Matthew 7:21 where Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” But that doesn’t change the fact that in the story we heard today worries threaten to overshadow the joy of having been invited to the great banquet.

We’re just three weeks away from the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. Luther famously was worried sick about how there could ever be enough cloth to cover himself, let alone dress up, if the material of the wedding robe were his own deeds of righteousness. In his worries, the shadows of the outer darkness eclipsed the light of joyful expectation. The happy shout from Psalm 30, “You have clothed me with joy!” — no longer remembered. Forgotten the joyful assurance in the words of the prophet, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God, for [you have] clothed me with the garments of salvation, [you have] covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”[4]

Perhaps you noticed that one key character in the story remains entirely invisible and silent. The story is about a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son, but the son never makes an appearance. Matthew tells us the good news of Jesus Christ as the story of Immanuel, God is with us, but in the parable of the wedding banquet, Jesus Immanuel is nowhere to be seen.[5] Where is Jesus in this frightful story? If the Jesus we know from the gospel of Matthew showed up at this wedding banquet, where would you look for him? You know he’s not at the bar with his friends, blissfully unaware of what is going on or just not interested – that’s not the Jesus we know. You know he’s not sitting at the head table, smiling, chatting with the in-laws, and waiting for the guests to take their seats and the banquet to begin. There is only one place in this story where the Jesus we know would be found: by the side of the poor bloke who was seriously underdressed and didn’t know what to say. We would find Jesus right next to him, so close that you could barely tell the two apart. And Jesus would take off his own robe and place it on the shoulders of the speechless guest. The Jesus we know is the one who was himself stripped and thrown into the outer darkness while the soldiers cast lots for his clothes at the foot of the cross.[6]

The truth is, we all stand naked before the living God. But just as God made garments for Adam and Eve and clothed them before they had to leave the garden, so God has provided a robe for us to wear as we enter the kingdom. We are not called to the closet to choose the outfit that is just right for the occasion. We are chosen to wear the precious robe Christ has woven for us with his life, with grace and truth, forgiveness, freedom, and the challenge of ever wider, fearless love. We are called and chosen to come to the feast dressed in Christ, head to toe. Paul says it quite concisely in his letter to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”[7] And in the letter to the Colossians the fabric is described with great love for detail,

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meakness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other (…) Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.[8]

We come to the great banquet, dressed in the love of Christ.

Nothing less will do, nothing more is needed.


[1] Howard Jacobson

[2] See Matthew 6:25-29


[4] Isaiah 61:10

[5] See Matthew 1:23

[6] Matthew 27:27-37

[7] Galatians 3:27

[8] Colossians 3:12-14

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Violence in the vineyard

Five years ago, it was in December, a young man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and killed twenty children and six adults. It broke our hearts. We had no words for the pain and grief that gripped our hearts. They were so young, only six or seven years old. We had no words, but I remember many of us still had some hope that perhaps semi-automatic weapons would be taken off the market or that use of large capacity clips would be limited to the military. For twenty-six weeks, every Sunday, we lit a candle and remembered one of the victims, spoke their names in God’s house, so our hearts’ attention wouldn’t just be a reflection of the news cycle. But nothing happened with regard to the country’s gun laws. Last summer, a gunman killed 49 people and injured 58 in an Orlando nightclub, making it the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history. But nothing happened, and the sad record lasted only a year. On Monday in Las Vegas, a gunman killed 58 people and injured more than 500. I want to say, I can’t believe it, but I can. I have witnessed it again and again: the heart-breaking news, followed by hollow statements that “now is not the time to talk about gun control measures,” followed by inaction and the next outrage pushing the topic from the headlines. I expect we will soon have to thank the NRA for letting our lawmakers ban open sale of bump stocks that allow a semi-automatic weapon to fire at nearly the rate of a machine gun.[1]

Every day this past week, the words kept playing in my head, though I could only whisper them,

Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

And when I whisper, “lead me on, lead me home” I don’t mean just me, but all of us in this very troubled country, in this very troubled world. The violence, the fear, the deluge of devastating news are draining our souls, and we crave the life-giving spirit of God to fill us anew.

