True Name

People were filled with expectation about John, questioning in their hearts whether he might be the Messiah. People were filled with expectation about Jesus, wondering whether he was the one or if they should wait for another. And people were filled with expectation about you when you were born, when you went to school, when you walked down the aisle in your long white dress, when you joined the church, when you started your new job. Expectations – they can lift you up and take you places you didn’t think were within your reach, and they can weigh you down and keep you from blossoming.

When little Billy was born, they proudly named him William Jefferson Cooper III, expecting without a question that he would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather by becoming an engineer, of course at Perdue, and taking over the family business. Imagine how much fun he had in his Senior year of highschool trying to convince his parents that he needed to go to Peabody because he wanted to be a teacher.

Expectations shape us in significant ways, whether they are our own or those of our parents and peers. They can give us wings or be the chains around our feet. Now perhaps you expect me to tell you which expectations are good or bad, or how to find the thin line that separates expecting too much from expecting too little and how to get it all just right. Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you.

What I do want to talk about is Jesus. It astounds me how he can step into this scene that is charged with messianic expectation and with visions of judgment and redemption, and he’s not being pulled this way or that way but follows his own path.

When he was about thirty years old, he came to the Jordan river, and he heard John the Baptist preaching repentance and forgiveness. When John warned the crowds of the wrath to come, Jesus was there and listened. When the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?” Jesus was there and took it all in. And when all the people were baptized, Jesus was washed in the river along with all of them, or perhaps I should say, along with all of us. The river of repentance is where we need to be, and Jesus gets in the water with us.

This is the Jordan, the river that Israel crossed after long years of wilderness wandering to enter the land of God’s promise. This river marks the border between what was and what shall be. Its waters wash away the dust, the dirt, the regrets and the shadow of all that we can’t undo. This is the river that prepares us to live as God’s people on God’s earth according to God’s will. And now Jesus gets in the water with us to make our lives his own, with all the distortions and the ugliness sin and lovelessness have caused, and to make his life ours. This moment in the river is the gospel in a nutshell: God bears all that breaks and destroys the fullness of life, and we are given a new beginning.

The curious thing about Luke’s account, though, is that he mentions Jesus’ baptism almost in passing.

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

Luke makes sure we notice that Jesus is right there in the water with all the people, but the real news is the opening of heaven and the Spirit’s descent when Jesus was praying. Remember, this is a moment charged with messianic expectation, with proclamations of judgment in the air and visions of redemption – and Jesus prays. He stands amid the flurry of expectations of John and the crowd and, not to forget, his parents and siblings and friends, and he prays. Luke tells us, a voice came from heaven.

Now this is God speaking in the first person, which doesn’t happen very often in the scriptures, and if you think that it’s important to have all the words of Jesus printed in red, what color do you suggest for the voice from heaven? Gold letters? Or should our Bibles perhaps have a page break right after the comma so these precious words have a page of their own and our eyes don’t just keep reading as though getting to the end of the story were a matter of speed? An extra page might slow us down enough to notice that the voice from heaven doesn’t add to the already dense flurry of expectations with a solemn commission to Jesus to go and save the world. Instead we read this beautiful statement of love and delight, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And that’s it.

Perhaps we should insert another blank page at the end of this sentence to help us notice that this is all the voice from heaven says. No second sentence opening a whole new paragraph, “Now listen, Son, this is what I need you to do.” No parental reminder, “Now don’t you forget that, Son, or I won’t be pleased.” Only these words: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

In Luke’s gospel, this scene by the river is followed by a long genealogy, name after name, generation after generation, layer upon layer of family history that define who Jesus is – except that Jesus’ true identity, his true name was spoken by the water by a voice from heaven.

There might be another reason, though, why Luke inserted this long genealogy right here, with names going back all the way to Adam: to help us recognize that Jesus is in the water with all the children of Adam and Eve. The river of repentance and forgiveness is where we need to be washed and refreshed, and he joins us so we each might know who and whose we are: God’s children, God’s loved ones, God’s delight.

This relationship defines us more profoundly than layers and layers of ancestry and history; and it does so because we’re not the ones who establish it. God’s love for us is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up. We can deny it, sure, we can ignore it, neglect it, forget it, and run away from it, but we cannot destroy it. Nothing we do or refuse to do will change who we are, God’s own and God’s beloved. Sometimes we forget. We forget because we’re busy. We forget because there are so many competing expectations from which we try to make a name for ourselves. We forget because life has convinced us that we are not worthy of love or too insignificant to even be noticed. We forget because pain and fear and shame bury our sense of self as God’s own and each other’s brothers and sisters.

What are we to do about that forgetfulness? Luke draws our attention to Jesus’ praying after he had been baptized. I don’t think he does this to suggest that heaven opened because Jesus prayed, but rather to remind us that the openness of heaven is a reality perceived with the openness of heart and mind that praying offers. He encourages us to pray in order to know in our bones and not forget that we are God’s own and each other’s brothers and sisters.

Martin Luther often struggled with a deep sense of unworthiness, and when he became discouraged and depressed he would say, “But I have been baptized.” The prayer of a desperate man hanging on to hope. He even wrote it on a slip of paper he pinned to the wall above his desk, “I have been baptized.” When the waves of conflict around him and within surged high, the tempter would say to him, “Martin, you’re a hopeless, stubborn, prideful, ignorant, arrogant, no-good sinner.” And Luther would reply, “True enough, devil, but I have been baptized.” Luther wrestled with a host of demons, the expectations of many, and his own passion for the gospel truth, and I imagine that many a morning, perhaps every morning when he washed his face he paused and whispered, “I am baptized. Christ has made me his own. I belong to God.”

Not a bad habit. In the morning, when you step into the shower, and the water runs over your head and shoulders, pause for a moment to remember your true name and say it, “I am God’s beloved child and God delights in me.” What a way to start your day!

I want to close by reading again some of the lines from the book of Isaiah where God also speaks in the first person. These words were first spoken to a tiny, miserable and insignificant band of uprooted men and women who felt utterly abandoned by God: Do not fear. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.

These beautiful words were first spoken to Israel in exile, but in the end they open to include all of God’s sons and daughters in the great homecoming from all our exiles: Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give them up, and to the south, Do not withhold. Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

That is the end of the story: God’s sons and daughters knowing themselves and one another by their true names. Thanks be to God.

To receive or devour

The bishop and his wife went to see a movie; it was a Canadian movie, The Gospel of John. It goes through the Fourth Gospel, word for word, start to finish, in about three hours. The bishop and his wife loved the movie; they found it beautiful and engaging. A few days later, when the bishop mentioned it to a friend of his, the friend said that his wife looked at him midway through the film and asked, “Will Jesus ever shut up?”[1]

The Gospel according to John is known for its high christology, its rich imagery and poetic style, but also for its relentless redundancy. “Wordy is the Lamb,” one commentator quipped, I don’t remember who it was – but who says that the Gospel word has to follow the rules of screen writing?

John isn’t fast food. John’s Jesus isn’t a quick word for the busy who love to quote the memorable one-liner. John is slow food. John’s Jesus is meant for slow reading and ruminating and for the joy of discovering new layers of flavor, texture and meaning. The Gospel of John is no summer blockbuster; it’s daily bread for a lifetime.

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” says Jesus; “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” He keeps talking about bread; three times the word pops up in just this one verse. And of course he’s still talking about bread to people who have eaten. Barley bread he had given them, good bread that fills the belly and strengthens the heart. And to some it was all like manna in the wilderness, the bread of angels for men and women who knew all too well that hunger is more than a metaphor.

I love his talk about bread because I love bread; I love making it, I love breaking it, I love how it fills the house with its warm fragrance, I love eating it; I love the many ways each loaf, every slice and piece, tells stories about our life together. But then, and it’s like Jesus is saving it until the end of the sentence, because he knows that this one’s going to be hard to swallow, then he says that the bread he gives for the life of the world is his flesh. And as if that wasn’t enough to raise a few eyebrows, he adds, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” And he keeps talking about flesh and blood as food and drink. Who can be surprised that many turn away in disgust? Who can stomach such teaching?

Even Martin Luther (certainly not a man known for being squeamish) asked, “What could he mean? Is one man to devour the other? Surely this cannot be the meaning.” And he insisted that this is not the sort of flesh from which red sausages are made.

Is one man to devour the other? Surely not. But that doesn’t mean human relationships can’t be bloody and violent. Listen to this; this is the prophet Micah, crying out against wicked rulers: “Should you not know justice?—you who hate the good and love the evil, who tear the skin off my people, and the flesh off their bones; who eat the flesh of my people, flay their skin off them, break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a cauldron.”[2]

Should you not know justice?—Micah’s indictment finds an echo in the psalms, “Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?”[3]

Should you not know justice? When we talk about bread, we talk about all the ways we relate to one another. Bread contains our relationship to the land, to the farmer, the miller, the baker, the grocer, and the hungry neighbor. When we talk about bread, we talk about justice. Without justice, all those relationships become abusive; they become deadly instead of life-giving.

The gospel according to John teaches its attentive, slow readers that the world that didn’t know how to receive the word become flesh, certainly knew how to devour him violently. Receive or devour – the two verbs represent two utterly different attitudes toward life. One knows life as a gift that is given, received, and shared. The other knows life only as a hunger for more that can never be satisfied. One is communion, the other we call these days consumerism.

Years ago, William Ralph Inge said, “The whole of nature is a conjugation of the verb to eat, in the active and passive.”[4] I eat. You eat. He/she/it eats. We eat. You eat. They eat. I am eaten. You are eaten. He/she/it is eaten. All living things eat. Active and passive. Past, present, and future.

For any creature to live, countless seen and unseen others must die, often by being eaten themselves. Plants absorb nutrients from the soil, animals eat plants and other animals, and microbes and insects eat animals and plants and transform them into soil. And we humans are part of the cycle, no matter how hard we try to pretend we are not. All flesh is grass, and all grass is soil. God created a world in which every living creature must eat. The question remains, how we eat. Are we receiving or devouring?

Wendell Berry, Kentucky farmer and prophet, said it beautifully, “To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of Creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration. In such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.”[5]

The sacrament is life shared in communion, the desecration is life devoured. We will know the difference, when we know Jesus. Not just his words and teachings, but him. Abundant life is not a question of better knowledge, but of participation. That is why in the Fourth Gospel Jesus encourages us not only to come to him, follow him, listen to him, and learn from him, but to consume him, to eat and drink him, to participate in the life he embodies.

Consumerism is not about whether or not to be a consumer. Everyone must consume to live, because God created a world in which every living thing must eat. But not all practices of consumption are conducive to abundant life for all.

Consumerism teaches us to see ourselves and one another as sovereign choosers and shoppers who are detached from other people and who appropriate our choices for private use, the only real constraint being our respective credit limits.

Communion is a practice that heals that deadly detachment and draws us into the membership of abundant life. In communion, eating and drinking are not acts of private consumption, but acts of mutual abiding.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me, and I in them,” says Jesus. The individual consumer of the Lord’s supper does not simply take Christ into herself or himself, but is taken up into Christ. The life of Jesus becomes part of our bodies, and our lives become part of the body of Christ. In Paul’s words, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”[6]

Augustine of Hippo heard God say, “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you (…), but you will be changed into me.”[7]

When we gather around the Lord’s table, the act of consumption is turned inside out: instead of simply consuming the body of Christ, we are consumed by it. We do not stand detached, as individuals, from the rest of creation, appropriating, consuming, and discarding to satisfy our hunger for life. Instead, we become participants in the life of Christ who gives himself for the life of the world. We become participants in the love that redeems life.

Men and women who feed on Jesus simply can’t continue to relate to others in ways that desecrate their dignity. Men and women who know Jesus in this most intimate way of mutual abiding can’t go on and use  others, absorbing them to suit personal need and satisfaction, without regard for justice or mercy. Men and women for whom Jesus is food and drink participate in his life of attention and welcome, feeding and forgiving, and healing and reconciliation. That life is the liveliness at the heart of life. It is the abundance that seeks to make its home in us as much as we desire to make our home in it. It is the bread our hearts crave. Let’s eat. Let’s eat well.


[1] Will Willimon in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 357

[2] Micah 3:1-3

[3] Psalm 14:4; 53:4

[4] quoted in Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul (New York: Free Press, 1994), p. 17

[5] Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land,” in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (New York: North Point Press, 1981), p. 281

[6] 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

[7] Confessiones, VII. 16 

incredibly everday human

I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.

The quote has been attributed to Robert McCloskey, Richard Nixon, and Alan Greenspan, but who said it first doesn’t really matter; it’s a very common experience. You are talking to a person who appears to be reasonably attentive, of good hearing and sound mind, but he or she still can’t hear you. You make eye contact, you speak slowly and clearly, without a trace of condescension, using common English, but you can tell you’re not getting through to them. It’s incredibly frustrating. We just don’t understand each other as well as we’d like to.

Our hearing develops while we’re still in the womb, and we learn to talk in the first years of our life, but we all know that speaking and listening is not just a matter of talking and hearing. Marriage and family counselors are known to spend much of their time coaching their clients how to speak and listen.

The Bible is full of sayings and writings of prophets who saw very clearly what was going on in their day, and they spoke, they declared, they urged and threatened, some even walked around naked to make their point – but who listened? Often their pronouncements were collected a generation later by men and women who wondered how their parents or they themselves could have missed the urgent truth; they sighed as they added the words of the prophets to their sacred texts.

Ezekiel heard a voice saying to him, “I’m sending you to the Israelites, a rebellious people. I’m sending you to their hardheaded and hardhearted descendants, and you will say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ You’ll speak my words to them whether they listen or whether they refuse. You aren’t being sent to a people whose language and speech are difficult and obscure but to the house of Israel – they will refuse to listen to you because they refuse to listen to me.”[1]

The prophets knew that listening is not only determined by language and speech, but by these curious human traits that can only be described as hardheadedness or hardheartedness. “Whether they listen or whether they refuse,” the voice said, “they will know that a prophet has been among them.”[2] Has been – that’s the sad past tense of regret. But it can also become the gentle healer of our hardheaded and hardhearted inclinations. It can open our stubborn hearts at least for the desire to listen more attentively and carefully to each other.

When Jesus began his ministry, he left home and went to Capernaum, and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. The people there were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.[3] He continued to teach and heal in the villages of Galilee, and word about him spread. His family wasn’t thrilled, though. They were embarassed; the neighbors heard them say, “He has gone out of his mind.”[4] The people who had known him all his life didn’t know what to make of this sudden urge of his to leave home and walk from town to town, talking about repentance and the reign of God. They tried to convince him to come home, but once, when people told him that his mother and his brothers were outside, asking for him, Jesus replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”[5] Now that is a beautiful word for all those who recognize the wisdom, love, and power of God in Jesus, but imagine what a harsh word that was for his mother or his little sister.

So eventually Jesus came back to his hometown, and on the sabbath he went to the synagogue and began to teach, and people were astounded. Their astonishment, however, wasn’t the wide-eyed wonder that erupted in Capernaum and elsewhere, it was bewilderment riddled with bits of outrage. Where did he get all this? What is the source of his power? Don’t we know this guy? Who does he think he is? Nothing he said and did in his hometown was any different from what he had done elsewhere, but the outcome was the exact opposite: no miracles and wonders, no more signs of the inbreaking of God’s reign, only upset and angry people.

Jesus, Mark tells us, was amazed at their unbelief. I imagine the disciples were pretty puzzled as well, scratching their heads, wondering what was going on. They had been there when he silenced demons and drove them out. Even the unclean spirits obeyed him! They had been there when he stilled the storm, commanding the wind and the waves, and they obeyed![6] But in this little town, it was like his words hit the walls and fell to the ground. The contrast couldn’t be more striking. “Prophets are not without honor,” he said, “except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Mark tells us that the people who should have known Jesus best, didn’t grasp who he was. It would be easy for us to dismiss them as hardheaded or hardhearted – but only if we can’t see ourselves in their shoes.

“Isn’t this Mary’s boy who used to work in construction?” they said. “We know you, Jesus. We know your family. We’ve known you ever since you were a little boy in diapers – who are you to come here with your newfangled ideas and God talk?” It was inconceivable to them that God could be at work in the man who had grown up just a couple of houses down the street from where they lived. And so they didn’t bring their sick for healing. They didn’t bring their children for his blessing. They didn’t come to hear his teaching. They quickly jumped to, “Who does he think he is?” and stopped listening to what he was saying and went home and left him standing there with his hands tied behind his back. They didn’t expect anything, and Jesus could do no deed of power there. There wasn’t a sadder town in all of Galilee that day. It was a drab and dreary place, with no expectations, little wonder, and little hope.

