Surrender to love

What do you do when you want to see Jesus? “Hey, Google, show me Jesus.” I tried that, I wasn’t impressed. Perhaps you have better luck with Siri or Alexa?

It’s not terribly difficult to find pictures of Jesus. I did a quick image search, without any filters, and the results were, well, let’s say, interesting. Perhaps you’d be better off getting one of those big, glossy art books from the library, Jesus through the Centuries, or some such title, with pictures of early drawings in the catacombs, medieval book illuminations, icons, renaissance oil paintings, frescoes, statues and murals from cities around the globe. All those representations will tell you how people of different times and places have seen Jesus in their imagination. I expect they did what most of us do when we think about seeing Jesus: they had a collection of pictures in their minds, they were somewhat familiar with the stories about Jesus in the Bible, and they went ahead and created a composite of all those impressions. When you create an image of Jesus in your mind, it’s always a mash-up of what you’ve seen, what you’ve come to know about him, and how you think he looks at you.

To celebrate the new millennium, the National Catholic Reporter invited people to submit original artwork to answer the question, “What would Jesus Christ look like in the year 2000?” The contest was a huge success: The panel of judges received 1,678 representations of Jesus from1,004 artists in 19 countries from six continents.[1]

The winning entry was “Jesus of the People,” by Janet McKenzie, age 51, of Island Pond, VT.

“The painting simply came through me,” she said. “I feel as though I am only a vehicle for its existence.” McKenzie said her work has always walked a “spiritual path.” In the early 1990s, however, she began to feel discomfort with the art she had been producing, mostly images of white women.

“I realized that my nephew, a mixed race African-American of 9 or 10 living in Los Angeles, would never be able to recognize himself in my work,” McKenzie said. “I determined to be more varied, to make a racially inclusive statement.”

Since that time, McKenzie said she has worked with a variety of racial types, and her commitment to inclusivity shines through “Jesus of the People.”

“I decided I would use a female model,” she said, “to incorporate, once and for all, women, who had been so neglected and left out, into this image of Jesus.” The model was an African-American woman from her neighborhood. Despite wearing a crown of thorns, McKenzie’s Jesus does not seem anguished.

“It’s a total acceptance of his fate, and that’s what the painting is about – acceptance,” she said. “I want to remind people of the importance of loving one another. I hope people are able to go to the essence of the work, which is kindness and peace.”[2] This is the Jesus McKenzie sees and wants to show us.

It was on Passover, John tells us, in Jerusalem, when some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” People had been talking about him. Over in Bethany, they said, only days ago, he called a dead man out of the tomb, and he was dead for sure, he had been in that tomb for four days. People were interested, people were curious, and Jesus’ opponents said, with worry in their voices, “Look, the world has gone after him!” (12:19). And as though to prove them right, some Greeks came to Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip told Andrew, and then he and Andrew went and told Jesus, and Jesus’ response Jesus’ response leaps out of the story and addresses every last one of us. “The hour has come,” he says, “for the Son of Man to be glorified.”

We’re never told whether these Greeks got their wish. The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. This is where you go, if you wish to see Jesus, John seems to be telling us. He paints a picture for us, a picture of the moment – the hour, he calls it when it is fully revealed who Jesus is. And the first layer of that picture is a brief parable.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Falling into the earth, and giving its life, the single grain doesn’t become lifeless.

It becomes fruitful, it participates in the fruit-bearing, seed-producing, life-multiplying fullness of life. Later in the unfolding story of his final days, Jesus talks about branches that bear much fruit because they are connected to the vine. Jesus’ life bears fruit in the lives of the people who abide in him. His own life-giving, selfless love multiplies in the life of all who believe in him, all who serve and follow him.

The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the witnesses tell us – the glory of life and light, of grace and truth, the glory of God’s boundless love. With all that he is and does in the world, Jesus embodies divine love for the world, the same love that unites him and the one he calls Father. These relationships are his life: the world and all who live in it and God. Now the hour has come for the Father to glorify his name and for the Son to be glorified in death and resurrection. Now the hour has come to reveal the unbreakable bond of their love.

No matter what the forces of evil will do to Jesus, they will not take from him his love for God. He will lay down his life in free, surrendering love – surrendering not to the powers of the world, but to God and to the promise of a world where love reigns supreme, a world fully at home in the intimacy of their relationship. He will lay down his life in sovereign love for God and his friends, with his death not the tragic end of a beautiful life, but the complete gift of his beautiful life for the glory of God and the life of the world.

Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

Jesus isn’t calling us to be life-haters. He calls us to be lovers of life in the fullest sense of the word. In John, the word hate means reject, and it typically refers to what the world does to Jesus and his friends: it rejects the life Jesus embodies and proclaims, and it clings to its own definition of life as a small and isolated existence, ruled by fear and self-centered obsessions.

Those who love life and live in love in the company of Jesus will reject that stunted version of life and its hatreds. They will embrace life in communion with God.

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and the hour presents the world with an urgent choice: Will we respond with faith to the invitation to find life in communion with God? Or will we cling to the promises of the ruler of this world?

Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.

John has added another detail to his portrait of Jesus. The world and its ruler will sit in judgment and condemn Jesus to death by crucifixion. He must die because domination, violence, and death are the world’s ways under its ruler’s reign, and all that does not fit must be eliminated. And Jesus does not fit. There’s no room in this ruler’s world order for fearless truth-telling or self-less service or table-flipping temple-cleansing. Jesus can’t be silenced. Jesus can’t be bought. Jesus must die.

“If my kingdom were from this world,” Jesus later tells one of his judges, “my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over.” But his kingdom isn’t from this world. His kingdom is the end of this world.

He lets the world have its way with him. And he refuses to respond in the ruler’s own violent terms. He lays down his life and dies. He dies as though the devil were in charge. He dies as though sin, violence and fear would continue to have the last word.

McKenzie painted a picture of Jesus who shows total acceptance of his fate. But Jesus was no believer in fate. He entrusted himself completely to the love that holds this rebellious world in its wide embrace.

The cross looked for all the world like the judgment of Jesus, but it was God’s judgment of this world and its ruler. The cross revealed the institutional captivity of our religion, the violence at the heart of our justice, and our willingness to do just about anything for the sake of political convenience.

But the other side of that story, the other side of this picture in which we see Jesus as well as ourselves revealed, the other side is the deeper truth: Jesus was lifted up on the cross, he was lifted up in the resurrection, he was lifted up in the ascension and lifted up from the earth, he continued to draw all people to himself, to life in fullness, to life in communion with God. He continues to draw women, men, and children from every tribe and nation into the community of believers who participate in God’s liberating and reconciling work.

What do you do when you want to see Jesus? You follow him.

“Where I am, there will my servant be also,” he says.

You let yourself be drawn to him. You let yourself be drawn more deeply into the kingdom that is not from this world, but for the world and its life.

You renounce the ruler of this world and embrace the life of Jesus. You renounce the logic of domination, violence, and fear and you surrender in love to love. You surrender in love to the love that breathes life into dust.



[2] Please follow the link to see the picture.

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Alive with Christ

“You were dead,” the apostle writes to the Ephesians. What an odd thing to say. I don’t think I would ever have spoken these words had the apostle not made me say them. You were dead. People may say these words in the third person, “He is dead” or in the past tense, “She was already dead.” But to say, “You were dead” is rather odd, because generally we only speak to the living, to those we expect to hear our words and for whom has death ever been a past reality? We are used to thinking of death as what awaits us all, but not as a situation in the past which a person might recall when somebody tells them, “You were dead.”

The apostle wrote to Christians in Ephesus, reminding them of their life before they knew Christ, before they were baptized and became members in the body of Christ. You were dead, he writes. You were following a way of life so far removed from life, it can only be called death. You were following the course of the world. You were captive to cultural and spiritual forces that were beyond your control, powers that drained the life out of you. You were pushed and pulled by relentless currents, obedient to desires of the flesh, heeding every inclination that led away from God, aimless and helpless to extricate yourselves. You were dead.

All of us once lived like that, children of disobedience, strangers to the covenants of promise, playthings tossed around by systems, forces, trends, and fads. We were dead, and the dead can’t do anything for themselves. They are done doing anything.