The gospel reading for this Sunday doesn’t look like the place to go at first or even at second glance. Matthew has painted a scene of growing tension between Jesus and the religious leadership in Jerusalem. Jesus has just told them that tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom of God ahead of them because tax collectors and prostitutes understand the meaning of repentance. And now he says, “Listen to another parable,” and he tells them the story of a landowner who planted a vineyard. It’s a story they know from Isaiah, except that Jesus adds a twist by adding tenants.

In Isaiah’s vineyard song, the landowner’s frustration grew because the choice vines he had carefully planted and maintained didn’t produce the kind of fruit he expected. Instead of justice, Israel produced bloodshed, instead of righteousness, the cries of the poor. Isaiah’s vineyard song was a love song turned into an angry lament of disappointed hope, with the careful, creative actions of digging, planting and building being replaced by the destructive actions of devouring, trampling, and laying waste.

In Jesus’ version of the old story, the owner leased the vineyard to tenants. And when it was time to gather the fruit, and he sent his slaves to collect his produce, violence erupted. The tenants seized the slaves, beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Just about everybody in Jesus’ audience knows that he is talking about the prophets who came looking for the fruit of righteousness among God’s people. The chief priests and elders are familiar with words like these by the prophet Jeremiah,

From the day that your ancestors came out of the land of Egypt until this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day; yet they did not listen to me, or pay attention, but they stiffened their necks. They did worse than their ancestors did.[2]

The owner in Jesus’ parable sent other slaves, more than the first, and the tenants treated them the same. It is the old story of the people and their leaders refusing to heed the warnings of the prophets and repent. Finally the owner sent his son – and here the story becomes transparent as an allegory of Jesus’ own fate in Jerusalem. The son is thrown out and killed by the tenants who imagine themselves as future owners of the vineyard.

This is where Jesus steps out of the story and asks the temple leaders, “Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” And without missing a beat, they respond, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” Violence is woven into the fabric of this little story, turn by turn, as it is woven into the fabric of history.

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” the leaders reply with firm conviction, with the ancient logic of violence against violence, woven into the fabric of human history, turn by turn, ever since Adam and Eve left God’s garden, where they were meant to be tenants to till it and keep it.

When Matthew told this story, the fledgling Christian community was beginning to separate from mainstream Jewish life. In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans, both groups tried to make sense of the traumatic experience, and Matthew saw the violent devastation as divine punishment for the temple leadership’s role in Jesus’ death – and that perspective colored how he told the stories of Jesus’ conflict with the leaders. Some of the scenes, including this one, sound like he’s not only talking about Jesus’ debates with the chief priests and elders, but just as much about the tensions between his own small Christian community and the Pharisees who tried to rebuild Jewish life after the loss of the temple. They were separating, and we don’t tell our best stories about each other when we are going through a separation.

Matthew has Jesus tell the chief priests and Pharisees, “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom,” and the people he appears to have in mind are the believers in his small Christian community, made up of Jews and Gentiles. He seems to relish the moment when Jesus tells the leaders who saw themselves as having a God-given right to enter the kingdom of God that tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom ahead of them. And he seems to relish even more when Jesus tells the Jewish leaders that any prerogative they thought they had to inherit the kingdom would be taken away from them and given to a people that actually produces the fruits of God’s reign. That was an empowering thought for a small community of Jesus followers who suffered hardship, rejection and perhaps even persecution by the majority but when the Christian movement went from underdog to most-favored-cult status in the Empire, these words took on a very different flavor. Now they began to be heard as saying, “The kingdom of God has been taken away from the Jews and given to the church.” And that kind of thinking, the idea that the church had succeeded and replaced Israel as the people of God, led to centuries of violence against Jews, all the way to the Nazi extermination camps and the fruit of terror, death and ashes.

“Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

“He will put those wretches to a miserable death,” the leaders replied, perhaps because they couldn’t imagine any other response, just like we often cannot imagine a different response in a society saturated with violence.

But there is a way that leads out of the trap. The most interesting character in this parable is the owner of the vineyard. He doesn’t say much; his only line is, “They will respect my son.” But the tenants didn’t; we didn’t. For as long as we can remember, we have looked for ways not to be God’ tenants with sacred responsibilities toward the land, its owner, and toward our fellow tenants, but rather to be owners ourselves.