A miracle, the story suggests, is like the tango: it takes two. We know it takes one who performs and another who perceives the miracle. But Mark invites us to consider the reverse: it takes one who is open with expectation for the power of blessing to become manifest. Without faith, the wonders cease.

Communities where everyone knows everyone else feel comfortable and safe; but for those who want to look at life from angles that aren’t defined solely by family and by what the neighbors might think, life in Mayberry can be suffocating. Small communities have lots of unwritten rules of how things are properly done, and that’s why they can be hardest on their most creative people. If anyone has an idea that breaks the mold, the first response is not, “Tell us more!” but more likely, “Who does she think she is? The King of China’s daughter?”

Churches, of course, are small communities, and I wonder how many times we stifle the wisdom and power of God in our midst, and we don’t even notice. How often do we want to make sure everybody knows their place? How often are we simply not receptive to God’s surprising intrusions? These questions get to the crucial difference between having known Jesus all your life and listening to Jesus now. And Mark’s story suggests that it might well be the difference between “no deed of power here” and “it was a time of miracles and wonders and he was amazed at their belief.”

Between the lines of his story, Mark says to us, “People who have never seen Jesus face to face know him better than his own family and kin because they dare to believe and expect that God speaks and acts through him.” Perhaps we all secretly wait for a god who pops onto the scene like the Incredible Hulk popping out of David Banner’s suit, and so we miss the God who now and then looks a lot like the kid who grew up a couple of houses down the street or our cousin from North Carolina: incredibly everyday human.

But when we begin to believe that Jesus indeed embodies God’s love, word, power, and wisdom, and when we begin to believe that God is not too big to meet us in each other, deeds of power begin to happen. Acts of mercy. Works of compassion. Miracles of understanding.

Jesus sends us out, two by two, like tango dancers. He tells us to take nothing for the journey, but to travel light. On the kingdom trail the gear doesn’t matter. It never was about the gear, and it never will be. It’s just baggage more likely to slow us down than to help us accomplish our mission. It never was about steeples, pews, robes, and bells, and it never will be. It’s all about the miracles and wonders of God’s reign. It’s all about the authority and the power we make manifest when we receive the word of God in Jesus with expectant hearts and respond to it obediently. It’s all incredibly everyday human.


[1] See Ezekiel 2:1-7

[2] Ezekiel 2:5

[3] Mark 1:21-22

[4] Mark 3:22

[5] Mark 3:32-35

[6] Mark 1:27; 4:41

Into the depths

Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord, hear my voice. Some cries are beautiful. Loud shouts of joy from the top of the mountain or cheers of victory from the track and the bleachers at the end of the race. The beautiful racket rising above a pool on a hot summer day, children playing and splashing, shrieking with delight.

Some cries are beautiful. But the cry out of the depths comes from a different place, it comes from a great distance, far from where life is at home. Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord hear my voice.

The psalm gives voice to the love and the despair of a father who falls at Jesus’ feet begging him to lay his hands on his little girl so that she may live. And the words give voice to an unnamed woman who doesn’t dare speak as she comes up behind Jesus to touch his clothes, reaching up from the depths of twelve years of suffering.

A couple of Sundays ago during worship I remembered Cheryl Bridges Johns, a professor at the Church of God seminary in Cleveland, TN. I hope I will never forget her challenge to make room in our worship services for unscripted things to happen. “Make room,” she said, and I’m paraphrasing her words, “make room for a little chaos to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to tame it.”

The depths of chaos are frightening. We know they are there, some of us are sitting in them right now, but it takes a lot for any of us to cry to the Lord from the depths, unless we’re alone or have a pillow to muffle our cries. Make room, Cheryl said, for a little chaos to give the Holy Spirit an opportunity to tame it. Have yourselves a little festival of tears every now and then, she said.

When did we begin to believe that grief, despair, and helplessness must be transformed into well-written litanies before we can bring them before God? Why do we insist on projecting that everything is under control, that we have it all together? I don’t know, but I suspect it is because we want to be in control. We are afraid of chaos and we are afraid to fully trust the power of God to tame the chaos. We are afraid of what might erupt once we take the lid off. We are afraid it might overwhelm us.

And so we script our worship services carefully and expect them to be over on time. And we talk about praise and worship and create an entire industry that writes the songs for it – but who gives voice and melody to the cries that well up from the depths?

Some poets do.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.[1]

There is no setting of this poem or anything like it in the hymnals of the church. We don’t do laments, nor do we weep or wail; we cry in movie theaters, silently and grateful for the darkness, and at home behind closed doors. There is no room for a ‘festival of tears’ in our public gatherings, and so the Holy Spirit must find other ways to tame the chaos that threatens to undo us.

Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, a prominent and influential member of the community, a man people recognized and greeted in the market place. When he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet, his hands and knees in the dust, and he begged him, not just once, but repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He was a man used to having things under control, and he was powerless. The love for his daughter made a beggar of him. He could have sent a servant to ask Jesus to come to his house, but he didn’t; he was no longer afraid to reveal his love and helplessness in front of the whole town, he fell to his knees and begged, a desperate man.

In one of his memoirs, Frederick Buechner recalls his own helplessness as a father whose little girl was very sick. “One of our daughters began to stop eating. There was nothing scary about it at first. It was just the sort of thing any girl who thought she’d be prettier if she lost a few pounds might do – nothing for breakfast, maybe a carrot or a Diet Coke for lunch, for supper perhaps a little salad with low calorie dressing. But then as months went by it did become scary. Anorexia nervosa is the name of the sickness she was suffering from.” The hardest part: there was nothing he could do. “No rational argument, no dire medical warning, no pleading, or cajolery or bribing would make this young woman he loved start eating normally again. … The psychiatrists we consulted told me I couldn’t cure her. The best thing I could do for her was to stop trying to do anything. [But] the only way I knew to be a father was to take care of her – to move heaven and earth to make her well, and of course, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t have … the power to make her well.”[2]

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

The disciples were like, “You’re kidding, right?” – they didn’t know that a woman in the crowd had come up behind Jesus and touched his cloak, convinced that if she but touched his clothes, she’d be made well. They didn’t know she had been bleeding for twelve years. They didn’t know she had spent all she had on medical bills, and was no better. Had they known, they might have told her, “This is not a good time, Mam. A little girl is dying; look, you’ve waited twelve years, a few minutes more won’t be much of a difference, but for the little girl it’s a matter of life or death.”

The woman touched Jesus with a mixture of desperation and hope. Out of the depths, too tired and poor to be afraid anymore, she reached out and touched his clothes. That was all the faith she had.

Immediately she felt that she was healed. When Jesus turned around and asked, “Who touched me?” she fell down before him and told him the whole truth. She told him the truth of twelve years of suffering and poverty, of loneliness, hopelessness, and shame – and who knows how long it took her to tell the whole truth of her suffering.

And then Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” The truth was and is that she was not just some anonymous, marginalized and impoverished woman in the crowd, but a member of God’s family. The truth was and is that God hears even the silent cry from the depths and invites us into wholeness and peace through Christ.

But what about the little girl who was only twelve years old? It was too late, they said. “Your daughter is dead,” they said, “Why trouble the teacher any further?” But Jesus said, “Do not fear, only believe.” He went into the room where she lay and took her hand. “Talita, cum,” he said, “little girl, get up!” And she got up.

Out of the depth we cry to God, “Lord, hear our voice!” and God comes into our depths, where we are so far from where life and peace are at home; God comes with healing mercy.

Mark loves to sandwich his stories; he does it quite a bit throughout his account of the gospel. Here he begins telling us the story of the little girl, then he arranges an interruption to tell us about the woman who had suffered for as many years as the girl had lived, and then he returns to the first story to finish it. And he finishes it although so many said, it is too late. Finishing it is his way of saying it’s never too late for the love and power of God.

The little girl was dead when Jesus told her Dad, “Do not fear, only believe.” Believe what? Certainly not that if we believe just right, Jesus will do a miracle for us. Thoughts like that cross our minds when we are helpless and despairing.

Mark loves to sandwich his stories so we can begin to see how our own stories, even our entire life story are woven into the life of Jesus. Our lives are his and his life is ours. Even the depths of our helpless and hopeless despair are his. He sits with us and says, “The depths of chaos are frightening, but they will not overwhelm you.” The final word of the story is God’s, and God says, “Get up.”

This word may be too big for our imagination, but it’s just the right size to tame the chaos of our fear and give us the courage to hope. May it be so.


[1] Written by W. H. Auden; known as “Funeral Blues” and by other titles; see for some background

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

The vine and the onion

This is the Sunday when the gospel reading is the passage from John, where Jesus paints a beautiful picture, saying, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The vine and its branches offers a lush and fertile image of our life in Christ, an image that blooms and brings forth much fruit in our imagining, thinking, and doing. It encourages us to linger and behold; it teaches us to become open and attentive to its rich possibilities. Little wonder, then, that every year during the season of Easter, I find myself drawn to that image with joyful expectation, ready to find new dimensions of resurrection life.

But not so this year. When it was time to select the two readings for our worship on the fifth Sunday of Easter, the angel of the epistle whispered in my ear, “Look, what beauty and truth is written in these lines of First John. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. There’s not a person in the world who doesn’t need to hear that!”

I don’t argue with angels, but I wish they would stay around long enough or come back to whisper in the preacher’s ear when he stares at the passage wondering what to make of a text that is so repetitive, almost relentless in its drumbeat of love, love, love. Fifteen short verses, and love is mentioned twenty-five times! The angel didn’t whisper; instead I heard John, Paul, George, and Ringo singing, All you need is love! and Tina Turner responding, What’s love got to do with it? What’s love but a second-hand emotion? and then Joan Baez, bless her heart, chimed in singing, Love is just a four-letter word.

I don’t know what songs start playing in your head when you hear love repeated again and again, but I suspect they are songs of romance and joy, songs of hope and fulfillment, songs of heart-break and the courage to love again.

One of the commentaries I consulted asked, “How does one approach a subject so shopworn and trivialized as love?”[1] Shopworn and trivialized. I don’t know. At first the phrase resonated with me; words do wear thin from overuse. It is very difficult to speak of God’s enduring relationship with creation, when the same words are used in a MacDonald’s tagline. And only you know what first comes to mind when you hear the words, “I’m lovin’ it.” There’s a website for everything these days, from (the official website of the American Dairy Association) to (a Christian web hosting service).

Is love shopworn and trivialized? Yes it is. But this overuse also speaks of our desire to see all things infused with love. And even the cheesiest love song also sings of this feeling deep down in our souls, this happy suspicion that love indeed ties all things together; that love indeed is life’s beginning and fulfillment.

For the writer of 1 John, love is not one thing among many God does. Everything that God does is loving, because God as revealed in the story of Jesus is love. The philosophers had thought about the character of the divine for generations, and for Aristotle it seemed clear that God must be pure reason. Plato added that God may also be named The Good beyond Being. And the writer of 1 John didn’t write a long dissertation on the nature of the Divine, but a rather short meditation on what the story of Jesus reveals about who God is, and he became the first one to declare, God is love.

Jesus is sent because God loves the world. Jesus embodies and proclaims the love of God in all he says and does. Jesus teaches his followers that in love he abides in the Father and the Father in him, and that through love we participate in the eternal life they share. Jesus lays down his life for his friends, and no one has greater love than this. This is my commandment, Jesus says, that you love one another as I have loved you. Love, love, love, love. There’s no room for fear, for apathy or hatred, because love’s desire is to be all in all.

Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down;
fix in us thy humble dwelling, all thy faithful mercies crown;
Jesus, thou art all compassion, pure, unbounded love thou art;
visit us with thy salvation, enter every trembling heart.

Charles Wesley sings with exuberance that God is love. Martin Luther points to the cross and says, God is nothing but burning love and a glowing oven full of love.[2] Bill Coffin picks up the thread and declares, God’s love is poured out universally for everyone from the Pope to the loneliest wino on the planet; God’s love doesn’t seek value, it creates value. It is not because we have value that we are loved, but because we are loved that we have value. Our value is a gift, not an achievement.[3]

Love pours from the First Letter of John as from an overflowing cup because in the story of Jesus all things are transfigured and shine with the glory of God. The glory of God, the fullness of God’s very being, is love, overflowing into creation and bringing forth life in abundance. But do not think of this flow as aimless spillage or random bursts. God’s love is intentional and God’s desire is for love to be fulfilled in the blessed conviviality of life, the sabbath communion of loving creator and beloved creation. Love flows forth and life emerges in manifold beauty – from the soil and the sea, from rivers and ponds – and what happens to the flow when it reaches us? Does it then stop, having bestowed the gift and fulfilled its purpose? No, for we were created to be and act like God, to let the movement of God’s life-giving, life-redeeming, and life-fulfilling love continue. It flows into us and then flows on from us in words and deeds of mercy.

This means that our loving, our giving of ourselves to one another is both our doing and not our doing, for we are participating in the movement of God’s love in Christ. The gift of God is both, Christ dwelling in us and working through us, creating a sabbath community of peace.

All this, of course, is very much about the vine and the branches. Christ is the vine, we are the branches. We abide in him and he in us, and we bear much fruit. But I want to close with a story about a much humbler plant. It’s a story told by Dostoyevsky in The Brothers Karamazov. Grushenka says to Alyosha,

It’s only a story, but it’s a nice story. I used to hear it when I was a child from Matryona, my cook, who is still with me. It’s like this. Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into the lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God; ‘She once pulled up an onion in her garden,’ said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion then, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her. ‘Come,’ said he, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her right out, when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ As soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day. So the angel wept and went away.

What’s love got to do with it? The angel weeps because love is so strong and yet so weak. One onion, one humble, ordinary onion, received as a gift, pulled up from the garden, and given to another, is the very path to paradise. There’s no doubt in my heart that the humble onion is strong enough to pull us all out. Even the smallest act of kindness for a little sister or a little brother has the power to change everything, because it embodies the love of Christ. But love is weak and inevitably breaks when we want to keep it for ourselves.

We do belong together, all of us, and it is love that makes us one. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” says Jesus. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”


[1] NIB, p. 432

[2] WA 36, p. 425

[3] Credo, p. 6

Katniss and MacGyver

Some of you may not know who Katniss Everdeen is. Imagine a world that has been destroyed by human action and lack thereof. Imagine a world after the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires; after the rising oceans have swallowed up much of the land; a world after one more brutal war.

Suzanne Collins tells us a story envisioning an America that has been destroyed, ecologically as well as culturally. She envisions the emergence of an empire based on division and inequality; an empire built on military power and control of the media. The name of the empire is Panem, and panem is the Latin word for bread, as in panem et circenses, bread and circuses.

The empire of Panem has its own version of the circuses. It’s a nationally televised tournament in which each year one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected from each of the twelve districts of Panem. This may at first sound like some version of the Olympic Games, but it’s not about the youth of the world competing for victory and fame; the teenagers selected to participate in the Hunger Games fight to the death until only one remains. Year after year, like a graduating class in spring, they are sent into the arena with the cheerful greeting, “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

The world Suzanne Collins depicts in The Hunger Games trilogy is fiction, it is fantasy, but it is frigheningly close to the world we know, with its daily violence, the increasing divide between the rich and the poor, the environmental abuses, and the ever grotesquer realities of reality tv.

The three novels tell the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who draws strength from sources the empire cannot control. At the reaping, the annual random drawing that determines which teenagers will participate in the deadly spectacle of the games, she steps forward to take the place of her little sister, Primrose, whose name had just been drawn. And then Katniss participates in the games, but she follows her own set of rules; with courage and skill she out-maneuvers the game designers, and she and her partner Peeta both end up as champions.

This is unprecedented; you can imagine that the masters of Panem are quite worried after this victory that turned the rules of their game upside-down. What if others follow the champions’ example and defy the empire’s rules of deadly competition? “Katniss Everdeen,” says President Snow, “you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem.”

Well, if you haven’t read the books yet, I won’t spoil them for you if I tell you that in the end, after many twists and turns, the world of the hunger games gives way to a world without hunger, a world where all people are alive and free. And it’s all because of an ordinary girl doing extraordinary things; it’s all because of one teenager who draws strength from a source the empire cannot control, and her spark becomes a wildfire of change and renewal.