Then, in v. 4, the apostle writes two words that signal the great reversal in the history of humankind, “But God.” We were dead, but God, rich in mercy and with love beyond our imagining, made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing: it is the gift of God. It’s not something you did that you can be proud of, but rather something you can only receive like life itself. We are God’s accomplishment. We have been created anew to show what God can do through Jesus Christ, and to do the good things which reflect the gracious love of God. We have been created anew to live the life of Christ as members of his body.

As a season of the church year, Lent has its beginnings in the ancient tradition of preparing candidates for baptism. For forty days, they fasted, prayed, and studied, seeking to ready themselves for entering the Christian life in the darkness before Easter morning. The opening chapters of Ephesians are widely regarded as a portion of an early baptismal liturgy, and what is being impressed on the candidates is not what they need to do, but what God has done. To enter the Christian life, we are told along with them and all who came after them, to enter the Christian life is to entrust oneself to the current of God’s grace, both as a recipient of its healing and redemptive movement and as a participant in channeling its unceasing flow to the parched places where life is distorted, fragmented and broken. To enter the Christian life is to step into the history of God’s people, to join the great cloud of witnesses who proclaim the mighty acts of God; it is to say we were in Egypt, we were in the wilderness, we were in exile, we were in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, in Antioch and Ephesus and Rome, in Wittenberg and Cane Ridge. The story of God’s people becomes our story because Jesus Christ has embraced every last one of us with compassion and forgiveness, because no one is excluded from the solidarity of his love.

In him, the reign of sin comes to an end in what at first looked like sin’s ultimate triumph yet was revealed as its demise: Christ was crucified, he died, he was buried, and he was raised and enthroned at the right hand of God.

To be a Christian, according to the testimony of our text, is to be made alive together with him. It is to be crucified with Jesus, to die with him, to be buried with him, to be raised with him and be enthroned with him. To be a Christian is to let him make his life ours just as he made our death his.

Baptism into Christ is deeply personal, but the ultimate horizon of the resurrection is cosmic in scale. In ancient mediterranean cosmologies, the universe consisted of a subterranean region, the earth and the heavens, and several layers between earth and heaven; this is what the apostle is referring to when he writes about this world and the heavenly places. Every layer of this multi-tiered universe, according to Ephesians, is inhabited and ruled by powers hostile to the purposes of God. The letter’s first audience had no trouble imagining a demonic ruler of the power of the air. We do not commonly describe that which drives us to destructive behavior against each other and ourselves as an independent power; but we know well how people can be trapped in ideologies and structures and not know it. We can be caught in deadly systems and we are and be convinced that life’s just like that, or worse, that it’s supposed to be like that. We may not need saving from the ruler of the power of the air, but we do need saving because we live in a world estranged from its maker, with myths and idols that have arrogated to themselves the place of our story and our God. And without God, without God’s story of life, we become confused about who we are and how we are to participate in the miracle of life.

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ … and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places.

In the cosmology of Ephesians, the powers that confuse us about who we are and what life is, inhabit the air between earth and the moon, hence the name, ruler of the power of the air. But Christ has been raised and seated beyond them – and we with him. This doesn’t mean we’ve been taken out of the world – obviously we haven’t. But with Christ we know who we are as God’s own, and with Christ we discover how to live as free servants of God rather than in bondage to the powers that oppress us.

For redemption in Christ to be complete, it must range as far and wide, as high and deep as the forces of evil. That it does indeed do so is the great promise of God’s vindication of the Crucified One. For all their power to cripple, control and alienate, all hostilities in the universe will not only cease ultimately, but will be reconciled.[1]

Every baptism is an act of faith, a testimony to the liberating power of the resurrection and to Christ as the revelation of what it means to be a human being. Few of us see the world the way people in antiquity did, but the image of being seated with Christ, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, still speaks to us: All that robs us of life, all that could ever get between us and the life God has intended for us and the whole creation, has been overcome by the love of God in Christ. Christ has made us his own, and through him we live in communion with God.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

When all is ended, by the grace of God, we are not what we have made of ourselves and of each other, but what God has made us. When all is ended, by the grace of God, life is not what we have made of it, but what God created it to be. So our being seated with Christ in the heavenly places doesn’t mean we have been removed from he world, spiritually or otherwise. We are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. The redeemed life is not about being rescued out of the world, but about being in the world and walking the path that has been prepared for us. Every human life has good works as its purpose, which means every person has a divine calling: to follow a way of life that reflects the mercy of God, that is to walk with Christ, to work with Christ, to be alive with Christ.

We read portions of Psalm 107 this morning; it is a song with a recurring refrain, calling on the redeemed to thank the Lord for his steadfast love. The psalm sings of people wandering in desert wastes, hungry and thirsty, their souls fainting within them.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way until they reached an inhabited town.

At first glance, that straight way is simply the shortest way out of the desert. But at second glance, we recognize that straight way as the way of life God has prepared for us to lead us from the desert wastes to the community where life flourishes.

The psalm goes on to sing of some that sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons; they fell down, with no one to help.

Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; he brought them out of darkness and gloom, and broke their bonds asunder.

At first glance, that verse is about getting out of prison. But at second glance, it is about all of us who are trapped in lives that are neither our own, nor God’s—until God breaks our bonds. Yes, we were dead through the trespasses and sins in which we once lived, but God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ. Thanks be to God.


[1] With thanks to Fred Craddock

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Articles of liberty

The late Justice Antonin Scalia once said, during oral arguments before the Supreme Court, “I think 90 percent of Americans believe in the Ten Commandments. And I bet 85 percent couldn’t tell you what the 10 are.”[1] He was probably right. The question before the court was whether certain displays of the Ten Commandments in public spaces violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. It’s a complicated question, and the Court’s rulings so far have boiled down to an equally complicated “depends.”

The Ten Commandments have not been in the headlines much recently, although the State Senate in Alabama voted again, just last week, in favor of allowing the Ten Commandments to be displayed on public property. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Gerald Dial, stressed the importance of placing the symbol on public property, including at public schools, because it could cause a potential student shooter to rethink their attack plans. “I believe that if you had the Ten Commandments posted in a prominent place in school, it has the possibility to prohibit some student from taking action to kill other students,” Dial told the Alabama Reporter. The bill proposes a constitutional amendment that would allow the Ten Commandments or other religious symbols to “be displayed in a manner that complies with constitutional requirements, including, but not limited to, being intermingled with historical or educational items, or both, in a larger display.”[2]

I don’t know if the Senator hopes that students walking by such a display in the hallway on a daily basis will over time absorb the good words or if he envisions an armed invader who might lay eyes on the words, “You shall not murder,” and suddenly realize that the plans he had been hatching in his heart went against the will of God. I honor and respect the Senator’s desire to help shape communities and individuals who respect life and law, but there are many more things he and his colleagues can do to reduce violence, things that students, parents, teachers, and law enforcement officials have supported for years.

The Ten Commandments have gained weight as cultural icons, displayed as yard signs in front of suburban homes and as stickers on the tail gates of trucks, but as texts that actually inform the moral reasoning of people and communities they don’t seem to get much play. Tom Long suggested that for many proponents of their public display, “the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society.”[3] For such an understanding of the Decalogue, the piece of granit on which the words are to be engraved cannot be too monumental. It appears that we have forgotten that the gods of Egypt and Babylon were heavy idols, and that the God Jews and Christians worship is the One who brought Israel out of Egypt and brought them back from Babylon.

What we have come to call the Ten Commandments are words of great weight, but they are not burdensome. They weren’t given to weigh people down, but to equip them for a life in freedom as people of God. They are words spoken by God to the people whom God freed from bondage. They begin with a preamble, and it doesn’t say, “I am God. Here are ten rules. Obey them.” The first word declares, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

They had escaped, and they were clear on only two things. They would no longer submit to the brick quotas of Pharaoh’s empire. And the Holy One who had freed them was the great new fact and force in their life. It was this God of liberation and promise who had demanded of Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” and now they were free. “Let my people go,” the Lord demanded, “that they may serve me.”[4] The Holy One had broken the oppressive bonds of Egypt, and now, at Sinai, God offered to make the exchange of bondage for bonding permanent in covenant – in a constitution of freedom that would allow the former slaves to flourish as God’s people in the land of God’s promise. The words God spoke at Sinai are as much declarations of freedom or articles of liberty as they are commandments:

Because the Lord is your God, you are free from serving other gods. Because the Lord is your God, you are free from the tyranny of lifeless idols. Because the Lord is your God, you are free to rest on the seventh day; free to honor covenants between generations and spouses; free to live without killing, stealing, lying, or coveting; free to live in covenant and not in bondage.