The parable ends with the death of the son, and then the Son asks us who have heard him tell it, to imagine what the owner of the vineyard might do. But the owner is free to write his own ending. And he has done so by raising Jesus from the dead. God’s response to our violence is not more violence overwhelming and inescapable violence, imagined to forever put an end to all violence but life; God’s response to our violence is life in the distinct shape of Jesus. God invites us to follow the path of repentance. God invites all whose hearts thirst for God’s life-giving spirit to follow Jesus.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, he has told us, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.[3]

Take my hand, precious Lord, take us home.



[2] Jeremiah 7:25-26; see also 1 Kings 19:10; Nehemiah 9:26.

[3] Matthew 5:3,5.

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To the tune of grace

Oliver Sacks believed that the brain is the most incredible thing in the universe. He was a neurologist and a prolific writer who told us about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and other wondrous tales from the world inside our heads. I was clicking through some websites on music and memory, and in an article about dementia and the magic of iPods, the author quoted Sacks:

The past which is not recoverable in any other way seems to be sort of ‘embedded in amber,’ if you will, in music. Having severe dementia means one can remember very little of one’s past. But one will always remember familiar songs that one has listened to and sung. The parts of the brain that respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory, emotion, and mood … In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past; you have lost your story; you have lost your identity to a considerable extent. You can at least get some feel of it and regain it, for a little while, with familiar music. People can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while.[1]

The story was about a social worker in New York, his name is Dan Cohen, who created personalized iPod playlists for people in elder care facilities, hoping to reconnect them with the music they love. Some of you may have seen the short video of Henry, an elderly Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home it has been viewed over 2 million times. He starts out slumped over and unresponsive but undergoes a remarkable transformation as he listens to music on a pair of headphones, music from when he was a young man. He starts humming along; he sits up in his  wheelchair, and his arms, his head, his entire upper body is dancing; his eyes are wide open, he sings along and when the music ends, he is able to answer questions and talk about his youth. Cohen calls it an “awakening response.”[2] Awakening to who you are amid the thick fog of memory loss. Of course I thought immediately about going to work on my nursing home playlist, just to make sure nobody would try to help me get in touch with myself by playing Bee Gees or Boney M – that could trigger a serious meltdown in old Thomas.

I wanted to know more about music and memory, because Psalm 78 is a song about remembering. “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart,” we read in Deuteronomy.[3] Remembering is essential for God’s people in order to be God’s people, and so is telling the story and singing the song.

Psalm 78 is a remarkable song, because it is largely about memory loss and forgetting. And it’s a long song, the second longest in the book, we only heard a snippet from it and we only heard it read, we didn’t sing it. And I wonder if we will remember, if we don’t sing the song, but only hear talk about snippets of the lyrics… Psalm 78 is a long song recalling the wilderness tests in a recurring pattern: there are the great deeds of God’s liberation and wonders of God’s provision; then there is the failure of the people to respond with trust and faithfulness to God’s faithfulness; which stirs God’s anger and yet in the end, at the conclusion of each of the glorious and sorry episodes, the singers recall the triumph of God’s compassion.

“We failed the wilderness test,” the singers of the psalm confess, “what was in our hearts was lack of trust and greed, and what poured out was grumbling and complaining.”

Psalm 78 a remarkable song, because the ancestors who started writing its lyrics didn’t photoshop the desert scenes to make themselves look a little better.

“We failed the test,” they sang and taught the next generation to sing. We forgot what God had done, and the miracles the Lord had shown us, who divided the sea and let us pass through it and made the waters stand like a heap; who led us in the daytime with a cloud, and through the night with a fiery light; who split rocks open in the wilderness, and gave us drink abundantly as from the deep, making streams come out of the rock and causing waters to flow down like rivers.[4] We failed the test. The promises were new and we had everything to learn then; everything to learn. What did we learn, you ask? We learned to sing of the faithfulness of God. We learned to tell, one generation to the next, the praiseworthy deeds and power of the Lord, the wonderful works God has done. We learned the song for ourselves and for them so they would put their trust in God, and not forget the deeds of God, but keep God’s commandments and not be like their ancestors, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, and whose spirit was not faithful to God.[5]

It is a humbling exercise to pass on a tradition that includes yourself and your generation among those who failed it, but such honesty may well be the most profound proclamation of God’s faithfulness. Israel’s parents and teachers didn’t tell their young ones, “We did everything just right back in the day, and you must learn to do the same.” No, they told them, “We have failed again and again in living as God’s people, but God has been faithful. We failed to remember God’s promise, we failed to obey the commandments of life, we failed to do justice, we didn’t love kindness, we didn’t walk humbly with our God, we didn’t remember when it mattered most but the One whose steadfast love endures forever remembered us.”