It’s all fiction, of course, fantasy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Jesus said [Luke 12:49], “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” And kindle it he did, with his whole life, and the spark became a wildfire.

Katniss Everdeen came to mind recently when I read again the words from 1 John 3, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” This statement has a very heroic ring to it, like a young woman of great courage stepping forward publicly to take her little sister’s place in a deadly game and defying the powers that be.

I thought about others who laid down their lives, like the Christian martyrs who bravely stepped into the arena where the lions were waiting. I thought about Martin Luther King, Jr. shot in Memphis for his conviction that the universe was bent toward justice. I thought about Bishop Romero shot at the altar during mass in El Salvador for his gentle witness to the love of Christ.

There’s a fire burning in the world, a fire that the shroud of death cannot suppress, a fire that the heavy blankets of oppression cannot smother. It’s the fire that lit the bush where Moses took off his sandals; it’s the fire that illumined the path for the Hebrew slaves on their way to freedom; it’s the fire that burned in the hearts of the disciples on the road to Emmaus; it’s the fire that God kindles for the sake of freedom and fullness of life.

We hear “laying down one’s life for one another” and we think about one heroic moment of sacrifice, and we’re both inspired and intimidated. Inspired because we are privileged to witness an extraordinary act of selfless love, and intimidated because we can’t imagine we’d have what it takes to go and do likewise. I suspect the writer of 1 John knew about this odd mix of feeling both great and small in the presence of people of great courage, and so he offers us everyday people an everyday example of what he has in mind: Look around, he says, open your eyes and hearts, pay attention, and when you see a brother or sister in need of life’s necessities, lay down your life for them – if they’re hungry, give them something to eat; if they’re thirsty, give them something to drink; if they need clothes or a roof over the head, help them out.

What I hear him say is, laying down our lives for one another is laying down our desire to live for ourselves. It’s laying aside our claim to our own lives, and allowing the love of God to use our lives to change the world. It’s allowing the fire of God to burn in us and to reorient us toward our little brothers and sisters.

The rules of the hunger games are brutally simple: It’s kill or be killed. Do whatever it takes to come out a winner. But Katniss knows another way out: The rules of the game can be subverted. The rules of the game can be changed. Stay true to yourself.

As followers of Jesus we believe and proclaim that the rules of the game have been changed. His life of self-giving allows us to see the love that is at the heart of all things. Yes, it is love that is at the heart of all things, not violence, or the harsh wisdom of everybody for themselves, or the frustrating endurance of systems of oppression—it is love’s power, love’s wisdom, and love’s endurance.

We all want to change the world and make it a better place. We want to be part of rebuilding communities that have been destroyed, and we want to do what we can to keep our communities strong and vibrant. We want to understand if our way of life contributes to the flourishing of God’s creation or if it is ultimately destructive. We want to be part of bringing down the empire of death and spreading the kingdom of life. We want to know if we are living in the truth of God’s love or in the greater convenience of the empire’s simple rules of survival. And sometimes we catch ourselves thinking that all we’re doing amounts to little more than a drop in the bucket, that we’re not doing enough and never will, and our worried, little hearts condemn us.

Apparently the writer of 1 John knew about that, too. “My little ones,” he says, “let’s not just talk about love. Let’s not just sing about love. Let’s put love into action and make it real. And whenever our hearts condemn us, let every act of love, every small act of laying down our lives for one another, reassure our hearts and remind us that we are on the path of truth; for God is greater than our hearts.”

Our hearts are fickle, easily manipulated by fear, but our hearts are not the supreme court of our lives. Our court of final appeal is God, and we see God’s character most fully revealed in Jesus who laid down his life for us. His life is the complete embodiment of divine love, and his commandment for us is to love one another in the same way, in a million everyday ways. His call to us is to stay true to ourselves and to God by staying true to each other. That is how the love of God will continue to be embodied in the world and change the world.

Nancy and I went to Belmont United Methodist Church on Friday to watch a documentary, Tent City, USA. The film tells the story of a community of homeless men and women here in Nashville whose campsite was destroyed by the flood two years ago, and it follows some of them closely in their struggle for housing and for a voice at the tables of power. After the screening, Tee Tee, Stacey and Bama, MacGyver and Wendell came to the front of the room, and it was like they had just walked in from the end of the movie.

The reason I mention this is because today we give thanks for Room in the Inn and the countless volunteers that make this vital ministry possible, and I want to thank all of you who have participated during the season that ended in March. I hope you will be back in November, when another season begins, to help us embody the love of God with some of the most vulnerable citizens of our city.

But there’s another reason I wanted to tell you about this film, and this too has to do with ordinary people doing extraordinary things. After the screening, MacGyver, one of the homeless men we met in the film, told us how he’d been doing these past few months, and it was obvious things were not going well; he used the word complicated at least five times. But then he talked about his daily efforts to be there for others. He told us how he watches when billboard workers are taking down the large vinyl tarps printed with ads, and he saves the pieces for people on the street who need shelter. He told us how he ran into a guy who didn’t have a sleeping bag, and he gave him one he had stashed away safely somewhere. When he heard about another guy who needed a tent, he gave him a small one he had kept in case he would need it. It wasn’t a great tent, but it was better than nothing.

MacGyver had very few of the world’s goods, but when he saw a brother or sister in need he didn’t close his heart. He laid down his life for them. This is what we do, in a million ways, great and small, and it will change the world.

Remembering well

Remember who and whose you are. I have long thought that’s a pretty good line, and I don’t know how many times I have written or spoken it since I first stumbled upon it, I don’t know how or when. Over the years, I have changed my mind about many things, but not about this line. It’s the gospel in six words. It is like another great commandment that shines through all the others. Remember who and whose you are.

The other day, I listened to an interview with Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop of Cape Town, and one of the great souls of our time. Recalling three hundred years of colonial oppression in South Africa and the decades of struggle against apartheid, he mentioned how he discovered that the Bible could be such dynamite. Dynamite! His laughter is so beautiful, so infectious, so full of Easter. Dynamite, he said, and “if these white people had intended keeping us under they shouldn’t have given us the Bible. Because, whoa, I mean, it’s almost as if it is written specifically just for your situation.”

The interviewer asked him for a sample of the dynamite, and he said,

“Well, it’s actually right the very first thing. I mean, when you discover that apartheid sought to mislead people into believing that what gave value to human beings was a biological irrelevance, really, skin color or ethnicity, and you saw how the scriptures say it is because we are created in the image of God, that each one of us is a God-carrier. That no matter what our physical circumstances may be, no matter how awful, no matter how deprived you could be, it doesn’t take away from you this intrinsic worth.”

And then he talked about a small parish he served in Soweto while working for the South African Council of Churches. Most of his parishioners were domestic workers in the big homes of white families in Johannesburg. It was common for the white employers never to use a black worker’s name, even though he or she worked in their home every day. Their names, they said, were too difficult. And so women would be called “Annie” and most black men would be called “boy.”

Nobody calls a grown man boy because his name is too difficult.

Nobody robs a woman of her name except to remind her that who she is is defined entirely by those who name her as they please.

And what did The Rev. Desmond Tutu tell the people in that small parish in Soweto?

I would say to them, “When they ask, ‘Who are you?’ you say, ‘Me? I’m a God-carrier. I’m God’s partner. I’m created in the image of God.’” And you could see those dear old ladies as they walked out of church on that occasion as if they were on cloud nine. You know, they walked with their backs slightly straighter. And, yeah, it was amazing.[1]

This is the dynamite that blows away the lies. This is the dyamite that reminds us who and whose we are; and all who remember begin to walk with their backs slightly straighter, and the explosive news spreads as they tell it to their sons and daughters, and cross-stitch it on the receiving blankets of children yet unborn.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

On Easter morning, we baptized Sarah, Miller, Boyd, Molly, Emily, and Morgan, and as they emerged from the water we called them each by name and by the family name we share; Sarah, child of God, we said; Miller, child of God; Boyd, child of God; Molly, child of God; Emily, child of God; Morgan, child of God: you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.

Remember who and whose you are. We come from different places, each with our own story; we come with complex and colorful personalities, with many layers of experience and expectation, we come with the lies we have come to believe and the truths we have forgotten – and the water washes away all that could keep us from being who and whose we really are.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

Dynamite! In love God has created, named, and claimed us; that is who we are. And what will we be? Held by the same love. Forgiven by the same love. Restored and made whole by the same love. We will be like him who is fully alive in the love of God.

Nothing is more important than remembering who and whose we are. Last week, Rabbi Kliel sent me an email with a link to an article his sister-in-law had written on the occasion of Yom Ha’Shoah, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Toward the end of the article she wrote,

In college, I participated each year in a communal exercise to grapple with both the hugeness of the Shoah and its individual impact. Each year on Yom Ha’Shoah, we organized volunteers to read the names of the victims, in the middle of campus, for 24 consecutive hours. During my sophomore year, I took the 3 a.m. shift, and stood in front of the library in the dark, chilly April night, reading names into the quiet emptiness. In the midst of this rhythm, I stopped suddenly, my stomach sinking, my breath catching. For there it was: my own name. I have no idea who that Judith Rosenbaum was, where she was from, or how old she was when she died. Perhaps she was a relative, perhaps not. But I do know that reading her – our – name changed me. It brought me into the story in a new way.[2]

I just sat there after reading that paragraph, trying to imagine what it was like for Judith to find her own name among the names of the victims. Then I thought about how much of my life has been about finding myself in that story that is mine whether I want it or not. I saw myself standing in a dark, chilly night, reading name after name into the quiet emptiness, only I wasn’t honoring the memory of the millions who died by speaking their names; I was reading the names of the millions who pretended not to see, not to know, not to be responsible, and I asked for answers. And I tried to imagine what finding my own name among them would be like.

Yom Ha’Shoah was on Thursday, and in the evening, Nancy, Miles, and I were guests at a Passover Seder at the Jewish Community Center. We sat at table with Jews, Christians, and Muslims. We told the story of God’s liberation of Israel from slavery, we said the blessings, we ate the matzah, we drank the wine, we opened the door for Elijah, and we sang the songs. I don’t know what that evening meant to all the others, but I knew I was sitting at table with the healing mercy of God. It was a taste of the world to come.

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

We all come from different places, each with our own story; we come with complex and complicated personalities, with layers of experience and expectation, we come with the lies we have come to believe and the truths we have forgotten. Sin has a way of breaking us, all of us. Sin distorts how we relate to God and to ourselves, to other human beings and to our fellow creatures. Sin breaks what love makes, but greater than the power of sin is love’s power to renew, redeem, and restore. See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are and were always meant to be. We are children in the household of God, brought together not in patterns of our own making, but in the image and likeness of Christ. The patterns of our life together will not forever be defined by the walls of fear, prejudice and hate or the abyss of apathy between us and them, but by the love of God who makes all things new.

The more fully we remember who and whose we are, the more fully we will embody the kindness and courage of Jesus. We will laugh with the Archbishop; we will cry with Judith; we will walk in the company of those dear old ladies, and we will tell our children, all our children, that they are God’s own.



[2] Judith Rosenbaum, Strange, Inconceivable Fire: Leviticus and Holocaust Remembrance Day

We follow again

Our Bible is full of surprises, and not just the kind of surprises we expect to find there. Our lectern Bible, after years of use, had begun to show signs of wear. The binding was a little lose in places, the edges looked frayed, in short, it needed a little work done. While it was at the bookbinder’s shop, we started to read from a younger model – same translation, but tight binding, flawless gold edging, and wrapped in gorgeous red, Moroccan goat leather.

One Sunday, Jeff opened that beauty to read from the first chapter of Genesis, and began to turn the pages. There’s always a dedication page, an introduction, an editor’s note, things like that, a table of contents, but eventually you’d expect to lay eyes on Genesis 1:1. Well, not with this red beauty. It opens with Genesis 3:18, something about thorns and thistles, on the next page you read something about every creeping thing, it’s Genesis 1:26, you turn the page and – taddah! – there’s Genesis 1:1. But turn that page, and you’re suddenly in chapter 5, and turn another, and there’s chapter 13. As far as we can tell (without turning all 1073 pages), all chapters and verses are there, just not necessarily where you’d expect to find them.

The best part, of course, is that Genesis 1 is all about how orderly things come about in God’s creation! What do you think happened? Was it the printer who messed things up or the binder? Or was there somebody with a great sense of humor, somewhere along the production line who decided that scripture is just way too predictable, and that the occasional surprise page would keep the readers engaged?

A few years ago, a seminary student had memorized the entire gospel of Mark in order to do a dramatic monologue before a live audience. He started with chapter 1, verse 1, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” but he wasn’t sure where to end his performance. According to the current scholarly consensus, based on careful study of the oldest and most reliable manuscripts, Mark ends with chapter 16, verse 8,

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

You wonder what happened. Did the author suffer a sudden heart attack at that point and slump over his manuscript? Or had he written the most wonderful ending, but somehow that part of the scroll was lost or removed by a scribe with a strange sense of humor? Did somebody perhaps need a piece of parchment to write a letter or another story? Hard to tell what happened. The young performer decided to follow the most reliable manuscripts and end his presentation right there in the middle of verse 8. He ended his first performance declaring, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid…” And then he stood there awkwardly in the middle of the stage, shifting from one foot to the other, the audience waiting for more, waiting for another sentence, waiting for a proper ending. And finally, after several anxious seconds, he said, “Amen!” and made his exit and, greatly relieved, the audience applauded loudly.

We like our stories and our songs to end well: a final chapter where all story lines come together and all tensions are resolved; a final measure when the melody comes home and we along with it. To that student, however, wrapping things up for the audience with a confident Amen just didn’t feel right. So at the next performance, when he reached that final verse he said,

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,

and then he turned and left the stage in silence.[1]

Now that’s hardly a shout of victory over death.  Give us a woman in the garden, give us two disciples on the road, or a breakfast on the beach – women fleeing from the cemetery in silence? That’s no way to end a gospel. Clearly something must be done about this ending, or at least that’s how many people felt. Early Christian scribes who copied Mark’s gospel tinkered with its ending. One added just a couple of sentences, indicating that the women did as they had been told.[2] Another scribe borrowed a few details from Matthew and Luke to compose a conclusion that would leave readers reassured about the order of things.[3] A few extra lines, the curtain falls and we are pleased. The world is a reliable place after all: dramas begin and conflicts arise, yet all is resolved in the final scene.

But what if this strange ending is exactly how Mark wanted to tell the story? What if this gospel has this unfinished feel on purpose, and not because parts went missing? What if this gospel wants to leave us hanging in midsentence with this puzzled expression in our faces? We have heard the whole story, from its beginning to this moment. We were there when at Jesus’ baptism the heavenly voice declared, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”[4] We were there when Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain, and he was transfigured before them.[5] We were there when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and the disciples couldn’t keep awake.[6] We were there when Judas betrayed him, Peter denied him, and all the disciples deserted him. We were there when Jesus was arrested, questioned and judged, mocked, abused and executed. We are attentive listeners, and even more attentive readers; we were there. We know that the women were the only ones who didn’t run away, that they watched from a distance, that they saw where the body was laid. Now three of the women come to the tomb and hear the message to go and tell—and now even they finally fail?

They fled and said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Now everyone has fled, but the story is not over. We have heard it. We have read it. We have lived through its every moment, and now we must decide what happens next. We were there when Jesus told the men and women who followed him, “After I am raised up I will go before you to Galilee.” Will we trust his promise? Will we go to Galilee, or will we flee the scene and go back to the world as it was?

Silence is an option. We can deny the whole thing, act as though it never happened, and continue to live in the Friday world. Or we can begin to live in this new reality. We can go to Galilee where Jesus promised we will see him. We can go to the place where the story began and start the journey over.

Now Galilee is no longer just the name of the hill country north of Jerusalem. Galilee is the name given to the land of promise and faith: it is the land where we live and work, where we sing songs and tell stories, where we raise our children and think about the future. Galilee is the Friday world we know under the Sunday promise. The risen Christ invites us to live there, in the company of all the other men and women who chose to follow again.

The Friday world of the cross had reduced all of them to silence and fear. But from such weakness and failure, God brought forth faith. The risen Christ didn’t choose a new team, but God raised those imperfect men and women to live as bold witnesses to the resurrection.