The freedom of God’s people is not spelled out as autonomy, but as loyalty to God, as a commitment to the promises and purposes of the God who brought Israel out of the house of slavery, the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The Ten Commandments aren’t a set of ten memorable and somewhat intuitive rules to make life better for everybody or to ensure greater morality in a society where many believe morality is on the decline. They belong entirely within the story and history of God’s covenant with Israel, a covenant God opened to Gentiles through Jesus, so all may know the freedom of the children of God. The commandments belong with the people who continue to tell the story, the people who continue to hear it and live it in synagogues and churches.

Posting the Ten Commandments in our children’s classrooms or in the hallways of their schools won’t help them learn that killing and stealing are wrong. But they might learn something else, something very destructive for the life of our communities. Martin Marty wrote several years ago that the fights about posting the Ten Commandments, with the first commandment ruling out the beliefs of many children in classrooms or of many adults in court, are, in the end, not about religion. “There are plenty of places to post the Ten; the reason [significant numbers of people] want them in public places … is about who belongs and who doesn’t, who gets to set the terms and who has to adhere to them.”[5] Turned into cultural icons on the walls of our schools, between the flag and the Declaration of Independence, the Ten Commandments may teach some of our children how to tell our children who are Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, “We were here first and you have to play by our rules!” As cultural icons, the Ten Commandments are in danger of becoming symbols of supremacy and oppression, the very opposite of their purpose as articles of liberty.

The display of the commandments in order to have them visible and continuously before us is a good idea, just not in court rooms, public schools, or metro offices. The best places for posting the Ten are in the settings where the mighty acts of God are proclaimed, where the story of Passover and the story of Easter are sung and told and studied, where God’s people gather to enter the story of redemption in order to live it more fully. The best places for posting the Ten are synagogues and churches.

How, then, will the commandments shape life in our schools and communities, State Senator Gerald Dial might ask, if we don’t give them a prominent place in those public spaces? The commandments impact our schools and communities through the people who receive their moral and spiritual formation in churches and synagogues, the people who hear all these words God spoke and continues to speak, the words at Sinai, the parables of the kingdom, the words of resurrection and discipleship.

God frees us from the powers that hold us in bondage – from the exploitation and abuse in Pharaoh’s brick yards to the oppression by guilt, fear, and shame. God frees us and draws us into the covenant of freedom – men, women, and children, students, parents, teachers, and state senators: Because the Lord is our God, we are free from serving other gods; we are free to participate in God’s mission of redemption and reconciliation, wherever we are.

Folks in our schools have been on my mind in recent weeks, and I’ve often thought about Calin, Duke, and Kyla, and other young people who are preparing for baptism. What does active shooter preparedness mean for followers of Jesus? They will have to sort that out, and I hope we can help them do that important work – important for them, for the church, and for the world and its future. I was reminded of going to confirmation class when I was about their age. We studied the catechism then, something that has gone out of style in Christian formation, mostly for good reasons. So, thinking about what our children and the rest of us are facing, I reread the passages dealing with the Ten Commandments, and I was touched by the wisdom and care I found expressed there. I’m reading from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 105 What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment?

A. I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor— not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture, and certainly not by actual deeds— and I am not to be party to this in others; rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself either. Prevention of murder is also why government is armed with the sword. …

Q. 106 Does this commandment refer only to murder?

A. By forbidding murder God teaches us that he hates the root of murder: envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness. In God’s sight all such are disguised forms of murder. …

Q. 107 Is it enough then that we do not murder our neighbor in any such way?

A. No. By condemning envy, hatred, and anger God wants us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient, peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly toward them, to protect them from harm as much as we can, and to do good even to our enemies.

Because the Lord is our God, we are free from serving other gods. We are free to find fullness of life as servants of God.


[1] See Dahlia Lithwick, “The Two Tablets: The Supreme Court picks through the rubble of its Ten Commandments jurisprudence”


[3] Thomas G. Long, Living by the Word, The Christian Century, March 7, 2006, 17.

[4] Ex 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3 See Walter Brueggemann, “The Commandments and Liberated, Liberating Bonding.” Journal For Preachers 10, no. 2, 1987, 15-24.

[5] Context, August 2005

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Laughing with the Lord of life

Genesis is a book of beginnings. The beginning of heaven and earth. The beginning of light and life. The beginning of humankind, made in the image of God, and the beginning of the puzzling, deep contradictions that mark our experience of life. In the opening chapters of scripture they are presented from God’s perspective: one the one hand, God saw everything God had made, and indeed, it was very good; and on the other hand, God saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.[1]

Life is a source of profound delight as well as heartbreak, for God as well as for us. The Creator’s desire for life’s flourishing and our desires are out of sync, as it were, and as a consequence life is not the way it’s supposed to be. There’s a brokenness within us and between us, and the cracks don’t just appear out of nowhere; they’re always already there, inescapably so, it seems, and we do what we can to heal them, but we also contribute to their spreading, with what we say and do or fail to do. In scripture it is called sin, this inescapable brokenness we both suffer and commit.

Genesis is a book of beginnings, and it traces the beginnings of sin to fractures in our relationship with God, to a desire to be self-made men and women rather than creatures made in the image of God and for communion with God and our fellow creatures. Our loveless ways break the heart of God, but in the heart of God we are also embraced, forgiven and healed. Our sin is great, and we all fall short of the glory of God, but God’s faithful love reaches wider than the deadliest consequences of our lovelessness.

In the story of the great flood, we are asked to imagine the impossible possibility of God’s No to humanity without the Yes of a new beginning, the impossible possibility of the complete undoing of creation, and at the end of the story God makes a promise, “I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done.”[2] God will not abandon God’s creation because of humankind’s proud determination to live as masters of the world rather than covenant partners.

Genesis is a book of beginnings, and in chapter 11, after the story of the tower with its top in the heavens, and after God scattered the people abroad over the face of all the earth, the narrative zooms in on one family in Ur of the Chaldeans, the family of Terah, and then it zooms in a little closer on one of his sons, Abram who was married to Sarai and Sarai, we’re told, was barren; she had no child.[3]

End of story. No child, no future. The story of the whole human family has reached a dead end. And God chooses this couple to make a new beginning.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”[4]

Go, I will make of you a great nation, the Lord said, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you. And they went, trusting the promises of God and obedient to God’s call. One night, the Lord came to Abram in a vision and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”[5]

Abram had faith in the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness, but Abram and Sarai still had no child, only the promise of a future rooted in God’s faithful intention.

Years went by; still no child. Abram was ninety-nine years old when the Lord appeared to him and spoke again of making him exceedingly numerous, exceedingly fruitful, the ancestor of a multitude of nations, and gave him a new name, a new identity: Abraham, “father of multitudes.” And Sarai’s name now would be Sarah, “princess,” mother of nations, mother of kings of peoples – the contrast between promise and circumstance could not possibly be drawn any starker.

Abraham fell on his face and laughed. “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?”[6]

When Paul wrote to the churches in Rome, he pointed to Abraham as the example of one who was righteous, in right relationship with God, based not on obedience to the law but on faith, on trust in the promises of God. Paul didn’t mention that Abraham fell on his face and laughed, but portrayed him in slightly heroic colors: unwavering in his faith, fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised, not weakening in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.[7]

What if he did waver occasionally, like most of us do? What if Abraham wasn’t some Olympic super athlete of faith, zipping down a snowy mountain with great skill and fearless confidence, but a rather shaky skier who took wide turns in the steep sections, who even stopped sometimes on the edge of the slope, wondering how long it might be to the foot of the mountain and if he should perhaps walk down? What if Abraham barely managed to hold onto the promise during the nights when doubt crept in? Didn’t he fall on his face and laugh when he tried to imagine himself and dear Sarah in the maternity ward struggling to remember when to pant and when to breathe deeply?

Abraham and Sarah became the ancestors of Israel because they became the parents of Isaac, and they became the ancestors of all who have faith in God, because they learned to trust the promise of God when their circumstances clearly suggested other visions of the future. They learned to trust, not through unflinching determination, but in the ups and downs of daily life, in times when confidence was simply the air they breathed and in times when the world felt like a conspiracy to snuff the flickering flame of hope.