Psalm 78 is a maskil of Asaph, a teaching song written and composed by Asaph; but while it may have been born in the choir room, in a corner of the temple, it was conceived in a long struggle for freedom and against oppression, a struggle against hunger and thirst, against fear and despair, a struggle to live as God’s people. Israel’s trust in God was found at the bottom of all they could imagine, at the end of their strength, and at the very edge of what they could bear: nothing left to lean on but the promise of God. “The desert is only the real desert when it is too big for you,” wrote Mary Boulding, “when you do not know your way and have no reliance except God.”[6] When you live on water from a rock and bread from heaven and the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.

The Hebrew slaves who followed Moses into the wilderness were pioneers of faith who went into the unknown much like their ancestors Abraham and Sarah who left all that was familiar to them in response to God’s promise. The promise was new then and it is new for every generation as we begin and continue the journey with our God. They set out and began to sing the song, every generation adding a line about their own shaky fidelity and the wondrous faithfulness of God.

One of the lines is a question, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?”[7] It sounds innocent enough, like the kind of question a child might ask after drinking water from a rock in the desert. But the ancestors knew it wasn’t wide-eyed wonder that gave rise to the question; it was greed; it wasn’t hunger, but the desire for more; it wasn’t lack, but the craving of never enough. The ancestors remembered a banquet of overabundance and overindulgence that turned into a horrifying afterparty of wrath and death.[8]

“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” The line stuck with me because these days the whole world seems lost in the wilderness. It struck a chord when I read Oliver Sacks’s words,

In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past; you have lost your story; you have lost your identity to a considerable extent.

It’s like we’re all waiting for someone to put a headset on our ears and play the song that will help us remember who we are and awaken us. It’s like we’re all waiting for someone to prepare a table for us in the wilderness to bring us together and teach our hearts to fear and not be afraid, to trust and sing and move on together. Someone to prepare a table for all of us who have failed each other so many times in all our loveless ways, in the merciless wilderness of a world our sins have made.

The song is older than any of our billboard charts. The lyrics are the stories of our lives and wanderings, the stories of our getting lost and getting stuck, and verse after verse, the last word is the triumph of grace. God prevails against our faithlessness. The cross shows us how far God is willing to go to embrace us in love, to suffer our violent rejection, and forgive us – all to reclaim sinful and forgetful humanity. God has spread a table in the wilderness, for us and for all, that we may taste and see life in fullness, and remember to sing the song to the tune of grace.



[2]; see also

[3] Deuteronomy 8:2

[4] See Psalm 78:11-16

[5] Psalm 78:7-8

[6] Mary Boulding, The Coming of God, 38.

[7] Ps 78:19

[8] Ps 78:21-31

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Daily bread

All they could remember was Pharaoh’s bread. And the deeper they journeyed into the wilderness, the sweeter Pharaoh’s bread became in their memory. It had been six weeks since they had left Egypt, and supplies were running low, dangerously low. The parents started skipping meals so there would be a little more for the kids — enough was a word they hadn’t used in a while. And the lower the fill line sank in the jars in which they kept their grain and oil, the bigger and fuller the fleshpots of Egypt grew in their memory. They didn’t remember the ruthless taskmasters or the cruel conditions in the brickyards. All they could think of was Pharaoh’s bread.

“What good is the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey, when we starve on the way there?” they asked Moses. “You brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole congregation with hunger, didn’t you?” they said, united by their hunger and their anxiety. So deep was their hopelessness, they fantasized out loud, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt …”

In a strange reversal, Pharaoh, the master of the house of bondage, began to look like the giver and sustainer of life, and the Lord who had redeemed them, like a purveyor of death. They didn’t have much experience with this God who had claimed them as ‘my people’ in the powerful confrontation with the king of Egypt and had led them through the sea. Now they were no longer part of the system of labor that had fed them in the past, but they didn’t know what would be next. They were like newborn babies in the wilderness of freedom, and like babies they complained when they were hungry, and the Lord heard their complaining and said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you…”[1] Bread from heaven… who had ever heard of such a thing? They knew bread grew up from the earth. Generation after generation, they had labored long hours in the hot fields of Egypt. They had built the storage cities of Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh with their large store-houses, they knew bread didn’t rain from heaven.[2]

All the people could remember was Pharaoh’s bread—but now they would eat bread from heaven and learn the principles of the divine economy. “Each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day,” the Lord said to Moses. “In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.”[3]

‘Each day, enough for that day, for each’ was the first principle of the divine economy. In the morning, when the dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.