Bill Sloan Coffin noted years ago,

Not only Peter but all the apostles after Jesus’ death were ten times the people they were before; that’s irrefutable. (…) I believe passionately in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, because in my own life I have experienced Christ not as memory, but as presence. So today on Easter we gather not, as is were, to close the show with the tune, ‘Thanks for the Memory,’ but rather to reopen the show with the hymn, ‘[Christ the Lord] Is Risen Today.’[7]

Risen today. Easter is not about memory, but about presence, disruptive and transformative presence. The gospel Mark wrote down is only the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ—the story is still unfolding with us no longer in the audience, but as participants.

The women were paralyzed. Something had gone wrong – or had gone so right they couldn’t take it in. There was the news that Jesus had been raised. But there was also the word about a new life for them: Move your feet. Leave the tomb. Tell the guys. Galilee. Follow me. You will see.

The life-giving power of God had radically transformed the body of Jesus, but it had only begun to transform them. And so they ran away from the cemetery and said nothing to nobody. If Jesus had been raised and vindicated by a mighty act of God, and if by raising Jesus God had indeed reversed the whole order of time and history, of life and death – then nothing would ever be the same again. Little wonder they were afraid.

If Jesus is defeated, crucified, dead, and buried – it may break our heart, but it also confirms everything we have suspected about the world all along. It’s a Friday world: Might makes right. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for more of everything, and the meek will inherit nothing at all. But if we can wrap our small, fearful hearts around the promise and reality of today, Sunday is flooding this Friday world with hope. If we can pin our hope on that promise for just a moment, we begin to realize that it’s not human evil that has the last word, but the God who spoke the very first word. The last word belongs to God who said, “Let there be light,” and the Friday darkness fled at the dawn of this new day.

“Who will roll away the stone for us?” In Mark’s story this is the last question on the lips of those who used to follow Jesus. We know that stone. It lies heavy on our ability to continue to live kind and compassionate lives in this Friday world, to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. The stone slows us down, it blocks our movements, locks us in, suffocates our courage. But today we hear that the stone, which is very large, has already been rolled back; and God calls us, again, to practice resurrection by following the one who is going ahead of us.

Today we can see that God’s faithfulness will not be undone by our infidelity. And today, chastened by our failures and empowered by Christ’s presence we follow again.


[1] Cf. Thomas Long, “Dangling gospel,” Christian Century, April 4, 2006, p. 19

[2] Mk 16:8b “The Shorter Ending”

[3] Mk 16:9-20 “The Longer Ending”

[4] Mk 1:11

[5] Mk 9:2

[6] Mk 14:32-42

[7] William Sloan Coffin, Credo, p. 28; my emphases


[I'm a little late. This is the sermon for March 25]

The psalm for this day calls for a story. The scribes who assembled the poems and songs that eventually became the collection we know as the book of Psalms, gave this psalm a short introductory note, “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”

That is quite a story. It begins in the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle – but that year king David sends his generals out and he himself stays in Jerusalem. Late one afternoon, he rises from his couch and, walking about on the roof terrace, he sees a woman bathing, a very beautiful woman. He sends someone to find out who she is, learns that her husband is out with the army, and he sends for her. 

She comes over, they have a couple of drinks, they make love, and she goes home. A few weeks later, there’s a message for the king. David opens the envelope and reads it. “I’m pregnant. Bathsheba.”

David concocts a plan to hide the consequences of his adulterous affair. He calls Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah back from the front lines, scheming to make him think the child is his own. “Go home, take a break,” he says, “spend a little time with your beautiful wife.” 

But David is in for a royal surprise: Uriah refuses to go home, saying that he cannot indulge himself in such pleasures while his men are left in the battlefield.

The king resorts to making him drunk, yet Uriah, ever the good soldier, still resists the comfort of his wife’s bed; he spends the night camping out with the other officers.

Now the plot thickens as David moves another step deeper into the morass. He orders his general Joab to put Uriah in the front lines where the fighting is fiercest, and to make sure he dies there for king and country. And so it happens. Word comes that Uriah has been killed in action. 

On hearing the news of her husband’s death, Bathsheba laments. After the period of mourning is over, David sends for her and she becomes his wife. The king gets what he wants. End of story? Not quite.

The prophet Nathan comes to the palace and tells the king about a rich man who has stolen a poor man’s only lamb and slaughtered it for dinner. The king is furious, “That is an outrage! Not in my kingdom! The man who has done this deserves to die!”

“You are the man,” says Nathan.

That is when the fog of power and self-absorption finally lifts, and David realizes what he has done.

This psalm, the scribes wrote in the margins of their scrolls, this psalm is the sort of prayer that fits such a moment of sudden clarity when your knees buckle and your soul drains through the soles of your feet. This Psalm is not the quickly written apologetic press release you’d expect from a powerful man who happened to get caught. Psalm 51 is a deep and honest reflection, a “liturgy of the broken heart.”

Just about every word from the vocabulary of human sinfulness is listed in the opening lines: my transgressions, my iniquity, my sin, the evil I have done in your sight – it’s like there aren’t enough words for the horror, the guilt, and the shame. We are listening to the voice of a grown up human being who reflects on our common capacity to do evil.

But this is not just David’s prayer. The “I” that speaks in this psalm are God’s people Israel who recognize themselves in these words, and it doesn’t end with them. The “I” that speaks here is all of humanity, all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve at the moment when the fog of our self-absorption lifts and we realize our capacity for evil. This prayer allows us to reflect on the universality of sin without wallowing in confessions of guilt like pigs in a mud pit. This psalm encourages us to see ourselves in the light of God’s judgment and of God’s power to redeem, restore and renew.

Before the litany of sin that dominates the opening verses, the prayer appeals to the character of God who is merciful and whose steadfast love and tender compassion have been affirmed by generations of God’s people. The only place to reflect on what Scripture calls sin, according to this psalm, is in the light of God’s grace. Much of what sin entails can only be seen in that light, rather than the dim rays of a guilty conscience.

Sin is not a churchy word for doing the wrong thing or breaking the law. Sin is the name given to our broken relationship with God, a brokenness that impacts how we relate to ourselves, to each other, and to the world. Sin is what rules us when we imagine ourselves as gods instead of creatures of God. Sin is what distorts every aspect of our thinking, speaking, and doing, when we fail to know ourselves and one another as God’s own. Sin is like being completely out of tune in a creation that sings the glory of God.

Many prayers for help say, “Change my situation, so I may praise you.” But this one says, “Change me; I am the problem.” We learn to say from a very young age, “I’m sorry. Can we start over?” We ask for a clean slate, for a new beginning that disregards the past. But this prayer rises from a place of deeper insight. Sin is not an occasional thing, something we do now and then, but rather a reality that pervades our lives and distorts our entire being. 

Psalm 51 comes from the place where the fog of our self-assured autonomy lifts, and we suddenly see that we are not who we imagined ourselves to be. “I don’t recognize myself anymore, and I can’t put myself back together. Wash me in your mercy. Recreate me in your grace.”

A clean slate will not do. Create in me a clean heart. Create in me a heart that is free of all that alienates me from you, for I cannot be myself without you.

In this prayer, and quite often in Scripture, heart does not refer merely to an organ, a part of the body. It is rather understood as the center of our consciousness, that through which we perceive the world around us and express what is within us. The heart is like a hub where our sensibility, our imagination, our mind and will come together to shape our perception and give direction to our actions. And Scripture insists that we have a heart problem. We have hearts that gravitate toward pride and fear and idolatry. That is why the psalm doesn’t rise from the heart but from the place where the heart’s poverty is revealed in the light of God’s grace.

The prayer begins not with the painful recognition of sinfulness, but with the hopeful appeal to the mercy, love, and compassion of God. Yes, human sinfulness is pervasive, powerful, and persistent, but God’s mercy, love, and compassion still come first. The faithfulness of God is more encompassing than the reality of our sin. Where sin draws a circle of despair that traps us all, God draws a wider circle of mercy that holds us.

When we recognize the voice of Psalm 51 as our own, we begin to see that we are surrounded by God’s loyal love and we notice the sin that is ever before us; we begin to trust that God not only desires fullness of life for us, but that God’s mercy is also the power that makes fullness of life possible; learning to pray with Psalm 51, we begin to envision ourselves and our communities no longer entangled in the consequences of our sinfulness, but knit together by the creative possibilities of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, intricately woven after the pattern of God’s will.

This psalm calls for a story. These words of truth and hope call for a story that we, like the scribes of old, can write into the margins. And not just that; there’s a story that calls for this psalm. There’s a story that cries out for truth and hope and new hearts.

It is the story of a teenage boy who watches a basketball game on tv with his dad. During half-time, he walks to a store in the neighborhood and buys a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. On his way home he is shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain.

It happened on February 26. The young man’s name was Trayvon Martin. I find it utterly questionable when people patrol their neighborhood with loaded guns, but I will not talk about that now.

I find it almost impossible to fathom that the shooter has not been arrested, but I will not talk about that now.

What I do want to talk about is the nagging suspicion in my heart that the shooter would be in jail and awaiting trial, had the shooter, rather than the victim, been African-American.

What I do want to talk about is young African-American males growing up with the weight of suspicion on their shoulders, and their parents who must remind them not to run down the sidewalk, especially when they carry a bag or a package, so nobody would mistake them for a robber.

What I do want to talk about is how racist stereotypes twist and distort our perception of ourselves and of each other to the point that we don’t see another face, another person, but only a projection of our fears, a projection of our own brokenness.

This story calls for long, honest conversations about the things that alienate us from each other. This story calls for a long, honest prayer asking God to create in us hearts that are free of all that alienates us from God and from one another.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

A spirit of honesty to sustain our efforts to reestablish truth and trust in our communities. A spirit of hope to strengthen our belief that change, though slow, painfully slow, is possible. A spirit of love to give us the courage to surrender together to God’s power to make all things new.

This story calls for a psalm, and the psalm calls for a people to pray it and live it, a people after God’s own heart. By the grace of God, may we belong to that people.

Alive with Christ

[I'm a little late. This is the sermon for March 18]

The mess is much greater than we want to admit. I’m not talking about any particular mess, although I could easily name a few, from news reports to the very personal. The mess is much greater than we want to admit, because admitting it is so hard. In general, we much prefer blaming somebody else for the things we ought to face. We blame our parents, we blame the poor or the rich, we blame the other voters, we blame the media or China. And if we can’t find anyone else to blame, we much prefer living in denial. Why face reality when you can avoid it? 

Her friends have been telling her they are worried about her drinking, and she just laughs, “Oh, I just have a little wine to help me relax, but it’s all under control. I could quit tomorrow if I wanted.”

His sister tells him she’s concerned about the toll his travel schedule is taking on his family, and he just smiles, “Oh, it’s OK, they’re used to it, and in the summer, I’ll take a week off.”

The mess is much greater than we want to admit. Admitting it is hard, because it means admitting to ourselves that we are not who we like to think we are.

Tom Long was watching a talk show on tv, where a well-known Christian musician was telling his life story. He talked about growing up in a warm and loving Christian family and how he discovered in high school that he was blessed with a vibrant faith and also with a rare musical gift. Eventually shaking off the dust of his little town, he took his faith and his guitar and headed off toward the bright lights of Nashville, aiming at a career in gospel music. And here in Music City, he found some success, but, unfortunately, he also found drugs—lots of them. Soon his once young and hopeful life spiraled out of control; his vibrant faith all but vanished. One night, he came completely apart emotionally and found himself lying face down on the linoleum floor of his kitchen, sobbing uncontrollably, crying out to God in despair. “I woke up the next day,” he said, “and I haven’t been the same since. That was 28 years ago. I just give credit to the Lord,” he said, reflecting on three decades of sobriety and productivity. “I think God rescued me.” [See Thomas G. Long, Just as I Am, The Christian Century, March 21, 2006, p. 18]

The mess is much greater than we want to admit, and sometimes it takes getting this very close look of the kitchen floor, before we can cry for help. Now Tom Long is a theologian and a professor who teaches preaching, and before he even started telling this story, he let his readers know that he doesn’t want to hear this kind of story from the pulpit. And after he told it, he went on to name all the good reasons why a story like that shouldn’t be told from the pulpit. “It seems simplistic,” he writes, “theologically naïve; it belongs in the Christian tabloids.” Turns out, this kind of story is very much part of the world he grew up in as a southern Protestant. It reminds him of the sweaty revivalist culture of  his youth and the personal testimonies with their recurring plot of  “I was sinking deep in sin.” 

Tom Long doesn’t like stories that come with the smell of sawdust. But he’s old enough and wise enough to question his own discomfort with stories of sin and salvation. Perhaps these stories just get too close to the core, he wonders. Perhaps this desire to make the faith about spiritual enlightenment or ethical ideals or the broad love of God that inspires tolerance, perhaps that desire is about keeping things orderly, reasonable, and under control, much like the rest of our lives.

But there’s no denying that the gospel is at root a rescue story, a story about people face down on the kitchen floor. “You were dead,” is the opening line of the second chapter of Ephesians, “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. … By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Talk about a rescue story! We weren’t just picked up from the kitchen floor, we were snatched from the jaws of the lion, and we barely knew even half the trouble we were in. The mess is much greater than we want to admit. We want to hold on as long as we possibly can to the illusion that everything’s fine and we don’t need anyone’s help. We cannot admit that we are trapped, that we are captive to destructive forces over which we have no control, that they have drained the life out of us, that we are unable to think or feel or work or crawl our way free. We cannot admit that we need saving. 

Ephesians was written in a world very different from our own, and 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 against ourselves as an independent power; but we know that people can be trapped and not know it. We can be trapped in death and be convinced that life’s just like that, or worse, that it’s supposed to be like that; our whole life can be twisted around a lie and we’re convinced it’s the truth, because it’s all we’ve ever heard.

The gospel is a rescue story, the story of an ongoing rescue operation. We need saving because we live in a world that is estranged from its maker, and we don’t realize that we live in a broken relationship until we get a taste of God’s faithfulness, a taste of the redeemed life. In Ephesians, this is spelled out in powerful images of overcoming. Estranged from God, we become confused about the purpose of life and who we are, and we lead lives that are destructive – for others, for ourselves, and ultimately for all of life. We may not know it, but we follow the course of the world; we follow our own passions and desires, and even they are not our own because we don’t know who we are. 

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 this letter and of the people to whom it was first addressed, 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 gain a better perspective of our lives and how to live as God’s own rather than as slaves to oppressive powers.

The cosmology of the ancient world is very strange to me, but I love the contrast between two images: one of a man lying face down on the kitchen floor, crying out for help, and another of that same man sitting next to Christ on high, redeemed by the loyal love of God. Few of us imagine the world the way people in antiquity did, but this image has lost nothing of its power: the love of God is greater than the powers that rob us of life, and in the company of Christ, we are who we were meant to be: human beings in relationship with God, and therefore truly alive.

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.

Perhaps you were still wondering if being seated with Christ in the heavenly places might mean something like being removed from he world, spiritually or otherwise. To me, this verse makes it very clear that 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, be it individually or as a community of God’s people. 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 loyal love and 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, for his wonderful works to humankind. 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.

Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.

More Easter for your money. Guaranteed.

Our friend, Joe Blosser walked into his local Wal-Mart. He couldn’t help but lift up his eyes to a large poster suspended from the ceiling. He saw grass, beautiful grass, the kind of brilliant green grass you only see at the beginning of spring. He saw blue sky with little white clouds, and written across it, in large yellow letters, the word EASTER.

Oh, the promise of new life after the long winter – Joe lives in Chicago, where it’s been grey, windy, and cold for months, so we forgive him for having a tender moment of hope in a Wal-Mart box. But it didn’t last. I knew it couldn’t last. Printed below the happy word, EASTER, was a line of text in white letters:

More Easter for your money. Guaranteed.

Really? You’re gonna give me more Easter for my money? Guaranteed? What makes you think Easter is for sale? What makes you think you can pack Easter into a shipping container in China, and I’ll be waiting here to buy a little more of it? You may know a lot about logistics and global sourcing; but you know nothing about Easter. You may know a lot about cutting costs and squeezing out the competition; but you know nothing about Easter. And you certainly know a lot about becoming bigger and dominating the neighborhood and keeping unions out of your stores and building a retail empire; but you know nothing about Easter. Or have you thought about a poster for your Good Friday sale? Have you thought about an ad campaign around the self-less love of the One who gives himself away for the life of the world? Without the cross, Easter is nothing but more chocolate, bigger bunnies, and cheaper lilies for my money. Guaranteed. Thank you very much, but I have no use for your promises.