We still tell their story, not because they were such exemplary believers, but because God, in steadfast love and righteousness, made a new beginning with humankind, introducing a way for us, sinful human beings, to be in relationship with God, a way not based on our high score performance of holy demands, but on the fidelity of God who keeps faith with us and invites us to trust the promise of life.

All of us have experienced the pain of broken promises, promises we have made to others or to ourselves, or promises others have made to us. For many of us, all people need to say is, “Trust me,” for alarm bells to go off in our minds and heavy doors of skepticism to slam shut. We have seen and felt how the brokenness within and between us can undermine our best intentions and turn us away from each other or against each other.

During Lent, for the sake of repentance and renewal, we reflect on how we betray our true identity as creatures made in the image of God and how we contribute to the fracturing of life rather than its healing. But this is not the end of our considerations. We remember Jesus Christ whom we betrayed, accused, condemned, and executed in the name of justice and of true religion and for the sake of maintaining the status quo we remember Jesus who was handed over to death for our trespasses and raised to life for our justification. And so we reflect on our brokenness not in despair, but in the light of God who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. We look to the cross and we see the empire of sin having its way with the Beloved of God, crucifying the Son of God, wanting to silence the proclamation of the coming kingdom, bury the body of God’s incarnation, and be done with the promise of redemption.

But God is faithful beyond what we can imagine. Abraham fell on his face and laughed when God continued to speak of a future that had a baby in it, his and Sarah’s little boy. Sarah laughed when she overheard three guests they had invited into their tent talking about her having a child in due season. They both laughed incredulously when they considered the circumstances, but hoping against hope, they still held onto the promise. And when the child was born they named him Isaac, “laughter.” It was the laughter of unbridled joy. It was the beginning of the great Easter laughter when all of creation will rejoice in the redemption of life and erupt in praise of God.


[1] Gen 1:1-31; 6:5-6

[2] Gen 8:21

[3] Gen 11:30

[4] Gen 12:1-3

[5] Gen 15:5

[6] Gen 17:17

[7] Rom 4:19-21

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Hearing voices

Sharon Risher was resting on her couch in Charlotte, N.C., when reports about the Florida shooting came across her television. Her heart leapt at the sight of children fleeing a school and she switched the channel. You see, Sharon’s mother, Ethel Lance, was one of the nine black congregants shot dead by a white supremacist during a Bible class at Mother Emanuel in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Sharon said she already knows what will follow. “People will rally, and they will voice their opinions on social media about how sad it is, and how they’re praying,” she said. “But in the next month or so, it will be gone. And those families, like me, will have to deal with the devastation of our lives while everyone else moves on.”

“Governors order flags to fly at half-staff. Funeral services for children are staggered, so as to accommodate a broken community. Schools everywhere announce that counselors stand at the ready. And a nation sends thoughts and prayers,” wrote Dan Barry on Thursday.[1]

When a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead, a priest was going down that road, and he sent thoughts and prayers. So likewise a Levite.[2]

There’s nothing wrong with thoughts and prayers. Only the man by the Jericho road needed somebody to bandage his wounds and take care of him. Thoughts and prayers are wonderful, except when they are nothing but mumbled excuses for passing by on the other side of the road and not just once, but again and again and again. "Deadly shootings in schools — that is, the killing of children in sanctuaries of learning — have become a distinctly American ritual" (Dan Barry) that will repeat itself as long as the people who make the nation’s laws are paid by the people who make the nation’s guns.

On Wednesday, it was Broward County Sheriff, Scott Israel who stepped before the cameras to announce the toll of a massacre inside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School: 17 children and adults dead, another 16 wounded. “It’s catastrophic,” he said. “There really are no words.” No, there aren’t, because there’s so much sadness and so much anger and frustration, and half of the words that do come to mind you don’t want to use in the presence of children lest you frighten them even more with your rage.

What does it mean to be church in this moment? How do we proclaim the good news of God in this moment? How do we live the baptized life in this moment, and how do we remember that this is what we are called to be and do? We follow Jesus.

On Wednesday, we entered the season of Lent with ashes smudged on our foreheads and somber words urging us, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The ashes are all that’s left of the palm branches we waived and spread on the road  when Jesus came riding into town on a donkey and we were so excited about God’s reign on earth. The branches went up in flames like straw. Ashes is all that’s left, and we use them to trace the symbol of our hope on our foreheads, the cross of Jesus.

Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

One moment there’s a heavenly voice calling Jesus my Son and the Beloved, and before he can draw another breath, the Spirit drives him out, still wet, into the wilderness. Mark tells the story with urgency. Wilderness. Forty days. Satan. Wild beasts. Angels. Forty days in five quick strokes. It’s like Mark is flashing an image, and a movie starts playing in your mind. He plays just two or three chords, and I can hear the whole song. Can you?

I hear wilderness and I see the Hebrew slaves on the long journey to the promised land and I hear Isaiah sing of the end of exile. One word, and the scenes start rolling, and songs of redemption and hope are playing.

I hear forty days and I see Moses on Mount Sinai and Elijah on the way to Mount Horeb; the words are like hashtags that connect Jesus’ wilderness time with the memories and hopes of God’s people.

Wild beasts – that sounds dangerous and threatening, and perhaps you imagine hyenas laughing in anticipation of a good meal or lions prowling around the solitary man in ever closer circles. But can’t you also hear echoes of Isaiah’s beautiful prophecies of peace, of the days when the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid? The hashtag #wildbeasts touches our deep longing for creation at peace, as well as our hope for one who is with us in danger and fear.

Mark tells the story with urgency, but let’s linger a little at the flash of a scene where the angels wait on Jesus. The story that comes to mind is the story of Elijah. He was in the wilderness, not because the Spirit of God had driven him there, but because he wanted to get away from the fury of Queen Jezebel who wanted him dead. Elijah had fled into the wilderness for his life, but he was also exhausted. Physically, emotionally, spiritually exhausted. So exhausted, he wanted to die, just not at the hand of Jezebel. He was tired of fighting. He was tired of calling his people to repentance. He was tired of feeling like he was the lone voice of resistance in a culture insisting on continuing its idolatrous ways. “It is enough,” he said, exhausted in body and soul, before he fell asleep under a broom tree. He woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” There was a bread and a jar of water. Elijah ate and drank and went back to sleep. The angel of the Lord came a second time and waited on him, saying, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”[3]

Mark flashes the words “and the angels waited on him,” and we know that Jesus is being nourished for a long, demanding journey. In the wilderness, you have only what you bring and what the angels give you. In the wilderness, it’s only you and the great silence; you and your thoughts and all that gets stirred up by the great silence. Kentucky farmer, writer, and teacher, Wendell Berry wrote in 1977,[4]

True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources.[5]

The forty days of Lent are about our “inner voices” and our “most intimate sources.” The forty days are about remembering how to live the baptized life; how to let the voice from heaven that calls us beloved, name us and claim us; how to let the Spirit that descended into Jesus be our most intimate source of life and hope and courage.

In Scripture, Satan is the name given to voices that whisper, scream and argue, with cold reason, seductive tone, or blunt intimidation – voices that only speak in order to drown out the voice from heaven that calls us beloved. In the wilderness, says Berry, “One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures.”[6] We enter the forty days in the company of Jesus who has faced all that we face in our loneliest, hungriest, and most exhausted moments, who responded to other lives with blessed clarity, and who goes ahead of us into the glorious communion of all creatures that life is meant to be.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus stopped Satan’s chatter or how he silenced the voices that did nothing but add question marks to God’s affirmation of who he was. But in the very next of Mark’s fast-paced scenes we see Jesus back in Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

What does it mean to be church in this moment? The contours may not be as sharp and clear as we would like them to be, but they are clear enough. We may not know yet which of the comfortable certainties of being and doing church we will get to keep and which we will have to let go of but we do know that God wants us to live the baptized life, lives deeply grounded in the knowledge that we are God’s beloved and in the call to proclaim this good news to every human being. And we do know that God uses this and other communities of witness to help us turn from our idolatrous ways and follow Christ on the way to the glorious communion of all creatures that he called the kingdom of God. And so we move forward with faith. We take each step trusting the One who, in the words of Psalm 25, leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.



[2] Luke 10:25-37

[3] 1 Kings 19:1-8

[4] Wendell Berry, “Healing” (1977) in What are people for?: Essays (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2010), 9-14.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Ibid.

