Join the song

Be careful then how you live (Eph 5:15). That’s a pretty neat and concise line, isn’t it? Everything important has been said already. Everything God has done has been said already. Now it’s your turn; be careful then how you live.

Nancy and I have been talking about college application essays and she told me about the kid who got into Harvard with an essay of four syllables. “Why do you want to go to Harvard?” was the topic. The kid wrote, “I want to learn.” When what needs doing has been done and what needs saying has been said, you can be brief.

Life, according to the letter to the Ephesians, is now the life of reconciliation in Christ. What needs doing has been done. All of creation, things on earth and things in heaven are on a trajectory toward shalom. Be careful then how you live. Remember that you have been chosen and called by God, and live worthy of your calling. Remember that you, all of you and the ones you still call them, rembember that you are one body in Christ, and live accordingly. Remember that you are being rooted and grounded in love – not in sin, or fear, or shame – remember and live.

Wake up, sleeper! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you (5:14). Live as a child of that light, in that light. Everything else is commentary: Don’t live foolishly, but wisely. Don’t live in ignorance, but in the knowledge of God’s will for creation, that is, to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth, in Christ (1:9-10). Make the most of the time because it is precious. Align every moment of your life with God’s movement toward the glorious fulfilment of creation’s purpose. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery.

You could have a little fun with that part of the letter, pointing out that getting drunk with beer or Jack must apparently be OK since they aren’t mentioned here and where the scriptures are silent, we are silent. We could have a little fun with that verse. A Methodist colleague of mine grew up as an heir of that tradition’s tee-totaling commitment; he even avoided “butter rum” LifeSavers: the flavoring, he was told, might lead him down a path of ruinous temptation.[1]

We could have a little fun with that verse. But if you struggle with alcohol addiction or if you grew up in a family where excessive drinking triggered destructive behavior or if you even just heard how excessive drinking increases the likelihood of sexual assault exponentially or if you have talked to men and women who found themselves in prison or on the street because of the demon drink, if any of those apply to you, you may not feel like having a little fun with the letter’s cautionary instruction. In fact, you may want to suggest that we broaden the term wine to include all drugs, all habits, all dependencies that ultimately fill us with numbness and prevent us from being filled with the fullness of God (3:19), which is the fullness of love and life. Do not get drunk with fake life, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit. Be filled with the fullness of God by the Spirit. Fake life may sparkle in the cup and go down smoothly, but at last it bites like a snake and leaves you numb; being filled with it is like being drained of life that is real.

Being filled with the Spirit also has its intoxicating effects: You sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to each other, you sing and make melody to the Lord in your hearts, you give thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and you are subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Being filled with the Spirit causes all kinds of singing and music to erupt, thanksgiving to rise, and mutual submission to flourish. Being filled with the Spirit causes our hearts to sing, our lips to brim over, and our life together to sound and feel and smell and look and taste like heaven. Being filled with the Spirit our life turns into worship, from the center of our being and with our whole being. For a moment, heaven and earth are one as they are meant to be and as they will be when God has completed the work of redemption. Be careful then how you live, because any moment can be that moment when fullness shines through.

Perhaps you wondered why we have included a couple more psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs in today’s worship service. Are you still wondering?

Over the next few weeks we will have a series of educational programs on worship with a variety of teachers, every Sunday morning at 9, in our fellowship hall. Because our reading from Ephesians invites us not only to sing, but also to reflect on singing as an essential part of our life and worship, I wanted to share a handful of brief texts about singing from various generations of the church. One of these texts will take us back all the way to the beginning of creation, so I don’t need to go that far.


The first Christians worshiped in homes, and Paul, in 1 Corinthians 14, gives us a glimpse of what happened in their gatherings:

“When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” (14:26).

Among that first generation of believers, they didn’t worry about what to wear to church or how long the service would be; they thought about what to bring, and apparently to bring a hymn meant to sing it. And those who brought a lesson or a prayer also sang, because the scriptures were chanted rather than spoken.


Four generations later, Tertullian (c. 170-225), a famous Christian writer from North Africa, described what happened in their gathering:

“After the washing of hands and the lighting of lamps, each is urged to come into the middle and sing to God, either from sacred scriptures or from his own invention.”[2]

How about that? What if you were too shy to step into the middle and sing? Could you perhaps just stay in the circle and hum or clap? He doesn’t mention anything about that.


A couple of hundred years later, when there were buildings designed specifically for Christian worship, Bishop Ambrose of Milan (4th century) said in a sermon,

“This is a symphony, when there resounds in the church a united concord of differing ages and abilities as if of diverse strings. [This symphony] joins those with differences, unites those at odds and reconciles those who have been offended, for who will not concede to him with whom one sings to God in one voice?”[3]

Beside the power of our praise for building up the body of Christ, uniting differing abilities in congregational song was a great development for worshipers convinced they cannot sing (I won’t name any names), because they could blend into the symphony of praise with the saints and angels, regardless of what the pitch was in heaven. Together we sound magnificent!