Corinth in the days of the apostle Paul was a cosmopolitan city. Situated between two sea ports, it was an economically vibrant and culturally diverse community where many languages were spoken, many traditions blended together, and all manner of goods, services, and ideas were exchanged. Corinth was an economic, cultural, and political hub in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it ranked persistently among the best places to live in the Roman Empire.

The church in Corinth was a microcosm of the city, but things didn’t look good. Competition among members had plunged the community into conflict. Some bragged about belonging to Apollos, others about the greatness of Cephas, and still others about the prominence of Paul. Each faction praised its own apostle and disparaged the others. Imagine something with the energy of a presidential primary process, but without an election. They didn’t have candidates, only campaigns and Super PAC’s; and each campaign praised the theological insight of their apostle, significantly bolstering their own egos as well, since they were the ones recognizing true greatness!

Corinth was a hub in the Roman Empire, and Corinthians knew a lot about global trade, logistics, smart business deals, and how to sway others with the right word at just the right time. Rhetoric was a major part of the education among the elites, and people identified eloquence and cleverness of speech with power, wealth, and success. Correspondingly, the lack of refined and polished speech was a sure sign of low status  and of a lack of wealth and power.

When David Sedaris wrote, Me Talk Pretty One Day, he was only reflecting on his attempts to learn French. In Corinth and in other cities of the empire, that line would have been a song about upward mobility, about success and belonging. Me talk pretty one day: Clever speech was seen as a ticket to the top.

And how did Paul respond to the heated debate in the church about who was more eloquent and hence the greater apostle? He masked his anger with a serious joke.

“So, I understand some among you shout, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and others, ‘I belong to Apollos;’ and still others, ‘I belong to Cephas.’ Who then is shouting, ‘I belong to Christ?’ Huh?—Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name?”

And then he held up a single word against the surge of clever speech.

A young friend of mine a few years ago was shocked by the sudden realization that the cross was an instrument of torture and of executing the death penalty. “Isn’t that like putting an electric chair in the middle of the chancel,” he asked. “Isn’t that like hanging a noose above the baptistry?”

Twenty centuries of usage as a religious symbol, as jewelry and decoration have dulled the impact of the words cross and crucifixion.

As a particularly horrible form of public torture and execution in the Roman Empire, crucifixion was designed to demonstrate that nothing but complete surrender to the power of Rome would be accepted. Crucifixion was reserved for non-citizens, for slaves, prisoners of war, and insurgents—anyone who threatened the divinely sanctioned order of Rome. The cross had connotations of contempt, degradation, humiliation, and shame, and crucifixion was a virtual obscenity not to be discussed in polite company.

In a speech defending a Roman senator against a murder charge for which the prosecutor was seeking the death penalty and was apparently suggesting crucifixion, Cicero sought to sway the jury, declaring, “The very word ‘cross’ should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes, his ears.”[1]

And that very word ‘cross’ is what Paul holds up for all in Corinth to see. Paul’s gospel is a scandal, an insult to the sensibilities of educated men and women, an ugly interruption of any polite conversation about politics, the law, or religion. Paul proclaims Jesus Messiah, and him crucified. He does not make pretty talk of the cross, or clever talk. All he can do is hold it up; the cross disrupts everything we think we can say about the divine, or about justice, or power, or love.

We want signs. We want God to do something big and spectacular, something like a Super Bowl of truth where Jesus wins 40:0 while the whole world is watching; instead we must look at the cross. We want wisdom. We want the gospel to be philosophically elegant and aesthetically pleasing; instead we must listen to the cross. The power of God is both hidden and revealed in the cross; it cannot be known by what we consider convincing evidence or a conclusive argument. Where we expect power, weakness is given. Where we expect wisdom, foolishness is given. But in the community that gathers around the cross, in the community shaped by the love and obedience of Christ, weakness, compassion, and humility are known as the power of God, and divine wisdom is spoken and heard in ordinary speech and song.

We know how the world works; power is the ability to inflict suffering or escape from it, not to undergo it. We know how the world works; knowledge is all about controlling things and directing them toward our own goals. But the cross both embarrasses and embraces us; it turns our world upside down and starts it over. Rather than proving the sovereignty of our empires, the cross shatters our systems of power. Rather than confirming what the smartest talkers already know, it shatters our systems of knowledge. The God who hides and meets us in the cross of Jesus does not fit into our ideas of how the world works; the cross is the end of “how the world works” and it is the beginning of the world to come.

Wal-Mart knows how the world works, how to compete, out-perform, and rule in the retail markets. Unfortunately, the numbers on the price tags and in the earnings reports don’t tell the stories of the people who can’t keep up.

Corinth knows how the world works, how to harness education, technology, and investments to become a great city. Unfortunately, the reports from the chamber of commerce can’t go into much detail about the social costs of growing economic disparity in the city.

We are part of that world, as citizens, investors, workers, and consumers, and we know how it works. But in the cross of Jesus, we recognize God’s judgment of that world and the promise of a better one; one that isn’t defined by the incessant race to the top, but by the mercy of God and the wellbeing of our neighbor. The world in which the crucified Messiah is risen calls for new ways of living.

Years ago, Bishop Dom Helder Camara of Brazil gave us a timeless reminder that our primary mission is to be the good news. “Be careful of the way you live,” he said, “it is the only gospel most people will ever read.” Our life together is the proclamation of the gospel of the cross; we learn to walk before we talk. What might that look like?

Paul’s letters are full of examples; let me pick just one. A difficult issue for the first believers was the question of whether or not to eat food that had been presented as an offering in a pagan temple. Serving that kind of food was common practice at dinner parties, especially when meat was part of the menu. Some believers said, “No big deal; there’s only one true God, and those idols are no competition. We can eat anything we please, for Christ has set us free.” But there were also those who were worried about falling back into pagan ways, and they needed the support of a solid framework of rules to protect their fragile faith. And they stopped eating meat altogether, just to be safe.

Given Paul’s own faith and robust theology, you’d expect him to side with those who act boldly in Christ-given freedom. But he doesn’t. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up,” he says.[2] In a community centered around the power of the cross, building up comes before personal liberty or theological correctness. I must not let my liberty become a stumbling block for my brother or sister. We must walk together in love before we talk about our liberty and what we know.

Now we don’t worry much about food that might put in question our relationship with God or with each other. But we are talking a lot about music these days, and it’s easy to think of the things that might get us all puffed up about our freedom to sing whatever we please or shouting, ‘I belong to Isaac Watts’ or ‘I belong to Fanny Crosby’ or ‘I belong to the Dooby Brothers.’

But it’s also beautiful to imagine what might emerge when we submit to each other in love. We will know more fully the power of the cross, and we won’t need a single trip to Wal-Mart to have a very happy Easter.


[1] The Speech In Defence of Gaius Rabirius, sec. 16, in The Speeches of Cicero, trans. H. Grose Hodge, The Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1927) 467.

[2] See 1 Corinthians 8; the quote is from v.1

The Odd Season

Lent is an odd season. It goes very much against the grain of our lives. It’s a disruption of our routines, an invitation to try on a different kind of life in order to rediscover what matters most. Our culture can handle Mardi Gras and Easter really well, the parties and the bunnies, but during the weeks of Lent, you and I, we’re on our own. For Ash Wednesday, I bought a small bag of ashes, more than enough for all of us, for $3.82. There’s just not a big market for Lenten products, and so the world of commerce, entertainment, work, and consumption doesn’t know what to make of this odd season. I like that.

Lent begins with ashes smudged on our foreheads and somber words urging us to remember our mortality, “Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Remember and return are just two of the many words of this odd season that begin with the syllable “re.” Remember. Return. Repent. The ashes are all that’s left of the palm branches we waived when Jesus came riding into town and we were so excited about God’s reign on earth. The branches went up in flames much like the exuberance of our joy and our commitment to living as God’s people. Ashes is all that’s left, and we use them to trace the symbol of our hope on our foreheads. It’s Lent, time to repent, to rethink our priorities, reconsider our choices, remember our calling, renew our commitments, refocus our attention, reenter the place of truth, refuse the whispers of Satan, return to a baptized life, reclaim our identity as God’s own – in one word, repent.

Lent is an odd season. It goes very much against the grain of our lives. It’s a disruption of our routines, an invitation to slow down and step back and take a closer look and try on something different in order to rediscover what matters most and learn to remain faithful to that vision of life.

My friend Rob told his friends on Wednesday that he wouldn’t be on Twitter and Facebook for forty days. “Call me,” he said, “or better yet, come by and see me.”

My friend Melissa is doing a gasoline fast. “If I can’t get there on foot or on my bicycle, I’m not going,” she told me.

And Amy who talks more and faster than anyone else I know, Amy will sit in silence for twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes at night every day for forty days – twenty minutes without talking, without her phone, without tv or radio or her computer, twenty minutes of just Amy and silence. Why? Like you and me, they already have a nagging suspicion that some of their habits and routines are getting in the way of the life God intends for us, and now they embrace the opportunity to try on something different and develop new habits, habits fit for the reign of God on earth.

Do you know the difference between a flute and a stick? Of course, you do, it’s quite obvious. A stick is full of itself, and a flute is a stick that has been emptied of itself for the sake of music. We have a tendency to clutter our lives with junk, drown out the voice of God with noise, block the flow of the Spirit with our oversized egos or our undersized courage. We have a tendency to live like sticks when we’re meant to be flutes. The habits of Lent, disciplines like fasting, praying, and alms giving, create openings for the divine music maker to transform us. Lent is all about getting rid of the stuff that keeps us from being a symphony of praise.

Mark is a great companion for this season. The author of this gospel is a master of brevity and focus. The gospel was written to be read aloud in the assembly, and it takes about 80 quick minutes to do that; don’t try that with John. John invites us to linger, ruminate, and circle, but Mark rushes through the scenes with such speed that the only way to keep up is to keep our eyes on Jesus. Just a quick word statistic to illustrate this: the word ‘immediately’ pops up 41 times in Mark, and only 10 times in all the other New Testament writings combined. If you want to keep up, keep your eyes on Jesus, says the master of focus.

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Jesus had just come from Nazareth of Galilee and had been baptized by John in the Jordan. He didn’t choose to go away for a while, on some kind of wilderness retreat to consider his mission. No, the Spirit immediately drove him out, no time for leisurely narrative. One moment there’s a heavenly voice calling Jesus Son and Beloved, and before he can draw another breath, the Spirit drives him out, still wet, into the desert.

Wilderness. Forty days. Tempted by Satan. Wild beasts. Angels. Forty days in five quick strokes. It’s like Mark is flashing an image, and an entire movie starts playing in our minds. He plays just two or three chords, and song after song plays in our minds.

I hear wilderness – I see Hebrew slaves on the way to the promised land, Elijah fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel, I hear Isaiah singing 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 Moses on Mount Sinai comes to mind, Elijah on the way to Mount Horeb; it is as though all Mark has to do is call out a number and the sacred memory of God’s people begins to unfold.

I hear wild beasts – oh they are dangerous and threatening, and Mark’s first audience certainly thought of the wild animals to whom their brothers and sisters were thrown in Rome’s circus during Nero’s persecution; but there’s also the picture of the garden where Adam and Eve simply are with the wild beasts, and there’s Isaiah’s song of peace for all creation where the wolf lives with the lamb and the leopard lies down with the kid. Mark mentions beasts, and memories of peace, a deep longing for peace, and the hope for one to be with us in danger are awakened.

I want to slow down the pace for just a moment. I want to linger a little at the flash of a scene where the angels wait on Jesus. I want to tell you about Elijah, the man of God. He hadn’t been driven into the wilderness by the Spirit of God, but by the fury of Queen Jezebel who wanted him dead. He had fled into the wilderness for his life, but he was also exhausted. He was so exhausted, he wanted to die. He was tired of fighting. He was tired of being the lone voice of resistance in a culture that worshiped idols rather than the living God. “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 baked on hot stones and a jar of water. Elijah ate and drank and went back to sleep, and 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.”

All Mark has to say is, “And the angels waited on him,” and the story of Elijah comes to life in my mind, reminding me that in the wilderness, Jesus is being nourished for a difficult, demanding journey.

In the middle of it all sit the words, tempted by Satan. In scripture, Satan is the name given to a voice that whispers and argues, makes promises and raises questions with the sole purpose of making us doubt or forget that we are God’s own, created for glory, and beloved. But Satan doesn’t get any airtime here. Jesus emerges from the wilderness with the good news that God’s reign has come near, and he calls us to repent and believe the good news. He calls us to follow him on the way.

On Tuesday, Eboo Patel told us a story about Jesus that isn’t in any of the gospels. It is a story attributed to a muslim, the great Sufi teacher Attar of Nishapur.

As Jesus and his disciples entered a village, some of the villagers began to harass Jesus, shouting unkind words and harsh accusations. But Jesus answered them by bowing down and offering words of blessing. A disciple said to him, “Aren’t you angry with them? How can you bless them?” Jesus answered, “I can only give what I have in my purse.”

Jesus emerged from the wilderness and he lived the compassionate life of one who trusted fully that he was God’s beloved and who recognized even in those who abused him, God’s own beloved children. All he carried in his purse was the currency of God’s reign.

We collect today a special offering for Week of Compassion, our church’s ministry of disaster relief, economic development, and refugee resettlement. We are grateful for the opportunity to give and to give generously to the proclamation of God’s reign in acts of mercy and justice. But the call to live the compassionate life Jesus embodied is about more than money for mission. Jesus frees us to take a good, honest look at ourselves, because we too can only give what we have in our purse. He calls us to make this Lent the spring time of our salvation by rethinking our priorities, reconsidering our choices, remembering our calling, renewing our commitments, refocusing our attention, reentering the place of truth, refusing the whispers of Satan, returning to a baptized life, and reclaiming our identity as God’s own – holy and beloved.

Down in the River

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. In it we find the gospel in a nutshell.

Whenever we have a baptism here at Vine Street, we say a prayer, and in it we tell the story of life – and a river runs through it:

We give you thanks, Eternal God,
for you nourish and sustain all living things
by the gift of water.
In the beginning of time,
your Spirit moved over the watery chaos,
calling forth order and life.
In the time of Noah,
you destroyed evil by the waters of the flood,
giving righteousness a new beginning.
You led Israel out of slavery,
through the waters of the sea,
into the freedom of the promised land.
In the waters of Jordan Jesus was baptized by John
and anointed with your Spirit.
By the baptism of his own death and resurrection,
Christ set us free from sin and death,
and opened the way to eternal life.
We thank you, O God, for the water of baptism.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death;
from it we are raised to share in his resurrection;
through it we are reborn by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Water is powerful. Water can be chaotic, threatening, and destructive; and water nourishes, sustains, and protects life – in the womb, and the sea, and all over the earth. Water floods and flows, giving life and taking lives. Water is powerful.

A river runs through life from the beginning of creation to the city of God. Today we celebrate that Jesus stepped into that river.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, and a lot of people from Jerusalem and the countryside were heading down to the banks of the Jordan to listen to John’s preaching and to be baptized by him, confessing their sins. One by one they stepped into the water. They could smell wild honey on John’s breath, they could see the light in his eyes as they said what needed to be said. Then they let his strong, sun-burned arms plunge them beneath the surface, into the silent depth of the old river. Their ancestors once entered the promised land crossing this river; it marked the border between the wilderness and the home of God’s people. The men and women who came to John wanted to be worthy of being counted among God’s people, worthy to live in the land of God’s promise. They prayed that the river would wash away their sins, and that they would emerge from the chilly depth with their lives scrubbed clean, prepared to face the day of the Lord.

Jesus began his ministry where sinners gathered, and he came like the rest of them had come, walking on dusty roads and down to the river’s edge, waiting in line in the heat of the day, and finally stepping into the water to be baptized, like the rest of them. Such a crowd was gathered at the river, you couldn’t have picked him out from the many faces, and the way Mark tells the story, neither could John. Standing in the water, he didn’t realize that his arms were holding the one whose coming he had been announcing. He plunged him beneath the surface, into the cold silence, down into the darkness at the bottom.

As Jesus 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.”

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Water, Spirit, and a voice. As in the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth: darkness covered the face of the deep and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters, and God said: Let there be light! And there was light. And God saw that the light was good and called it Day. The beginning of the good news is like the beginning of creation, and it is a new creation: water, Spirit, and the voice of the One who creates, beholds, and names. God saw that the light was good. Earth and sea were good. Plants and trees were good. Sun and moon and stars were good. Fish and birds, cattle, creeping things, and wild animals of every kind were good. God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good. God was delighted. And when Jesus emerged from below the face of the deep, God was delighted. It was a new beginning for the world, a new day.