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Seeing what's really there

Sometime on the way Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They told him some folks thought he was John the Baptist, and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets. Jesus clearly got people’s attention, but they didn’t quite know who he was. So Jesus asked the disciples. They had been following him around for a while, listening to his teachings, and witnessing his miracles. They had had opportunities to hear and observe him in a variety of settings, so he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[1] In Sunday school, he would get a gold star for giving such a splendid answer, but this wasn’t Sunday school. This was Jesus in the villages and on the streets of Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God’s reign. And Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Which is odd, because you’d expect that the Messiah announcing the kingdom of God would want the word to get out.

It appears Peter gave the right answer, but he may have given it too soon. The amazing teachings, the astonishing healings and miraculous feedings were not the whole story. So Jesus began to teach the disciples about the road ahead; he told them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And Peter wouldn’t hear it; he took Jesus aside for a little constructive feedback, something along the lines of “You gotta be kidding; are you serious?” Because in Peter’s book, suffering and death were not included in the job description for God’s Messiah.

Peter, spokesperson for the disciples, gave the right answer, but it was the wrong answer, because he thought he knew the playbook for God’s Messiah. He didn’t yet grasp that declaring Jesus to be the Christ meant that no one but God and Jesus himself would determine what the implications would be. To follow Jesus didn’t and doesn’t mean to watch him live up to our hopes and expectations, but to have our hope and our lives shaped by him.

In the next scene, Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and talked with them about discipleship. He taught them and teaches us what it means to say to him, “You are the Christ.”

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. [2]

To follow Christ is to trust that the way of the cross is indeed the way to redemption and fullness of life, and that kind of trust doesn’t just happen overnight. And so before the journey takes us to Jerusalem, we follow Jesus up a high mountain. And don’t go looking for this mountain on the map in the back of your Bible, and don’t go looking for it on your trip to Israel. Because this mountain, as Tom Long reminds us, “juts out not from the topography of Galilee, but from the topography of God. This is the mountain of revelation, the mountain of trans-formed vision, the mountain of true seeing.”[3]

There, Mark tells us, Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John. There was fire on the mountain. It was like light bursting through the seams of Jesus’ clothes—his face and hands and feet shining with luminous beautyand everything was bathed in this glorious light. It was as though time collapsedMoses and Elijah appeared, the great prophets of old, and they talked with Jesusit was as though heaven and earth had merged into one or the veil separating everyday reality from what’s really real had been removed. A cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” This is the first and only time in the gospel that the voice from heaven addresses the disciples, addresses us, showing us that this is as much about us as it is about the identity of Jesus. It is not enough to say that Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, because it is our perception of him that is changed. We see who he really is, his true identity as beloved by God. We could never have seen that in the plains of everyday, let alone down in the dark valley; we could never have guessed that he is beloved by anybody. Admired, perhaps, during those moments when he drew crowds with his miraculous actions, but otherwise misunderstood by his disciples, rejected by folks in his hometown, drained of his power by his neighbors’ scoffing unbelief, and plotted against by the authorities. Beloved? Hardly. And even more powerful winds of hell were about to be unleashed.[4] He was after all on the way to Jerusalem.

But before the storm, before the darkness of Golgotha, the veil separating past, present and future is lifted, and we are given a glimpse, a foreglow of the glory of life’s redemption and fulfillment and a divine affirmation of Jesus who accomplished this redemption and fulfillment on the way of the cross.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” They looked around and they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus. But now they could no longer see him or the world as they had once done. What they had witnessed on the mountaintop, they did not leave behind. What they had seen there now permeated what and how they saw here, in the plains and valleys of life.

And the plains and valleys is where their journey with himour journey with himtakes the disciples. It doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of pure spiritual splendor. Jesus leads us down the mountain to the plains and valleys below where the whole world is awaiting its transfiguration. Down the mountain, to the places where life’s brokenness seems to always have the last word; where people languish in camps and shelters, longing to go home; to the places where ignorance and chaos seem to reign and where men, women, and children experience life as though they were the playthings of demons; down the mountain, to the valley where the heavy blanket of despair threatens to suffocate all hope.

Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world, but deeper into it as servants of God’s reign; as followers of Jesus who dare to believe that his way, the way of the cross, is the way of life because we have caught glimpses of what love can heal, and every glimpse changes what and how we see. And so we follow him down the mountain and then on the long climb up to Jerusalem and to the hill they called Golgotha.

On Golgotha, there is no bright cloud overshadowing the scene, but rather a great and dreadful darkness. On the mountain, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, but under the cross soldiers tear them into souvenir rags. On the mountain, Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus, but on the cross he is taunted by bandits. On the mountain, a heavenly voice spoke truth, but on Golgotha a hostile crowd is shouting ugly insults. On the mountain, our friend Peter wanted to stay and build dwellings, but at the crucifixion he is nowhere to be found. The contrast is startling and stark. On the mountain of the transfiguration, we reflect on our desire to see and be with God, but at the foot of the cross, we reflect on God’s desire to be with us. We climb this mountain before the long journey of Lent so we remember in the darkness of Good Friday that it is God’s Beloved whom we betray, deny, judge, abandon, mock and crucify, and, even more importantly, that God’s desire to be with us has overcome the power of sin.

Peter said to Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” but he didn’t know what he was saying. On the mountain, Peter heard the voice of God declaring, “This is my Son, the Beloved.” But only after he had failed repeatedly to stay awake and pray with Jesus in Gethsemane, after he had denied Jesus three times, and after he had fled from the cross was Peter ready to follow the Messiah who suffered, died and was raised. It was not on the mountaintop, but at the lowest point of his life that Peter began to fathom who Jesus is. When there was nothing left but hopelessness and the love of Christ, and love prevailed, that’s when Peter knew the Messiah.

On Wednesday we begin the long journey of Lent, a journey that is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. In humility and hope, we follow Christ from ashes to glory. We ask for the light of God to shine in our hearts that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus, as the apostle Paul so beautifully put it (2 Cor 4:6). The whole journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. It is about our re-creation in the image and likeness of Christ, the beloved of God. In the company of Jesus, we begin to recognize ourselves as God’s beloved, and that love is the light of God shining in our hearts. The light of love opens our eyes to see what is really there, in the face of every man, woman, and child: the beloved of God.


[1] See Mark 8:27-30

[2] See Mark 8:34-35

[3] Thomas G. Long, “Reality show,” The Christian Century 123, no. 5 (March 7, 2006), 16.

[4] See Long, Reality show.

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She got it

Nobody remembered her name. All they could remember when the story was written down was that she was the mother of Simon Peter’s wife. We can only identify her through her relationship to Peter, a man whose name the church never forgot. He was the first person Jesus called to be a disciple. We know his name, along with the names of his brother Andrew, and the brothers James and John. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” Jesus said to them. The church even remembers Zebedee, the old man James and John left behind in the boat — and that’s all we know about him, that moment and his name.

It was a man’s world, what do you expect, some have said. Others have suggested she remained unnamed because she represents women as a group. In the verses before today’s passage, Mark tells us about a man with an unclean spirit, a man in the grip of the demonic, whom Jesus liberates, and the scene takes place at a synagogue, a very public place. Following that he tells us about a woman with a fever, whom Jesus heals, and the scene takes place in the privacy of a friend’s house. Mark, they say, so arranges the scenes that those who hear or read his gospel narrative would know right from the beginning that Jesus brings liberation and healing to both men and women, in public and in private. I can see that, and it all takes place on the sabbath day; it’s like a thumbnail that represents the whole big picture. The two brief scenes are like the opening announcement of the crowning day of creation, the day of life’s fulfillment, that longed-for, long-awaited day when all God’s creatures rejoice in God’s shalom, freed from demonic possession and healed from every fever, fear, and sickness. I like that thought, I like that interpretation, but I still wish we could remember the mother of Simon Peter’s wife by name, because in contrast to her famous son-in-law, she was the first person to participate in Jesus’ mission. She was the first who got it.