“What is it?” they asked.

“It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” Moses said.[4]

So they went out to gather it, some gathering more, some less. But when they measured it, there was neither lack nor surplus. Each day, there was enough for that day, for each of them. Those who tried to hoard manna from one day to the next discovered it was rotten. They once had built the storehouses for Pharaoh’s economy, now they learned to trust the God of daily bread.

The second principle of the divine economy was rest. On the sixth day they each gathered a double portion and put aside what was left over until morning. And on the seventh day they rested and ate what they had prepared the day before. They had never tasted rest before. In the world they had lived in and known, there was only the endless repetition of daily quotas; rest was a privilege of kings and queens. But the God of their ancestors who had led them out of Egypt invited this fledgling community of former slaves to share the honor of this divine prerogative.  The escapees from the house of bondage were given a new identity as people of God who trust the abundance of God’s gifts and enter the joy of Sabbath rest. The wilderness was an in-between place, an in-between time, where their lives were reordered from the world of Pharaoh to life as God’s people in the promised land. In the wilderness, in the rhythms of provision, labor, and rest, they learned to trust the fidelity of God and began to let themselves be shaped into a community of fidelity in grateful response to God.

This is not the a-long-long-time-ago, in-a-country-far-far-away kind of story. It speaks directly to our own struggles: how to receive the gifts of God without hoarding; how to live in the Creator’s rhythm of work and rest; how to know the meaning of enough measured not only by our own needs and wants, but by our neighbors’ lack of food and work and shelter and freedom and rest. Our economies more closely resemble Pharaoh’s house of bondage than the wilderness polity of the God of the Exodus who faithfully gives ‘each day, enough for that day, for each’ and invites all ‘to rest in Sabbath joy.’ Not surprisingly, we hear echoes of these same principles in Jesus’ kingdom parable. The landowner defies economic common sense by making sure each worker receives enough for that day, revealing a kingdom governed by grace.

In recent weeks our daily routines have been repeatedly disrupted by news of hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, and hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from violence. We can’t fully fathom the magnitude of loss and need so many of our neighbors are experiencing. We can only begin to imagine the wilderness in which they find themselves; the pictures and reports can be overwhelming. But then we hear stories like the one of the four bakers who were finishing their shift just when hurricane Harvey hit Houston; they were trapped in the bakery. The roads were flooded, but the power was still on. So they kept baking through the night. And the next morning, many neighborhoods were still flooded, and they kept baking all day, turning nearly two tons of flour into bread to feed people in shelters across the city. They didn’t stop until all the flour in the bakery was gone. In a moment of disruption and destruction on a massive scale, they took the gifts of God and used them to feed their hungry neighbors. And that is just one of who knows how many stories of a different kind of economy emerging in the wilderness—an economy not defined by the relentless commodification of everything, but by neighborliness and shared abundance.

I am encouraged by your generous response to our appeal to help assemble 50 clean-up buckets – given what has happened that may sound like the proverbial drop in the bucket; but to 50 families in Florida or Puerto Rico who are returning to their homes that’s one more tangible reminder that they are not alone, not left to fend for themselves.

It was in the wilderness that God’s people learned to pray, “give us this day our daily bread,” and it was in the wilderness that God’s people began to sing, “all we have needed thy hand has provided.” Morning by morning, when the dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground.

“What is it?” they asked.

“It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat,” said Moses.

Each day, there was enough for that day, for each of them. Each day, there will be enough for that day, for all of us.

[1] Exodus 16:4.

[2] Exodus 1:11,14.

[3] Exodus 16:4-5.

[4] Exodus 16:13-15

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In all things love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Based on Mark Reasoner’s version at

[2] 1 Cor 10:23

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

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

[5] Rom 13:8

[6] Rom 12:1

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

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

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Waking from sleep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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To know yourself addressed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I will be with you,” God promised.

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

“I am who I am,” God responded.

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ex 2:13-22

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

[4] Ex 4:1,10,13

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