Mark doesn’t tell us a Christmas story of Jesus’ wondrous birth. Mark is the most economical of story tellers: no genealogy, very little biographical detail; all he tells us is, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Everything is pared down to the essentials: Jesus, the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit, enters the water and is himself baptized – acting in radical solidarity with all human beings, disappearing in the deep, not to be washed, but to drown and rise. In his baptism we find the gospel in a nutshell. This is where he comes from and where the heavens are torn apart never to be closed again above the earth.

Listen to this; it’s from a psalm in which God addresses the king: You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession; you shall break them with a rod of iron.[1] Many scholars believe that this psalm used to be recited at the coronation of Israel’s king. It speaks of the king as God’s son, which was a rather common idea among ancient cultures. The voice from heaven doesn’t quote the psalm word for word, but there is enough of an echo for us to hear Jesus of Nazareth being crowned with royal authority.

But the divine voice also echoes another passage of scripture. There is a short poem in Isaiah, where God says, Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.[2] Again it’s not a word for word quote but there’s enough of an echo to let us know that this beloved son is the chosen servant who will bring justice to the earth, and who will not break a bruised reed, nor quench a dimly burning wick. There’s enough of an echo to let us know that this is the one “given as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”[3] 

Jesus is the servant king who rules not with an iron rod but with words of authority and deeds of healing. He is a king in solidarity with his people, the chosen servant who entered the river with us. He is in the water with us, disappearing in the deep, not to be washed, but to drown and rise. He is in the water with us, to bring to an end all that keeps us from abundant living and make a new beginning.

When we are baptized into Christ, we die with him and rise into newness; his life becomes our life, his story our story, his way our way. We emerge from the waters assured of our identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters, assured of our kinship with God and with each other and with all those on the river banks hoping for a new beginning. The Son of God came that we might know who and whose we are, know it not just in our minds, but hear that voice in our proud and fearful hearts, “You are my child, my beloved, my delight.” No matter who you thought you were before you were immersed in the death and life of Christ, remember this, I have made you my own.

Many of you know Janet Wolf; she used to serve as the pastor of Hobson UMC over in East Nashville. Years ago, the story has been told many times, a woman named Fayette found her way to Hobson. Fayette lived with mental illness and without a home. She joined the new member class, and the conversation about baptism especially grabbed her imagination. During the class, she would ask again and again, “And when I’m baptized, I am…?” And the class learned to respond, “Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.”

“Oh, yes!” she would say, and then the class could go back to their discussion. This is how Janet describes the day of Fayette’s baptism.

Fayette went under, came up spluttering, and cried, ‘And now I am…?’ And we all sang, ‘Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.’ ‘Oh, yes!’ she shouted as she danced all around the fellowship hall.

Two months later, Janet received a phone call. Fayette had been beaten and raped and was at the hospital. Janet writes,

I could see her from a distance, pacing back and forth. When I got to the door, I heard, “I am beloved...” She turned, saw me, and said, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and...” Catching sight of herself in the mirror—hair sticking up, blood and tears streaking her face, dress torn, dirty, and rebuttoned askew, she started again, “I am beloved, precious child of God, and…” She looked in the mirror again and declared, “…and God is still working on me. If you come back tomorrow, I’ll be so beautiful I’ll take your breath away!”[4]

Fayette’s story breaks my heart, but I am in awe of how she clung to her identity as a precious child of God. She had been in the heart of the sea, and the waters raged and roared and the waves overwhelmed her violently, body and soul, but by the grace of God she remembered.

The Son of God came that we might know who and whose we are, and know it not just in our minds, but hear that voice in our broken and wounded hearts, “You are my child, my beloved, my delight.”


[1] Psalm 2:7-8

[2] Isaiah 42:1

[3] Isaiah 42:3-7

[4] Janet told the story in Disciplines 1999 (The Upper Room). I stumbled upon it in Jan Richardson’s blog, The Painted Prayerbook

The New Day

Just days before Christmas, I heard a portion of an interview on the radio. Somebody was talking to an astronomer about celebrations that emphasize light during the dark season of the year. They were talking about religious festivals like Hanukkah and Christmas, and non-religious traditions that nevertheless can be observed religiously, like putting a gazillion lights on every house and hedge. Thousands of years ago, our ancestors living in the northern hemisphere had noticed how, during the course of the fall, the sun set earlier and further south every day; how the days got shorter and the darkness lasted longer. And they noticed that somehow that trend was reversed and the days started getting longer. The season of life began once again, and that beginning called for celebration.

The astronomer in that interview mentioned that our New Year’s Day is totally random, astronomically speaking. It has no relation whatsoever to the moon or the sun or the stars. He then mentioned that as a graduate student he once spent an entire New Year’s Eve party locked in a closet by himself, in protest against the sheer arbitrariness of the occasion. I don’t know if his name happened to be Sheldon, but I hope somebody brought him a glass of champagne at midnight and gave him a kiss.

Anyway, when I think of New Year’s, a scene from Forrest Gump comes to mind, where Forrest, Lieutenant Dan, and two girls are celebrating New Year’s. They’ve had a few drinks, and the party is winding down, when, during a long moment of silence, one of the girls sighs, “Isn’t New Year’s great? One gets to start all over. Everybody gets a second chance.” She’s right, of course. The date for New Year’s may be completely random, but it’s good to celebrate beginnings, and even better to raise a glass to second chances. Grateful for the gift, we make promises to ourselves: to eat better and spend more time with the kids; to make our bed every morning and pick up our dirty socks; to text less and talk more.

New Year’s is great. One gets to start all over, and everybody gets a second chance. We leave the old year behind in the archives and step into the new era of possibility and promise. Now perhaps you think you are detecting a mocking undertone in what I’m saying; you may think I’m just making fun of new year’s resolutions we can’t even keep till February, but I’m not. Perhaps you are saying to yourself, “The year may be new, but we are not, we’re just another year older; and before the week is over, we’ll be back in our old, familiar routines.”

I don’t see it that way. I refuse to see it that way, although there is plenty of evidence to justify a little jadedness.I refuse to see it that way, because we just celebrated Christmas. We just celebrated the birth of Jesus. We just received anew the good news of great joy that to us a child is given who is God’s saving interruption of all our tired and deadly routines. We live in a new day, not because Earth has completed another course around the Sun, but because Christ is born, because the Sun of Righteousness is risen.

I love that this year New Year’s Day falls on the first Sunday after Christmas. We begin the year, not with heavy burdens of self-imposed resolutions, but with the gift of this child.

Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents brought him to Jerusalem to the temple to present him to the Lord, and Luke takes us along. We meet Simeon, a righteous and devout man, who has spent his years looking forward to the consolation of Israel. And we meet Anna, a widow of great age, who has devoted most of her life to worship.

Anna is there because that’s where she has been, night and day, ever since her husband died. Simeon is there because he followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit who had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah. We meet two old people who have shaped their lives around the promise and presence of God.

Outwardly they are bent by the years; climbing stairs demands all their strength and they must stop several times to catch their breath; their swollen joints hurt, and when Ruth says, “Getting old is not for sissies!” they smile, “No kidding!”

Outwardly they are bent by the years, but inwardly they live on tiptoe. They are open with anticipation, attuned to hear and see what God is doing in the world. For them, life and fidelity have become one. And when Mary and Joseph bring their child to be dedicated, Simeon takes him in his arms, he praises God and declares that now he is ready to die in peace. His arms are cradling God’s salvation, the good news for all people; his eyes have seen a light for revelation to the nations and for the glory of Israel.

David Steele was a Presbyterian minister and writer, and he wrote a little poem about Simeon that begins with a reference to yet another preacher.

This preacher
Claimed scholarly research had documented
That Simeon,
Of Simeon and Anna,
Had pronounced the very same blessing
(The one in Luke 2:27-35)
Over all the babies presented to him in the Temple
Those final years of his life

He was pulling my leg, of course.

But when I read the blessing
And thought about it,
I began to wish he was right
About Simeon … and those babies.
And I began thinking about our babies.
And I wished someone,
Some Simeon,
Might hold my grandbabies high … and yours …
The born ones and the not yet …
Proclaiming to them with great conviction,
“You are the saviors of the world!”
Meaning it so absolutely
Those young’uns would live it,
And love it,
And make it happen! [1]

Now before you wrinkle your brow with suspicion of blasphemous levity and complain about poetic license gone too far, think about it. Don’t you wish every child dedicated in our sanctuary would live as a light to the world and to the glory of God’s people? Didn’t Jesus say as much when he said to the disciples, “You are the light of the world! Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[2]

Don’t you wish some Simeon or Anna would hold up every child on earth and recognize the promise of God and declare it with praise? Don’t you wish every old man and woman would recognize the Christ in every boy and girl? I do, and I believe it is happening. It happens with those whose hopes and expectations have been shaped by the promises and presence of God. Faithfulness in prayer and study (Anna) help us become attuned to what God is doing in the world. Openness to the prompting of God’s Spirit (Simeon) helps us be in the right place at the right time to witness the presence of Christ.

With the birth of Jesus we celebrate God’s way of interrupting the world’s tired routines with new life that has the power to completely transform us and change the world. Simeon and Anna were shaped profoundly by the promises of God and hence by a story that was yet to be completed. Their hope and fidelity prepared them for a joyful, face-to-face encounter with God’s Messiah. Living on the other side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we see the story yet to be completed in the light of Christmas and Easter; and our wonder at the power and love of God is even greater than what Simeon and Anna could have imagined.

So how can we not add our voices of praise and blessing to theirs on this new day after Christmas? How can we not ask them to show us how to live in anticipation and hope every new day? How can we not ask them and the other Annas and Simeons among us to help us attune our senses and our souls to God’s unfolding redemption?

This is no day for burdening ourselves with resolutions. This is the day for recognizing the salvation of God.


[1] David Steele, The Next Voice You Hear: Sermons We Preach Together (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999) p. 46

[2] Matthew 5:14-15

Why doesn't God have a mommy?

Seven Questions 5

It may not be a great idea for a preacher to tell a bed time story during worship. Some of you may already be on the verge of dozing off, and all you need is a few moments with a soothing voice to gently take you to the land of dreams. I’m not going to worry, though; this is a fine story, and if it is the last thing you hear before you go to sleep, so be it.

Little Nutbrown Hare was going to bed. He held on tight to Big Nutbrown Hare’s very long ears. He wanted to be sure that Big Nutbrown Hare was listening.

“Guess how much I love you”, he said.

“Oh, I don’t think I could guess that,” said Big Nutbrown Hare.

“This much,” said Little Nutbrown Hare, stretching out his arms as wide as they could go. Big Nutbrown Hare had even longer arms. “And I love you this much,” he said. Hmm, that is a lot, thought Little Nutbrown hare.

“I love you as high as I can reach,” said Little Nutbrown Hare.

“I love you as high as I can reach,” said Big Nutbrown Hare. That is very high, thought Little Nutbrown Hare. I wish I had arms like that.

Then Little Nutbrown Hare had a good idea. He tumbled upside down and reached up the tree trunk with his feet. “I love you all the way up to my toes,” he said.

“And I love you all the way up to your toes.” said Big Nutbrown Hare, picking him up by his paws and swinging him up over his head.

“I love you as high as I can hop!” laughed Little Nutbrown Hare, bouncing up and down.

“And I love you as high as I can hop,” smiled Big Nutbrown Hare – and he hopped so high that his ears touched the branches above. Thats good hopping, thought Little Nutbrown Hare. I wish I could hop like that.

“I love you all the way down the lane as far as the river,” cried Little Nutbrown Hare.

“I love you across the river and over the hills,” said Big Nutbrown Hare. That’s very far, thought Little Nutbrown Hare. He was almost too sleepy to think anymore. Then he looked beyond the thornbushes, out into the big dark night. Nothing could be farther than the sky.

“I love you right up to the moon,” he said, and closed his eyes.

“Oh, that’s far,” said Big Nutbrown Hare. “That is very, very far.” Big Nutbrown Hare settled Little Nutbrown Hare into his bed of leaves, leaned over and kissed him good night. Then he lay down close by and whispered with a smile, “I love you right up to the moon – and back.”[1]

This is a wonderful story about being little and being loved. We read it to our children and grandchildren, and they know it’s about them and us – nobody needs to explain it to them. They know more about being little than we can remember, and they learn to love from being loved. We all do.

It doesn’t say in the story if Big Nutbrown Hare is Little Nutbrown Hare’s dad or grandpa or big brother, because it doesn’t really matter. Big Nutbrown Hare could be Little Nutbrown Hare’s mom or grandma or big sister or auntie. What matters is that every little one needs somebody big who loves them right up to the moon and back. Every little one needs somebody big who is there when they go to sleep and when they wake up. We all do.

We need somebody who’s there when we’re hungry or cold or frightened or proud of what we’ve done. Somebody who holds us when we need to be held and watches over us when we begin to move out into the world. Somebody who tells us the names of the animals and sings us to sleep. Somebody who hears us when we cry and comes to wipe the tears from our face.

Calin knows that. Calin is a little boy who is curious about many things; he asks great questions, and he gladly shares his observations about life. Calin says, “Everyone needs a mommy.” Everyone; there is no exception. People are different in so many ways, but this is something we all have in common. Everyone needs a mommy.

Everybody, of course, has a mother and a father, but that’s just simple biology. In order to thrive and flourish, though, and be fully alive, everyone needs to grow up under the loving gaze of a parent or, better yet, two, and aunts and uncles, grandparents and siblings and good friends and neighbors. Calin is little, but he can already imagine that life must be very, very hard for little ones without somebody big who loves them right up to the moon and back.

One day, just a few weeks ago, Calin had a big question. I don’t know when it came up. Was it after he had just finished brushing his teeth? Or was it in the car on the way to soccer practice? I imagine it came out of the blue after he had thought about it for a while: “Why doesn’t God have a mommy?”

Grown-ups know lots of things about God, simply because they’ve been around for a long time and have learned all kinds of interesting stuff and pondered deep questions. Grown-ups know that God is the very life of life, without end or beginning. Grown-ups know that God is the one mystery that is greater than all the mysteries of time and life. They know that God is the source and the ground and the goal of all things seen and unseen. Grown-ups know that God doesn’t need a mommy because God is not born, and God is never alone or hungry or afraid. Grown-ups walk along the edge of what words can express like artists on a tightrope, groping for words that will allow us to speak about God without putting God into a box.

Calin has picked up some of that time-tested knowledge, at home, in Sunday school, in worship – bold words about God – and he responds with what he knows. Mommy and Daddy were among the first words he learned because those names captured so much of his world. He knows how much he depends on them and their love for him, and he thinks about it, and – this is the most remarkable thing to me – he refuses to imagine a world where anyone would be without such loving attention and care. His question reflects more than curiosity about his world; it reflects kindness and compassion and the desire that everyone should receive what they need. Because we know Scripture and the testimony of generations, we know that Calin’s question is a godly one, one that reflects the will and character of God: Everyone needs somebody to love them right up to the moon and back.

Rather than give Calin one of the grown-up answers, we first need to tell him what a wonderful question he has asked; he knows in his heart the care and loving attention God has for all things great and small. Then perhaps we tell Calin that God is so great with love that even mom and dad, grandma and grandpa, and all grown-ups can be little ones with God, like one big family where everyone belongs and everyone receives what they need. And then we tell him and all our children that God knows very well what it’s like to have a mommy. We tell them the story of Jesus.

Jesus was as little and vulnerable as all of us are at birth. He didn’t grow up in a big, fancy house, but his mom and dad loved him. He climbed into their lap and loved listening to their heartbeat as much as any little boy or girl. They taught him to talk and walk, to sing and pray, and they told him bedtime stories. When he was sad or hurt, they comforted him. When he was sick, they sat next to his bed. And at least once a week, they made his favorite breakfast.

God is great with love, but God knows what it’s like to be little. God knows what it’s like to be hungry and thirsty and cold. God knows what it’s like to be sad and afraid and alone, but God is great with love.

One day, Jesus was the loneliest anyone would ever be. He carried all that frightens us; he carried all our meanness and hardness of heart and the loveless things we do to each other and to ourselves; he carried it all. And when he closed his eyes he didn’t smile. But God whispered, “I love you right up to the coldest and darkest place in the universe – and back.”

Because of Jesus God knows what it’s like to be little; because of Jesus we know just how great with love God is. Because of Jesus we know that nothing in life is more important than that we love each other well. So tell the story, sing the songs of love divine, all loves excelling, coming to make its humble dwelling in us; and have a merry Christmas, everyone!