Here’s the scene: they left the synagogue, walked across the street and entered Simon’s house where she was in bed with a fever. The next sentence is composed of plain, unadorned words, nothing printed in red, just simple, descriptive terms for simple actions: He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. It’s the kind of sentence that easily disappears on a page, amid the many words that want to tell you what happened next, that evening, at sundown, the next morning, and thereafter. But when the reader you’re listening to or your own eyes and voice just keep running, line to line, down the column, you’re likely to miss a lovely detail: this scene by the woman’s bed reflects the whole work of Christ. Jesus came to us to take us by the hand and raise us up. Jesus came to give power to the faint and strengthen the powerless. And Jesus came not just to make us feel better by restoring us to our former life. He takes us by the hand and raises us up to new life. Listen again to Mark’s words:

He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

What does this have to do with new life? Sarah Henrich says,

It was her calling and her honor to show hospitality to guests in her home. Cut off from that role by an illness cut her off from doing that which integrated her into her world. Who was she when no longer able to engage in her calling? Jesus restored her to her social world and brought her back to a life of value by freeing her from that fever. It is very important to see that healing is about restoration to community and restoration of a calling, a role as well as restoration to life. For life without community and calling is bleak indeed.[1] 

Jesus restored her to her place in the household and the village, a place of dignity and purpose – but that was the life she had before. What is new about a life where she goes back to the kitchen to fix supper for Simon and his guests, and wait on them? What is new about a life where a woman’s place is in the kitchen while the men eat and have deep conversations about the kingdom of God? Is it real healing when all Jesus does is confirm the status quo? Only the text doesn’t say anything about the kitchen, nor does it say anything about her returning to her household chores. It says, she began to serve them.

The word to serve first appears in Mark 1:13: Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and the angels served him. Then the word is used in the scene at Simon’s house and again in Mark 10:45, where Jesus says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Serving is something angels do in Mark’s telling of the good news, and it is something Jesus does. The last time the word is used in Mark is immediately after the account of Jesus’ death.

There were also women looking from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem (Mark 15:40-41).

Apparently a good number of women had left the kitchen and followed Jesus to Jerusalem. They provided for him sounds a little like they made sure he had enough to eat, but the word is again to serve: they did what the angels did for him in the wilderness and what he himself had come to do. Serving is something followers of Jesus learn to do from him, and Simon’s mother-in-law was the first who got it; that’s why I wish the church had remembered her name.

He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 

These simple lines describe the whole work of Christ, as well as the work of those who follow him: they serve him in gratitude and serve with him in proclaiming the good news of God’s reign.

Lawrence Wood tells a story about some remarkable women he’s been blessed to know, “women,” he writes, “whose names may never be written large in church history, even though their influence has been widely felt.” Every summer, Sharon, Muggs, Wanda, and Joretta would help to put on a church dinner. Another woman couldn’t help out one year, having just had a hip replacement. Lawrence went to check on her a day before the dinner.

“They’re not using boxed potatoes, are they?” she demanded. “The people who come expect potatoes made from scratch.”

“They’re planning to peel potatoes all morning,” he said.

“And the ham? Did they get a good dry ham, or the watery kind?”

“Honestly, I didn’t know,” writes Lawrence. “It was probably the same ham as always. I asked if she had always enjoyed cooking, and to my surprise, she adamantly said no, that cooking was a big chore.”

“Really? I thought you enjoyed doing this.”

“I don’t love the potatoes,” she said. “Really, young man, you should know I love Christ, and there are only so many ways a body can do that.”[2]

In the Liturgical Year of America, today is Super Bowl Sunday, with the central ritual of the game celebrating strength, skill and strategy, applied for the purpose of pushing into the others’ territory and taking the ball across the goal line. Minor rituals connected to the day include consuming wings, chips, dip, salsa, pizza, and beer, watching and commenting on various commercials, and, among serious followers, the wearing of special clothing and the chanting of songs and insults. And while the whole nation will be getting ready for that, somebody will unlock the doors to Fellowship Hall downstairs and set up beds; somebody else will put little bags with toiletries and cough drops on each pillow; yet another will put out board games, while two or three will be putting the finishing touches on a good meal. And then the van will pull up and our guests will arrive. “Welcome to Vine Street,” the hosts will say, “we’re so glad you’re here. Come on in and make yourselves at home. Dinner will be ready in just a few minutes.”

Remember what the woman said? “I love Christ, and there are only so many ways a body can do that.” And so she just did it, she began to serve. And soon others joined her, they came together as one body, and before long they discovered that her mission statement was also theirs, with just one small change that changes everything: We love Chist, and there are so many ways a body can do that. They dropped the only, because as one body, inspired by Christ’s love for them and their love for Christ, they could do all that was needed to proclaim the good news of God’s reign.

The mother of Simon Peter’s wife got it before anyone else did. Jesus took her by the hand and raised her up, and she began to serve. That evening, Mark tells us, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And Jesus proclaimed the good news of God’s reign. He took them by the hand and raised them up, and we don’t know how many of them, filled with joy and gratitude, simply returned to their former lives; and we don’t know if there were others who, in grateful response to the healing and liberating love of Christ, began to serve.

In the morning, Mark tells us, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. The need for healing and liberation was still great in Capernaum, but they didn’t know what to do about it. “Everyone is searching for you,” they said, apparently still utterly unaware that they too had a part in Christ’s proclamation of God’s reign. Jesus said, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also.”

You know he didn’t move on because the work in Capernaum was done. He knew he could move on because in that town, in a house across the street from the synagogue, there was one woman who got it – don’t you wish we knew her name?




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Evicting the demonic

“No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”[1] Jesus said that. A lesson in home invasion as part of the good news of God? Jesus spoke of entering and plundering the strong man’s house with reference to his own mission. According to Mark, it’s how he understood himself and his work. Holy burglary.

Following his baptism, driven by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan, and he returned, proclaiming the good news of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The good news is that time’s up for the strong man; Jesus has come. He’s here to plunder the strong man’s house. It may sound like burglary, but it’s really the eviction of the pretend landlord who has been acting like he has a claim on the world house far too long. The world is God’s house, and those who live in it are meant to live, not under the strong man’s oppressive rule, but in the freedom of God’s children, in the justice and peace and joy of God’s reign.

On the sabbath, Mark tells us, Jesus went to the synagogue in Capernaum to teachbut instead of telling us the main points of Jesus’ teaching, Mark shows us: Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit and affirmed by the heavenly voice telling him he’s God’s beloved, Jesus comes face to face with a man who is held captive by unholy spirits, by powers opposed to the flourishing of life, and they know better than anyone else in that scene who he is and why he is here. Suddenly the room is filled with screaming and shouting. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Jesus is in the house, their time is up, and they know it. They shriek, they whine and whimper, but that’s all they can do in the presence of the Holy One of God. Jesus speaks, “Be silent, come out,” and the man is free. This incursion is the ministry of Jesus: to spread this freedom, through all of creation, so every woman, man, and child will know themselves and each other as God’s beloved. Jesus is not just another teacher, preacher, or prophet in a long line of teachers, preachers, and prophets. He’s come to tie up the strong man and reclaim the world house that has become a playground for demons and evil spirits.

People in the synagogue are astonished, not quite sure what to call what they just witnessed, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” They call it a teaching, because all they saw Jesus do was speak. But they call it a new teaching, because his words bring a new reality into being. He speaks, and it comes to be. He speaks, and the bonds of injustice are loosed, the thongs of the yoke are undone, every yoke is broken, and the oppressed go free. He speaks, and the wounded are healed, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the lame walk. He speaks, and sinners are forgiven. He speaks, and life flourishes. He speaks with the power of God.

The ancient mediterranean world was full of demons and spirits; they regularly interfered in human life, often capriciously. They were widely regarded as principal causes for physical and psychological problems as well as natural disasters, and they were known to control human behavior because they were more powerful than human beings. Most of us no longer use this kind of language; we don’t think of our world as inhabited and controlled by demons and other spirit beings. But that doesn’t mean we no longer experience powers in our lives that are stronger than ourselves, ungodly powers that oppress and enslave us. We use different concepts, different language. We have come up with many excellent scientific models psychological, anthropological, sociological, medical, economical, political models that help us understand the complexity of our life together.

But when you are struggling to hold on to your soul, struggling to maintain your sense of self after your trust in human beings has been betrayed too many times, when you are struggling to stay above water while the whole world is flooding in on you in that moment, in that circumstance you don’t need scientific explanations of your situation. Explanations just don’t get close enough to where you’re standing or trying to stand. You need the assurance that you are not alone in your struggle. You need to know that you are worth saving. You need to know that the lying demons that are making your life hell are no match for the Holy One of God who speaks freedom, truth, justice, love, and life.

Robert Lifton is a psychiatrist who conducted interviews with Nazi doctors who had done what they called ‘work’ and ‘research’ in the death camps. He wrote about a conversation he had with a man who had survived Auschwitz.