[1] Sam McBratney, Anita Jeram, Guess How Much I Love You

Seven Questions: 3

A woman took a walk in the fields, along the edge of the woods. It was a glorious spring-day, and the air was filled with the songs of more birds than I could name – warblers, wrens, and chickadees, robins, finches, and sparrows. It was a celebration of life unlike anything you could even begin to imagine in the cold, rainy days of November, but the woman didn’t notice; she was a botanist.

I smiled when I heard this on the radio, and I could see her walking along the edge of the woods, her eyes on the ground, fully absorbed in noticing and naming unique and spectacular little green things most of us would call weeds, or maybe wildflowers on a good day.

Attention is a strange and wonderful thing. The things I do attend to can so completely absorb my senses that I forget about time and everything else. And the things I don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least not for me. We say we “pay attention,” suggesting that, when we are attentive, we are spending limited currency that should be wisely invested. We select a portion of all that’s there, and this thin slice of life becomes part of our reality, and the rest is consigned to the blurry margins and the shadows of oblivion.

Attention’s selective nature enables us to comprehend what would otherwise be chaos. We live in daily noise, some more so than others; we move through jungles of thoughts and ideas; we are drenched in feelings, constantly exposed to images; and attention allows us to protect our minds from overload and make our world from all that is happening.

About five years ago, the Washington Post published a great article. It was about a man playing the violine outside the Metro.

A youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was just before 8am on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, this violinist performed six classical pieces, and more than 1000 people passed by. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the greatest music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.

His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities – as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would great art have the power to disrupt the ordinary, hurried routines of passersby?

The musician played masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, including Bach’s Chaconne for solo violine, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

The acoustics in the arcade proved surprisingly kind. The stone, tile, and glass somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang – ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.

The writer apparently was paying attention, but what about the commuters?

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run – for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. Now, if a great musician plays great music but no one hears, is it still great and beautiful art or is it just more noise on a busy Friday morning?

Bell said, “At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Before he began, Bell hadn’t known what to expect, and he was nervous. “It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies; I was stressing a little (…) When you play for ticket-holders, you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence ...” [1]

It’s not that they didn’t like him, they simply didn’t hear him. For the vast majority of commuters that Friday morning Joshua Bell’s music was only part of the background while their minds were focussed on getting their kids to school before work or how to impress their boss with a presentation later in the day.

American Philosopher William James wrote in 1890, “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalisation, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.”[2]

Attention allows me to focus on some things and filter out others; it distills the vastness of all that is into my world – and that means I must make choices. And making choices requires effort. And sometimes – too often, I’m afraid – I just take the lazy way out and drift along, and I squander precious currency on whatever happens to capture my awareness. Some of us like to blame technology for our diffused, fragmented state of mind, it’s the internet, it’s the cell phones, it’s texting and social media, but our seductive machines are not at fault. They each come with a power button.

Attention implies a withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others. Thus the question is solely what it is we want to deal with, and that defines how often, how long, and how far we withdraw from other things.

I am talking about attention this morning because I believe it is at the heart of the question you asked me to address.

When we look back in history, we can see that dictators like Hitler were bad and we wonder why Christians didn’t stand up sooner to save the people. What about nowadays? When do we know to act, what to do? Where is our collective power?

When I first saw this question, my eyes skipped several words and jumped to “Hitler,” and I felt the pain and guilt and shame connected to that cursed name. I thought about the terror of those years, the unimaginable murder of Jews on an industrial scale, the war mongering, and how it all began in the hearts of human beings and with thoughts and words.

When we look back we can see… but the question that has haunted me since I started asking questions about my family, my people, my culture, my church, the question that I can’t answer is, why didn’t more people see when they didn’t have to look back? What was it they were paying attention to when they weren’t paying attention to the persecution of their neighbors? What were they paying attention to earlier when they weren’t paying attention to the transformation of public discourse into hate speech?

A pastor in Silesia, one of the many who had swallowed the junk food of so-called race theory and of Arian superiority, of German Christians and of “the Jewish question,” this pastor, this shepherd of his people, stood in the pulpit one Sunday morning and told the members of the congregation who didn’t qualify as Arian under the race laws, he told them to get up and get out – three times he told them, and we wonder why they didn’t all stand up and leave, we wonder why they didn’t all stand up and walk out together and leave him alone in his house of lies.

Then there was movement at the front of the sanctuary. There was a cross above the communion table, front and center, and the crucified Jesus came down from it and walked out, saying, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

What about nowadays? When do we know to act, what to do? I don’t know, what are you paying attention to?

Jesus points to the marginalized, the poor, and the suffering ones and says, “Can you see me now?”

Ezekiel, after lamenting the fall of the holy city, utters his severe indictment against the political class,

“Woe, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.”[3]

In a tradition of obligation that begins at Sinai, God’s covenant people are meant to be a community that is preoccupied with the well-being of the neighbor, and a community that is prepared to exercise public power for the sake of the neighbor, particularly the vulnerable neighbor in the person of the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant. Ezekiel insists that power cannot be sustained or give prosperity or security, unless it is administered with attention to the well-being of all who have little or no power. And Jesus asks, “Can you see me now?”

Everything depends on what we pay attention to. The real world in which God invites us to live is not the one made available by the rulers of this age, the masters of distraction, the peddlers of the simple answer, and the manipulators of our fears. The real world in which God invites us to live emerges when we let the good shepherd guide our attention, shape our imagination, and give us the courage to act.


[1] See the full article at

[2] William James, The Principles of Psychology, Chapter XI: Attention

[3] Ezekiel 34:2-5; the readings of the day were Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 and Matthew 25:31-46

Seven Questions: 2

You gave me seven questions to address in sermons, and this morning I will respond to the second one: How do we make the circumstances of our everyday life lead us to holiness?

We don’t talk much about holiness, do we? We are much more comfortable speaking about living our faith or seeking to embody the love of God. Holiness talk makes most of us uncomfortable because we immediately think of sour-faced, holier-than-thou people who keep a halo by the door and seem to draw deep satisfaction from reminding us how far from perfect we are.

You could have asked me, “How do I make the circumstances of my everyday life lead me to holiness?” and I’m glad you didn’t, because our focus in matters of faith and spirituality already tends to be too narrowly individualistic. One of the songs in our hymnal urges us in four verses to Take Time to Be Holy, as though holiness were something one can add to one’s schedule like 30 minutes of exercise or a doctor’s appointment.[1] The rest of the song, with the exception of the repeated opening phrase, is actually quite helpful in suggesting practices that can sustain a life of faith – I just wish the writer had not entirely neglected the communal nature of our faith.

In Israel, talk about holiness begins with the unambiguous summons of God at Sinai:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.

They were a bunch of cheap laborers who had just escaped the oppressive machinery of Egyptian brick production for a taste of sabbath, and at Sinai the Lord God who alone is holy claimed them as God’s own, a holy nation, a people set aside for the purposes and intentions of God, a people with a mission.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” is the theme of Leviticus, and it’s all about the proper order of things, how to have holy priests and holy sacrifices and holy offerings and holy festivals and holy shrines and holy bread and holy everything. Leviticus is all about taking great care in knowing and maintaining the boundary between what is holy and what is not. It’s all about not mixing things that shouldn’t be mixed and protecting the purity of the sacred from contamination with the profane.

And then you read Deuteronomy, and in Deuteronomy you find that quite different matters are given weight and attention. There you read,

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, don’t go back to get it. Leave it for the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan. And when you beat your olive trees, don’t strip what is left. Leave it for the immigrant, the widow, and the orphan. And when you gather the grapes of your vineyard, don’t go back to pick the ones you may have missed. Leave them for the immigrant, the orphan, and the widow.[2]

Holiness is not limited to matters of purity, it is also about the right ordering of social relationships. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that your God is passionate about justice for the poor. Be attentive to faithfulness in every dimension of your life together. Holiness is not about doing holy things in holy places during holy times. Holiness is about being a holy nation, a people claimed to manifest on earth the glory of the Holy One, a community that reflects in its life together the very character of God. All of the Old Testament is about this demanding relationship and the constant temptation to abandon it for the convenience of idolatry.

In the Babyonian exile the question became, how can we maintain our identity as God’s holy people without the land, without the temple, without priests and sacrifices and festivals, and without political power? How can we maintain our identity as God’s holy people when we have been stripped of all markers, except our stories and our songs?

How do we make the circumstances of our everyday life lead us to holiness when the circumstances aren’t favorable to the pursuit of holiness? What can we do to maintain our identity as a people claimed by God in a context where the gods of distraction are in charge and the masters of the sound bite rule?

Daniel suggests that we learn to say No. Daniel was a young man when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon told his palace master to find the best talent among the exiles from Judah, smart, strong, good-looking young men who graduated top of the class and were competent to serve in the king’s palace. They were to be taught the literature and language of Babylon, they were to be given a daily portion of the royal rations of food and wine, and after three years they were to be stationed in the king’s court. The palace master did as he was told, and among the young men he chose were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. And the first thing he did was give the palace interns new names, Babylonian names: Forget who you are and learn whose you are now. Daniel he called Belteshazzar. And this could have been the end of the story: super power assimilates God’s people – resistance is futile.

But Daniel – the name means ‘God is my judge’ – "Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the royal rations of food and wine."[3] He and his friends asked for a ten-day experiment: they would eat only vegetables and drink only water, and at the end of the period the palace official could compare them to the rest of the interns. That’s what they did, and in our day you know that you could watch the whole thing as a reality show on Babylonian tv, anyway, after ten days, Daniel and his friends were not only the smartest in the bunch, but also the best-looking.

How do we maintain our identity as God’s people when it is under pressure from every side? Daniel would say, “We remember whose we are, and we find practices that sustain our identity.” Daniel said No to the royal rations of food and wine.

The circumstances of our everyday life will not lead us to holiness, they are simply the circumstances in which we must remember our identity as a people who have been claimed by the Holy One to participate in the mission of Christ. We must engage in practices that allow us to stay mindful of who we are, rather than swallow the royal rations of the masters of our exile.

We are far from home, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know where we belong. Christ has made us his own, and in our baptism we were claimed as sons and daughters of God and we ourselves claimed that new identity as ours. We are holy, not because of anything we have done, but because we belong to Christ. And because we are holy, we are called to live holy lives.

As Paul says in today's passage from his first letter to the Thessalonians,

You learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. (…) Concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more.[4] Do what you know is pleasing to God, and do so more and more. Love one another, and do so more and more.

The circumstances of our everyday life will change, but our identity as God’s own will not, nor will our calling to embody in our life together the love of Christ, for the sake of the world. We are not far from home, because we know where we belong: every Sunday we gather at the table to receive and share bread and wine, the royal rations of our Lord.

We Disciples say that we are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, and I think it’s a beautiful little oddity that holiness and wholeness sound so very similar. Both speak of our being claimed for the purposes of God, and every time we gather at the table we remember and proclaim Christ’s work of reconciliation that makes us holy and whole.

And after we’ve eaten we turn, not to protect the purity of the holy meal from unholy contamination, no, but to help extend God’s hospitality into every dimension of our life together. One in Christ and therefore one with each other we gather around the table and practice a new economy, one that isn’t defined by greed; we practice a new politics that isn’t defined by grasping control; we practice a peace that isn’t defined by bigger guns; we practice the new life that is holy, whole, and true in every way because it is rooted in generosity, mercy, and faithfulness.

We refuse to eat the junk food of the masters of our exile, because every Sunday we are invited to the royal banquet. And that’s why we can sing a better song than Take Time to Be Holy. We sing, Y’all Take a Day Off to Remember Who You Are. Y’all Take a Day Off to Celebrate Whose You Are. Y’all Take a Day Off to Get a Taste of Home. And we sing it to the tune of SABBATH.


[1] Chalice Hymnal #572, words by W. D. Longstaff, 1882

[2] Deuteronomy 24:19-21

[3] Daniel 1:8

[4] See 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

Seven Questions: 1

A few weeks ago, I asked you to jot down any questions you wanted me to address in a sermon, and you did; then I asked you to pick your top seven, and you did. I had a lot of fun with the process, watching the questions come in and wondering what I might say in response, and I got a little nervous when I watched my favorite question of all slowly drop from the top rank to the bottom. I was greatly relieved to see it in sixth position when the polls closed, and in case you didn’t know, my favorite question is one submitted by Calin: “Why doesn’t God have a mommy? Everyone should have a mommy,” and I’ll join him in wondering about this deep concern on the Sunday before Christmas. Today, though, I will try to respond to this one:

What should be the role of the church versus the moral and ethical corruptions of modern society? Handmaiden? Critic? Gadfly? Partisan supporter? Evaluator? Other?

It’s a question that offers its own possible answers, and I suppose I could choose one or perhaps two and elaborate a bit on my choice, why the church should be doing this or that or the other. Handmaiden? Sure, why not, as long as she remembers that she can’t serve two masters. Critic? Absolutely, since the word of God judges our thoughts, words, and deeds. Gadfly? I love the image of a tiny fly moving a heavy bear with a single sting. Partisan supporter? No, not a good idea, unless we think of God’s people as partisans of God’s reign in the thick forest of the world. Evaluator? Sounds a little distant to me, I see people in lab coats with clip boards or figure skating judges, not a pleasant thought. Which leaves “other,” and other with a question mark invites all kinds of possibilities to describe the church’s role versus the moral and ethical corruptions of modern society. Healer? Enforcer of divine law? Jester?

It’s not that there are so many options and I just can’t make up my mind. My problem bubbles up long before I get to the first question mark: I don’t really know what the church is. There are more churches in this city than all flavors of pop tarts, jello, and ice cream combined. Which one of them is the church that is to take on some role or another? Or is it all of them together, somehow?

Growing up, I was encouraged to study the ancient creeds of the church and the confessions of the reformation, and I learned to say,

The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.[1]

Sounds simple enough, but look where agreeing on doctrine got us. And I’ll spare you the much wordier and much fierier paragraphs from the Westminster Confession.[2]

What the church is has been contested since the days of Peter, Paul, and Mary, and I’m not talking about the 60’s that tend to get blamed for everything these days. In talking about the church, the best we can do is confess our faith in the unity of the church, confess our sin of fracturing that unity again and again, and proclaim our faith that nevertheless the body of Christ is alive in the world. Despite the scandal of a fractured church, the mission of Christ in the world continues and we have the privilege of having been called to participate in it. So perhaps we should ask the question differently: What should our role be, what should you and I do about the moral and ethical corruptions of modern society?

We should notice them, and not simply in others, which is always convenient; we should notice them and our own entanglement in them. We may want to talk about business ethics on Wall Street, but we also need to talk about our own greed. We may want to talk about sex and violence on tv, but we also need to talk about putting tv’s in our children’s rooms. We may want to talk about drugs in sports, but we also need to talk about our own methods of self-medicating to numb the pain or to push us on. Yes, we should notice the corruptions, and we should begin to name them, and I for one believe we should make a habit of sitting with the prophets and the psalms, and learn to lament again and cry.

Our very souls have been invaded and colonised by the forces that corrupt our life together, and we need strong partners like Amos to free our imagination from the endless commercials and silly soundbites that occupy our minds. We live in dark times, and we keep telling ourselves and each other that it’s the economy, when in truth we have lost all sense of what it means to live together.

Amos cried when he spoke to the people of the city who had done well for themselves. “You desire the day of the Lord? What makes you think it is a day of glory and light? It is a day of darkness, a day of judgment and truth.” And then the tears of Amos became transparent as God’s own tears of anger and grief:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.[3]

We live in dark times, and we keep telling ourselves and each other that it’s the economy, and we keep singing our songs or fighting over what songs to sing and presenting our offerings while God is in tears over the ruin of God’s people.

The light that shines in this darkness is the call of God to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. The light that shines in the darkness is the call to a life together that embodies the commandments of God.

What is our role versus the moral and ethical corruptions of our time? We notice them and our own entanglement in them, we name them, we lament the absence of fullness, and then we respond anew to the call of God to a life of faithfulness. And faithfulness doesn’t come easy. It is much easier to draw a line, choose a side, and start shouting across whatever the line of division may be.

I recently listened to a couple of conversations Krista Tippett had with two Christian leaders from very different camps, and I was moved and encouraged by their wisdom.

Richard Mouw is a conservative Protestant who is strongly opposed to same-sex marriage. Since 1993, he has been president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, one of the largest centers of Evangelical higher education in the world.

Frances Kissling is best known as the President of Catholics for Choice, a post she held from 1982 to 2007, fighting to keep abortion legal in this country. Both have been involved in heated debates about difficult moral and ethical issues, both learned important things, and I want to make room for their voices this morning.

Mr. Mouw said, “The kind of Evangelical fundamentalist Christianity that formed me early on had a very strong streak of incivility. We not only had enemies, but we felt that it was essential to our spiritual identity that we have enemies. It’s almost as if we’ve always got to have somebody that we feel legitimate about really hating. A lot of people today who have strong convictions are not very civil, and a lot of people who are civil don’t have very strong convictions, and what we really need is convicted civility.”

Then he went all the way back to Aristotle to explain that civility is about learning to live in the city, learning to live with strangers, and he added, “for Christians who take the Bible seriously, it isn’t that we have these convictions and then we also got to try to be civil, but the truth element of civility is itself one of the convictions.”

The truth is at stake not just in the positions we take, but in how we take them. Mouw continued, “[In First Peter, there’s] a verse that gets used all the time among Evangelicals, ‘Be ready at any time to give a reason for the hope that lies within you, of anyone who ask it of you.’ We’ve always had that. You know, we’ve always got to be making the case. We’ve always got to be defending our beliefs against people who disagree with us. But we seldom go on and quote the next part of that verse, which is, ‘And do so with gentleness and reverence…’ I’ve often thought how different our theological and even our interreligious disagreements would get played out if we constantly said to ourselves, I’ve got to treat the other person with gentleness and reverence.”

And then he added, “Maybe it’s time to stop yelling at each other and accusing each other in public and maybe we ought to just sit down and turn the agenda into something where I would ask my gay and lesbian activist friends, ‘what is it about people like me that scares you so much?’ And [then they] in turn would listen to me [as I tell them what worries me so much about what they are advocating. And then we’d] talk about hopes and fears rather than angrily denouncing each other as homophobes or as people who are engaged in despicable behavior.” That would be a very different kind of conversation.[4]

Ms. Kissling, a.k.a. “the cardinal of choice,” was very frank. “I’m not a big believer in common ground. I think that common ground can be found between people who do not have deep, deep differences. But to think that you are going to take the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Organization of Women and they are going to find common ground on abortion is not practical. But I do think that when people who disagree with each other come together with a goal of gaining a better understanding of why the other believes what they do, good things come of that. I have learned — I have changed my views on some aspects of abortion over the last 10 years based upon having a deeper understanding of the values and concerns of people who disagree with me. And as a result, I have an interest in trying to find a way that I can honor some of their values without giving up mine. What is it in your own position that gives you trouble? What is it in the position of the other that you are attracted to? Where do you have doubts? [We must learn to] acknowledge what is good in the position of the other, acknowledge what troubles us about our own position. The need to approach others with enthusiasm for difference is absolutely critical to any change.”[5]

I am grateful for the wisdom of these seasoned leaders. In nurturing “convicted civility” and “enthusiasm for difference” we will find better answers to the moral and ethical challenges of our time, and we certainly get closer to a renewed and faithful vision of life together.


[1] The Augsburg Confession (1530), Art. 7

[2] The Westminster Confession (1646), ch. 25

[3] Amos 5:18-24



Where Are You From?

Recently, I overheard a conversation between two Lutheran pastors. They were talking about what to make of this Sunday at the end of October when many Protestants dust off the old battle drums for Reformation Sunday. One of the pastors said,

As it stands, Reformation Sunday is the only Sunday of the entire church year that commemorates a moment in the history of Christianity rather than a moment in the narrative of Scripture itself. It is elevated and idealized precisely because it is so unique. This needs to stop. 

The other replied,

You’re absolutely right. But I would argue that we should change how we celebrate Reformation Sunday rather than bury it. True, we’ve set our liturgical calendar to commemorate the date on which Brother Martin posted his 95 theses for public consideration.  However, one could (and I believe should) point out that there have been moments like this throughout the church’s history, all of which are worthy of being called reformation moments, moments where the church has been re-oriented toward the gospel, moved away from the many, many roads down which our distracted, narcissistic minds can take us.[1]

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

The last thing we need are more opportunities to bolster tribal identities within the body of Christ. Luther himself was horrified when he heard people referring to themselves as “Lutherans.” “I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians.” Amen to that. And so we sing “A Mighty Fortress” on this Sunday with a nod to tradition, but we don’t make this a Protestant holy day; instead we celebrate that the Spirit of the risen Christ continues to work in such a fractured community as the church, and today we do so by remembering and giving thanks for those who have gone before whose lives embodied Christian faithfulness. We celebrate All Saints Sunday in a thoroughly apostolic manner: Paul addressed his letters to the saints, and he wasn’t writing to the few, the chosen, the stars among God’s people, but to all who had found new life through faith in Jesus Christ.[2]

It is difficult for us to say and celebrate who we are without stumbling into nasty messes. Who, for example, is an American and who is not? Well, the first people who came to this land were from Asia, and when the first Spanish settlers arrived, they called them Indians. They mingled and settled in what are today Florida and New Mexico, but the meaning of “American” continued to change. People came from England, Scotland, and Wales, from Holland and Germany, some to escape religious or political persecution, others to seek economic opportunity. Hundreds of thousands, of course, were brought here against their will on slave ships from ports on the West African coast.

The first U.S. Census in 1790 counted nearly 4 million people, the majority of them of English, Welsh, or Scottish heritage; the next-largest group were 757,000 blacks, followed by Germans. Not all of them qualified as “Americans”, though; only “free white persons” could apply for citizenship. Then came large groups of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, and Jewish immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe, constantly changing the mix of cultures, especially in cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. Emma Lazarus, herself the daughter of Portuguese Jewish immigrants, captured the nation’s welcoming spirit in an 1883 poem—“Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...”

But the surge in Irish and Italian immigrants to a mostly Protestant nation provoked a backlash against Catholics, and immigrants in general, with some believing that the Pope was plotting to undermine U.S. democracy. No wonder many Protestants were eager to celebrate Reformation Day with great enthusiasm!

Out West, the presence of Chinese immigrants also provoked protests. The abolition of slavery had produced a demand for cheap labor, and Chinese workers had been brought in to build railroads. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred all immigrants from China for 10 years, and the ban was later extended – while immigration from Europe continued unabated for almost 40 years.[3] Immigrants from Europe were considered better suited for becoming Americans than immigrants from China.

Maya Lin is a Chinese-American artist who gained worldwide recognition for designing the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C.. Years ago, I heard her recall in an interview a recurring scene in which somebody asked her where she was from. “When I said, ‘from Ohio,’ they replied, ‘No, where are you really from.’” Lin was born in Athens, Ohio, but in the imagination of those who asked her, people from the American heartland “just didn’t look like that.”

Just days ago I read something Benjamin Franklin wrote back in 1751 about the Pennsylvania Germans whom he considered to be a “swarthy” racial group distinct from the English majority in the colony.

Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion?[4]

Other 18th-century proponents of Anglifying all people accused Germans of laziness, illiteracy, and a reluctance to assimilate, in addition to their excessive fertility and their Catholicism.[5] What strikes me in those statements, besides their rudeness and blatant racism, is how easily they could be recycled for use against Irish and Italian immigrants – and they were – as well as against several Spanish speaking groups, summarily referred to as “Mexicans” these days.

The circumstances of our lives change constantly, sometimes slowly and gradually, sometimes too fast for our souls and imaginations to keep up. And when the world around us changes faster than our minds, we get anxious. When the world around us changes faster than our ability to mourn our losses and comprehend the startling newness of things, fear creeps in. And when fear creeps in, we seek safety. And nothing feels safer than circling the wagons and shouting ugly epithets at those on the outside. Much of our public discourse reflects that sad reality these days. We just keep going down the many, many roads our distracted, narcissistic minds can take us. How can we be re-oriented toward the gospel in this fear-feeding mess?

Today’s reading from 1John urges us to remember who we are.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

Perhaps you think ‘children of God’ sounds a little too cute, too infantilizing. Try this: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called sons and daughters of God; and that is what we are.

Everything around us may be in flux, but our Christ-given identity and status as those who belong to God will not change. We speak different languages, we sing different songs, we were born on different parts of the planet, we tell different stories, and we uphold different values – but see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called sons and daughters of God; and that is what we are. The world changes constantly, and when we locate the core of who we are in the world, we are building on hopelessly unstable ground and we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and worse. When we locate the core of our identity in the world, we end up being defined by the world: we become what we do or what those in power need us to be; we become what we earn; we become the clothes we wear, the neighborhoods we live in, and the schools our children attend; we become the job we have or no longer have, we become the house we can afford or slaves of our mortgage payments. But see what love the Father has given us, that we should be called sons and daughters of God; and that is what we are.

What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.

Everything around us will continue to change, but who we are will not change, but rather continue to be revealed. We are growing into a future which resembles the one in whom we dwell, and that is why we can face all the changes and the losses they represent, with courage and with hope. Nothing will change who we are, and we will see with greater clarity what it means to be called sons and daughters of God. Our likeness will no longer be veiled by layers of ignorance and fear.

The witness who speaks to us through this passage from 1John urges us to live in the kingdom of God, to make that our first address, and to let it shape our loyalties. Then we continue to live in the world, but we don’t believe the stories it tells us about ourselves and others; we don’t allow its anxieties to define us. We trust the word that we are sons and daugthers of God, and we dwell in the land of mercy. And when our neighbors start circling the wagons, we will, by the grace of God, have better hopes to affirm.

There is no better way to honor the spirit of reformation or the memory of those who have gone before than to listen more carefully for the word of God amid the clamor of our days.



[2] Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:2


[4] The papers of Benjamin Franklin. Ed. Leonard W. Labaree. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1959. vol 4:234


Full of Blue

How long has it been since you heard the Ten Commandments read out loud?[0] I don’t remember, it’s been quite a long time. In some old churches on the East coast, worshipers and tourists can still find the words written on the sanctuary walls, framing the lectern and the pulpit, the baptistery and the table. Early Anglican tradition in the colonies, long before the American Revolution began, required that the Ten Commandments were to be “set up on the East end of every Church and Chapel, where the people may best see and read the same.” In those days, the East end was the front of the sanctuary. Before the service began, you could sit in the pew, meditate on the writing on the wall and reflect on your week in light of the ten words.

Martin Luther was convinced that knowing the Ten Commandments was tantamount to knowing the entire Bible. “This much is certain,” he wrote in the introduction to the Large Catechism, “those who know the Ten Commandments perfectly know the entire Scriptures and in all affairs and circumstances are able to counsel, help, comfort, judge and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.”[1] He knew, of course, that knowing the ten perfectly doesn’t end with being able to recite them – but it certainly begins there. There are ten of them, which is very good because we can use our fingers to help us learn and remember. They are, for the most part, brief and simple, so we can take them to heart and hold them in memory. They become part of us so they can guide us in our living. Knowing them perfectly is not just about unfolding every possible nuance of their meaning, but about living with them, every day; becoming familiar with them as with a path you walk every morning, and every morning it shows you something new. They are more than just rules and laws; they are good words that open us to the will and wisdom of God.

At the heart of the ten commandments is the good word about remembering the sabbath. Jesus taught that the sabbath was created for humans, and not the other way round, humans for the sabbath.[2] Of course, we want to know what it means that the sabbath was made for us and whose it is. I thought about that particular commandment these last few days, as I sat and chatted with Emily Dickinson. I had read her little poem, Some keep the Sabbath, and, curisously, I both loved it and felt moved to protest.[3]

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I, just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I’m going, all along.

It’s easy to see her, sitting in the orchard with the birds, isn’t it? She’s smiling, there’s not one boring moment, the sermon is never long. I think I know the place she’s writing about so beautifully, and I think you know it too.

A couple of weeks ago, nine of us drove to the mountains. The sky hung low like a grey blanket, and the early morning air was cold. We drove to Chattanooga, on to Cleveland, and up the Hiwassee, waiting for the sun to rise. We pushed our kayaks in the water and started paddling down the river – and with every paddle stroke, it seemed, the clouds got thinner. Suddenly the sky was bluer than a Titans jersey, and the light awakened the colors all around us: the trees on either side of the river, with specks of yellow and red, the ancient rock faces with hues of silver and copper, the bright green patches of eelgrass in the water right below us, and on the edge of an island a little red flower whose name I still don’t know. It was as though the sunlight had kissed the world awake and everything was singing.

Heaven is declaring God’s glory;
the sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork.

We were paddling down the river surrounded by an anthem of praise – but there was no speech, no words, only the lovely sound life makes when it is very good.

The Psalm we heard this morning also sings about this place where the sermon is never long.

One day gushes the news to the next, and one night informs another what needs to be known. Of course, there’s no speech, no words — their voices can’t be heard — but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.

Who, then, in Ms Dickinson’s orchard, speaks of Sabbath? Who proclaims the promise of peace in the garden? Who told her that the joy she finds there is of the heavenly kind? Neither day nor night nor the bobolink break the silence of nature with a word of heaven.

Kathleen Norris, in her book Dakota, writes about a little girl she met at an elementary school where she taught creative writing for a while. The little girl had recently moved from Louisiana to the vast Dakota landscape, and she wrote what Norris says is “the best description I know of the Dakota sky.” It’s a most beautiful line:

‘The sky is full of blue / and full of the mind of God.’[4]

There is a fullness we cannot know unless a voice ends the silence of the sky. The psalmist knows what it is like when we see more than we can say, when we run out of words to give voice to our awe and wonder and we reach for the power of metaphor. In the psalm we heard, the sun rises like a groom coming out of his honeymoon suite, and like a warrior, it thrills at running its course. But unlike Ms Dickinson, the psalmist also reminds us that God has broken through the silence of nature, disclosing God’s name and making known the mind of God in the liberation of God’s people and the gift of the commandments. Suddenly, out of the blue, the psalm sings of the Lord’s perfect instruction, faithful laws, and pure commands, of God’s torah in words that revive, make wise, gladden the heart, enlighten and last.

They are more desirable than gold —
they are sweeter than honey —
and there is great reward in keeping them.

The psalm is as exuberant in giving voice to the wonders of God’s word as in singing of the silent witness of earth and sky.

Every creature is a song of praise, a poem of divine glory – and so are we, when we are fully alive. Yet we are only fully alive when we can tell God from idol. For us to be fully alive, we must live with these ten good words and with the One whose life embodied and proclaimed their deepest meaning.

I told Ms Dickinson that I believe we must keep the Sabbath going to Church not only to hear about and taste the promise of Sabbath peace in contrast to a world that tells us to do what we want and then goes on to tell us what to want. We need to keep the Sabbath going to Church because our coming together is part of the peace God intends. We do not come to the garden alone. We don’t paddle down the river by ourselves. We must be together in order to know God’s good word perfectly. Hearing it again and again is the beginning. Embodying it together is the fulfillment.

The psalm has a third movement after the silent witness of creation to the glory of God and the exuberant praise for God’s torah. The third movement is quiet and introspective. It takes us back to the pew in a little church somewhere in Virginia or Massachusetts where the Ten Commandments are written on the wall facing the congregation. Perhaps you got there early, before the service began; perhaps the sermon was long and your mind started wandering. Now you sit there reading the words, from the first to the tenth, and you reflect on your life in their light. You notice the shadows. “Can anyone know what they’ve accidentally done wrong?” you wonder with the psalmist and you pray with the psalmist, “Clear me of my unknown sin and save your servant from willful sins. Don’t let them rule over me.”

The psalm moves from the grandeur of the heavens to the surrender of the heart; from the power of God to create and speak to the power of God to forgive and save. The final words are not words about God, but words addressed to God. The final word is a heart trusting in God.

I promised Ms Dickinson that today’s sermon would not be long. So allow me to close with a song whose writer was inspired by our psalm.

All things praise thee—night to night
sings in silent hymns of light;
all things praise thee—day to day
chants thy power in burning ray;
time and space are praising thee,
all things praise thee—Lord, may we![5]


[0] In worship, we read the ten commandments and Psalm 19 from the Common English Bible

[1] The Book of Concord: the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, by Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, Charles P. Arand (Augsburg Fortress, 2000) 382; older editions online, e.g.

[2] Mark 2:27


[4] Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993) p. 21

[5] George W. Conder, Appendix to the Leeds Hymn Book, 1874; sounds lovely to the tune of "For the Beauty of the Earth"