We were discussing Nazi doctors—I had begun to interview them and he had observed a few from a distance in Auschwitz—when he posed this question to me: “Tell me, Bob, when they did what they did, were they men or were they demons?” I answered that, as he well knew, they were human beings, and that was our problem. To which [he] replied, “Yes, but it is demonic that they were not demonic.”[2]

In the face of evil, our explanations hit the wall. There is meant to be no room in the world house for demons, but they are here because we are here. We need God to come and speak freedom, truth, justice, love, and life.

These past few weeks have been remarkable for those who wrestle with the reality of the demonic. An astonishing story unfolded in a court room in Ingham County, Michigan. The accused, Dr. Lawrence Nassar, had pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault. The sentencing hearing began, and a number of women let the court know that they wished to make victim impact statements.

When the list of women scheduled to speak was drawn up, it had 88 names. Then, as more decided to come forward, it had 105. Then 120. In total, 156 women spoke about their experiences with Nassar. They talked about feeling horrified and disgusted by what happened in their appointments with the doctor, coupled with a sense of self-doubt about whether they were misinterpreting it at the time. They spoke about how it had affected their families. They told Nassar, and [the judge], about the depression, anxiety, and mental illness they’d suffered as a result of his abuse.[3]

156 women spoke, and after years of being ignored, or not being believed, or being told to keep quiet, they finally had their words and voices heard – inside the courtroom and far beyond its walls. Alex Putterman wrote in The Atlantic,

The Nassar scandal is about more than a single man’s unfathomable abuses. It’s also about a network of enablers who let him ruin lives with impunity, about a national news media that dedicated little airtime and few headlines to the story, about a university that failed to protect its own students, and about an American public that for too long failed to care. In her statement on Friday, [one of the survivors, Aly] Raisman was speaking directly to Nassar, but she was also speaking to the world beyond those courtroom walls. “If over these many years just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act,” she said, “this tragedy could have been avoided. I and so many others would have never, ever met you.”[4]

The demonic thrives on silence. It thrives on the silence of not listening and the silence of not speaking, and we’re all part of feeding the demonic or resisting it.

Jesus speaks words that rebuke and command unclean spirits. To me this means that words we speak, in humility and courage, inspired by the same Holy Spirit, participate in his liberating speech that serves the flourishing of life. Words do things – they hurt and they heal, the beat down and they lift up, they deceive and they reveal, they belittle and they empower. Words do things, both when they are spoken and when they are heard.

The now very famous Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said to one of the women, after she had finished her statement,

The monster who took advantage of you is going to wither, much like the scene in the ‘Wizard of Oz’ where the water gets poured on the witch and the witch withers away. That’s what’s going to happen to him, because as you get stronger, as you overcome, because you will, he gets weaker and he will wither away.”[5]

With respect, it is not the man who withers away when the water of truth is poured on him. The water of truth is poured not only on one man, but also on the enablers in a number of institutions, on grown-ups who didn’t do what grown-ups are supposed to do, and on all of us. When the water of truth flows, what withers away is the demonic. What withers away are the oppressive powers that afflict people and keep human bodies and human societies from flourishing. And what thrives is life, life in communion, life that Jesus so beautifully described as the kingdom of God.


[1] Mark 3:27

[2] Robert Jay Lifton, Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir (New York: Free Press, 2011) p. 240


[4] to read the full statement by Aly Raisman go to


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Silent no more

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God, says the Psalmist.[1]

What kind of silence is this? Jim Mays says it’s “a quietness of soul, an inner stillness that comes with yielding all fears and anxieties and insecurities to God in an act of trust.”[2] It’s a silence rooted in deep trust in God who will not keep silent. It’s an unshakable trust in the God of justice who will not rest until all of creation is at peace.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.

But not every silence is “a quietness of soul.” When you can’t speak for pain or fear or shame, your soul is not quiet. When your outrage has been pushed to the margins of what words can express, you may be speechless, but your silence does not reflect an inner stillness. When the hand of the abuser is pressing down on your lips, your mouth may be silenced but your soul, every cell in your body, is screaming.

And what kind of silence is it when you know the truth and keep quiet, when you watch and remain silent, when you see and refuse to speak—what kind of silence is that?

Elie Wiesel, who survived the terror of the Nazi death camps, knew the stillness of the child asleep in his mother’s arms, and he knew the quietness of soul that blesses those who rest in God, but he also had to wrestle from a young age with the silence of the bystanders and the silence of the lives gone up in smoke, and the silence of God. In 1986 Elie Wiesel was given the Nobel Peace Prize, and he said in his acceptance speech,

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.[3]

I watched the Golden Globe awards the other day; I watched the whole thing: the women dressed in black on the red carpet, the men in their tuxedos, the host and his jokes, the clips, the nominees—and then Oprah went up on stage, and she shouted like only Oprah can shout across an entire ball room and all of the country, “Time’s up! Time’s up!”

No more business-as-usual in Hollywood and New York, in Washington and at Karolyi Ranch in Texas, at NPR News and other media organizations, at Highpoint Church in Memphis and other churches that time and again have “supported and protected clergy who have used their very sacred powers, the trust that’s put in them by their congregations, as a cover for abuse.”[4] Time’s up! The silence has been broken. The power of shame and fear is crumbling as the truth is finally being spoken. Time’s up! This is a moment of hope ready to become a movement.

We read in the Gospel of Mark that after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

To say that ‘the time is fulfilled’ is very similar to saying ‘time’s up!’ Time’s up for sin’s oppressive rule. Time’s up for the powers that keep human beings from being fully alive. Time’s up for the forces and systems that keep creation in bondage. Time’s up for the reign of fear, greed, and violence because the kingdom of God has come near in the person of Jesus.

What are we to do in this moment of fulfilled time? “Repent, and believe in the good news,” says Jesus. To repent is to turn around, to stop living according to the habits, standards and conventions whose time is up, and to start living in the time of fulfillment. It’s a complete reorientation of one’s life.

“Believe in the good news,” says Jesus. Don’t think that you have to repent your way to acceptance and perfection, that you have to do this and that and the other in order to inch a little closer to the kingdom of God where fullness of life awaits you—no, trust the word that the kingdom is already here, that fullness of life has come near you in the person of Jesus, embracing you with compassion and grace. Trust the love that will not let you go.

It was Erik Erikson who helped us see and understand what we have always known: trust is not just something we do, but a foundational part of who we are. As children we develop a basic trust which grows out of our parents’ loving commitment and care. Astonishingly, this basic trust endures even if the mother or father turn away or are absent for a while. When things go well, we acquire a trust in life stronger than our fear, and out of it we develop a slow but sure self-trust or self-confidence. And this self-trust makes it possible to come to terms with many of the disappointments and betrayals we experience when our trust is betrayed by other people.[5]

Jürgen Moltmann has compared trust to “an atmosphere for living, without which there can be no life truly human. … Fish need water in which to swim, birds need air in which to fly, and we human beings need trust in order to develop our humanity.”

“Human life,” he writes, “must be affirmed, accepted, and loved, for the very reason that it can also be denied, rejected, and hated. A human life that is denied, rejected, and despised atrophies, becomes sick, and dies.”[6]  When Jesus says, “Believe in the good news,” he calls us to life. He invites and encourages us to recognize ourselves and each other as affirmed, accepted, and loved by God.

And he doesn’t just say it, he lives it. Time’s up for the powers that deny, reject, and despise human life and dignity. Time’s up because the mighty one whose coming John the baptizer had announced, has come. Time’s up and the moment of hope is ready to become a movement. What will this mighty one’s inaugural act be, we wonder…

Mark tells us that passing along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The mighty one’s first mighty act initiating the kingdom of God is not some spectacular miracle to wow the masses. He calls four guys at work, and tells them to come with him. From the beginning, the story of the kingdom is a story of community; Jesus is no solitary great-man-celebrity, but Jesus-in-relationship-to-his-disciples: Jesus and Peter and Andrew and Mary and Martha and James and John and Emily and José and Bob and Lydia and all the others.

And he calls the very first ones in pairs so we understand right from the beginning that discipleship and ministry are no solitary projects, but rooted in the community Jesus continues to call and send.

We also notice that his call is disruptive. With the first two disciples, Mark mentions only the nets they left. With the next two, Mark shows us old man Zebedee in the boat. This doesn’t mean that leaving your job and family are standard requirements of discipleship. But it lets us see that when Jesus calls us to follow, there are things to be left behind, familiar things, places, people, habits and ideas—as when the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abram and Sara went, because they trusted the call and promise of God, because they trusted the God who called them to new life. Simon and Andrew followed, because they trusted the one who called them.

On the one hand, our trust is linked with familiarity, with safekeeping what is familiar, preserving what one has and knows. This trust in the familiar and accustomed binds the present to the past.

On the other hand, trust is bound up with confidence. It has to do with setting forth from what is familiar and known. It is about openness for the unknown future, and faith in the promising God. Here trust is paired with hope, and is a power that allows us to face the challenges of the future creatively, with joy in the adventure.[7]

We don’t know who Jesus is until we walk with him. We don’t know the life he called the kingdom of God until we walk with him. Until we walk and watch, listen and learn. And before we know it, the compassion he has for all changes us, and we begin to treat others with compassion; the regard and respect he has for all changes us, and we begin to treat others with respect; the love and grace with which he embraces all redeems and restores us, and we finally begin to see ourselves and each other in the light of God’s love and grace.

You see, although the history of humanity is a history of injustice and violence, unbelief and godlessness, God still believes in us. God’s trust in us is unwavering. That is an inexhaustible source of new courage, new beginnings, and reborn hope that does not fail.

For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from God.

This is not the silence of complicity. It is the quietness of soul that draws its strength from the presence and promise of God. It is an inner stillness that enables us, when others stand by, to stand up and speak up.


[1] Psalm 62:5

[2] James L. Mays, Psalms, 216.


[4] Serene Jones in an interview with Michel Martin

[5] See Jürgen Moltmann, “Control Is Good—Trust Is Better: Freedom and security in a ‘free world’,” Theology Today 62, no. 4 (January 2006), 466-467.

[6] Ibid., 467.

[7] See Moltmann, 473-474.

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Shall I play for you?

News 2 reported on Thursday that the extreme cold has killed 10 people in Nashville within the last month. According to Dr. Li, the Chief Medical Examiner for Nashville, that number could grow because 15 people were found dead outside in the cold, and they are still investigating 5 of those cases. The majority of the people he has examined are homeless.[1]

I’m sharing this sad statistic because no other news outlet in our city has reported it. I’m also sharing it to remind us again that opening the doors to our Fellowship Hall on a cold night is a life-saving ministry. On behalf of the whole congregation, I thank those of you who gave of your time to host a group of fourteen Room in the Inn guests on Wednesday. The most precious gifts we have to offer are our time and attention, and I’m grateful for each of you. Hosting fourteen guests for one night may feel insignificant in a city where thousands of men, women, and children are homeless but it matters greatly to those fourteen and to each of you who prepared meals, made beds, and created a place of warm welcome for them. Yes, we need more affordable housing options in Nashville, and they will only be built when more of us understand how great the need truly is. But it’s not just a matter of civic responsibility; it’s about worship.

A few years ago, a man was found dead early one morning in East Nashville. Temperatures that night had dipped into the mid 20s, and police said he most likely died from hypothermia. His name was James Fulmer, and he was 50 years old. The man who notified police of his death, was also homeless and had just met him the night before. “He had no blanket, no nothing,” he said. “I went … to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket to cover him up with, cause that’s what the good Lord says to do, you know.”[2] His name was Wilford Gold. Wilford went to the Family Dollar store to buy a blanket for James, something to cover him up with. Cause that’s what the good Lord says to do. With that simple, beautiful gesture, Wilford Gold extended the kingdom of the good Lord.

There’s a song we hear in the malls during the weeks before Christmas, the song of the little drummer boy. We hum along as he sings, “I have no gift to bring, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum, that’s fit to give the king, pa-rum-pum-pum-pum…” And eventually the boy asks, “Shall I play for you?” And of course it’s all about for whom we choose to play. It’s all about which king we honor with our song and our time and attention, and whose kingdom we choose to serve with our gifts.

A long, long time ago, in the days of king Solomon, Jerusalem was the capital of a great kingdom. Solomon’s fame had spread far and wide, even to the coasts of Africa. The Queen of Sheba came to Jerusalem with caravans of camels bearing spices, gold, and precious stones. And not just her, traders and merchants, all the kings of Arabia and the governors of the land brought gifts and tribute to Solomon, the great king who excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.[3]

Generation after generation, Israel’s children sat in the laps of their parents and grandparents, begging them to tell them stories about good king Solomon, the wise king. And for hundreds of years, the stories became richer in detail and fuller in color, because wise kings were rare, and because for centuries the kings of the nations didn’t come to Jerusalem to bring treasure, but to carry it away.

And then came the day, when there was nothing left to take away. The king of Babylon and his armies looted and destroyed the city, and took many of the people into exile. For two generations in exile, Jerusalem was only a memory. Then the first groups began to return, after the king of Persia had conquered the Babylonian empire. But it wasn’t the great homecoming they had envisioned.

The once proud nation was now but a tiny province on the fringe of yet another empire, this time Persia, and many of its people still lived far away by the rivers of Babylon. Most buildings in the city were destroyed, the economy was in a shambles, the temple lay in ruins, and the community was divided. Who would repair the city walls? Who would rebuild the temple? And who would pay for it? The initial excitement about the possibilities of a new beginning soon wore off, but then the words of the prophet summoned them from despair to hope:

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. … Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. … the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. … they shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.[4]

There are two quite distinct ways to hear these lines from Isaiah. One way is to hear that the tables are finally starting to turn: Jerusalem had been small, weak, and poor for so long, but now, now they would be great, they would be strong, they would be rich they would be greater, stronger and richer than all the other nations. Now their city would be a hub of the global economy; sky-high office towers, business headquarters, and hotels would line the streets of downtown, and wealth would flow to the city from the ends of the earth: the whole world would be centered in Jerusalem.

The other way to hear the prophet’s words follows the same script, but with a different voice and a different hope: Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Let your life together reflect this glory. Shine with hope, and the nations will be drawn to your light  the whole world will gather to be part of God’s future.

It matters greatly how we envision a kingdom of peace and prosperity. Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these visitors from far away lands who came to Jerusalem to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. And because we know almost nothing about them, we have long let our imaginations take wing.

Matthew gave us an almost blank canvas, and we gladly filled it with rich, colorful detail. First we looked at the map, and we listed all the lands East of Jerusalem – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we looked at the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Very expensive gifts, not the kind of stuff you can pick up at the market on your way but didn’t Isaiah sing about gold and frankincense, and didn’t he sing about kings? That was when, in our imagination, they began to look like kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because three gifts are mentioned, we determined that there must have been three of them. That was when we started singing songs like We Three Kings From Orient Are, but our hunger for detail wasn’t satisfied yet. How did they get from the East to Jerusalem? Certainly they did not walk all the way but wait, didn’t Isaiah sing of a multitude of camels? Sometime in the Middle Ages, we named the three Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and we saw them riding high on their camels, with more camels carrying their treasure chests. With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them we come from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to pay homage to the newborn king. Matthew gives us but a hint or two, and we let our imagination run and leap, because this child is the good Lord, born to bring us all together in the kingdom of God, in a city where no man, woman, or child is left outside.

What about the other king? Imagine King Herod’s face when his staff informed him that visitors of considerable wealth and status were entering the city. He already liked hearing his underlings refer to him as Herod the Great, but imagine the satisfaction in his eyes and the regal pace with which he made his way to the palace window to see his own majesty and greatness reflected in the very important visitors from far away. They had come from distant lands to meet him and pay homage, to admire the magnificent building projects under way in the city he was Herod the Great, King of the Jews, the most important person in the realm, the greatest of kings since Solomon, was he not? Imagine his face when they asked him where they might find the newborn king of the Jews. To say it fell would be a gross understatement. The glory of God had risen, not upon Herod’s palace, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty little hill town called Bethlehem.

You see, the story is not about three kings, but about two, Herod and Jesus. The contrast between their kingdoms runs through the whole gospel, all the way to this year and this city and our life in it. It matters greatly which king we honor with our song and our time and attention. It matters greatly whose kingdom we choose to serve with our gifts. Wilford Gold brought a blanket to honor the good Lord. The gospel is all about which king you will ask, with reverence and hope, “Shall I play for you?”




[3] See 1 Kings 10:1-25

[4] Isaiah 60:1-6

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