Augustine, also from North Africa, was very concerned about not letting the sweetness of melodies distract from the sacred words of songs, but then he surprised everybody with statements sounding very pentecostal:

“Do not search for words, as if you could find a lyric which would give God pleasure. Sing to [God] “with songs of joy.” This is singing well to God, just singing with songs of joy. But how is this done? You must first understand that words cannot express the things that are sung by the heart. Take the case of people singing while harvesting in the fields or in the vineyards or when any other strenuous work is in progress. Although they begin by giving expression to their happiness in sung words, yet shortly there is a change. As if so happy that words can no longer express what they feel, they discard the restricting syllables. They burst out into a simple sound of joy, of jubilation. Such a cry of joy is a sound signifying that the heart is bringing to birth what it cannot utter in words. Now, who is more worthy of such a cry of jubilation than God (…), whom all words fail to describe? If words will not serve, and yet you must not remain silent, what else can you do but cry out for joy? Your heart must rejoice beyond words, soaring into an immensity of gladness, unrestrained by syllabic bonds.”[4]

That is very good news for those of us who know the first verse of some hymns, but little else, and can’t see a thing without reading glasses – we don’t need to pretend to be singing along with everybody else by mouthing all the words, no, we sing joyfully and lustily with A’s and U’s and O’s, unrestrained by syllabic bonds.


One more voice, this one from the first half of the 20th century. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together,

“‘Sing to the Lord a new song,’ the Psalter enjoins us again and again. It is the Christ-hymn, new every morning, that the family fellowship strikes up at the beginning of the day, the hymn that is sung by the whole Church of God on earth and in heaven, and in which we are summoned to join. God has prepared for himself one great song of praise throughout eternity, and those who enter the community of God join in this song. It is the song that the ‘morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy’ at the creation of the world (Job 38:7). It is the victory song of the children of Israel after passing through the Red Sea, the Magnificat of Mary after the annunciation, the song of Paul and Silas in the night prison, the song of the singers on the sea of glass after their rescue, the ‘song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb’ (Revelation 15:3). It is the new song of the heavenly fellowship.”[5]

Christ has made us his own. Let us be careful then how we live; let us join the song.


[1] L. Gregory Jones, “Trouble brewing.” The Christian Century 123, no. 17, p. 35.

[2] OxHCW, 770.

[3] OxHCW, 773.

[4] SBM, 61.

[5] SBM, 136.

Drop the pseudo

The second congregation I served was in Erzingen, a village in the south of Germany, on the Swiss border; lovely country, hills covered with vineyards; on clear days I could see the the Alps to the south. The bishop had told me the people there weren’t quick to embrace newcomers, but, like a good brick oven, once they had warmed up they would stay warm for a long time. The story I want to tell you, though, has nothing to do with the beauty of the land or the slow-burning love of its people.

The hospital was a few miles down the road, in the town where most of the stores were and the high schools and the doctor’s offices. One day I drove there to visit a parishioner, and when I walked into the room her doctor was with her, so I told her I’d be back in a few minutes. At the end of the hallway was a glass door that led to a small patio, and I liked the idea of sitting in the sun for a moment while I was waiting. So I stepped out on the patio and was about to close the door, when I noticed a man walking up from a room down the hall; dressed in a hospital gown, he was pushing an IV pole with a couple of bags. “Ah, looks like you want to get some fresh air, too,” I said, holding the door for him, but he didn’t respond. He stood close to the wall, rearranging the IV lines that had gotten a bit tangled, and then he reached into the pocket of his gown and pulled out a device that looked like a small, electric razor. He held it to his throat and I heard a voice like a robot’s say, “Thank you.”

“Throat cancer,” he said, pointing to a hole in his throat through which he breathed in and out. Then he reached again into the pocket of his gown and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He took one and the next thing I noticed was the size of the hole in his throat was just big enough to hold a filter cigarette. He had a smoke on the patio and I tried hard not to stare. How many times a day, I wondered, did he step out there just to give his body the nicotine it craved?

Taking off your shoes and pants, your shirt and undies and putting on a hospital gown is a lot easier than changing your habits. It’s easy to talk or write about change, as Paul did in this letter, “Put away your former way of life that was part of the person you once were. Instead, renew the thinking in your mind by the Spirit and clothe yourself with the new person.” But if change really were as easy as pulling a fresh shirt from the closet and putting it on, Paul wouldn’t have written about it. He knows that our new self is more than a matter of insight, personal reinvention, and will power. He writes to remind us that we become who we are meant to be not in solitary pursuit of whatever we perceive perfection to be, but rather together in the body of Christ. Our newness in Christ, the new humanity we are in Christ, has profound personal consequences for each and all of us, but it is a reality of cosmic proportions, not just another self-help program.

In Christ we are no longer condemned to live under the reign of sin and death. We are chosen and called to live according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. That life is already ours because Christ has made us his own, embracing every last one of us as his sister and brother, regardless of what the reign of sin and death has done to us. Regardless of what we have done to each other under their reign, he embraces us for the sake of true righteousness and true holiness. I emphasize true, because for some of us righteousness immediately triggers images of self-righteous hypocrites, and holiness sounds to many ears like sanctimonious arrogance. And as if he saw that coming, the apostle writes, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to each other.” He knows we’ve gotten used to wearing masks under the regime of fear that is the reign of sin and death. We’ve gotten used to wearing masks and masquerading around each other. We’ve gotten used to living as pseudo people. “So then, putting away pseudo,” writes the apostle, “let all of us speak the truth to each other for we belong to each other as members of one body.” Putting away bogus, sham, phony, mock, fake, false, pretend, and put-on let us speak the truth to each other. That’s a big deal. The apostle has a lot to say about anger and the devil, and about thievery and work in this portion of his letter, but before he gets to any of that, he says, “Drop the pseudo, be real.” That’s how we live into the life that is already ours because Christ has made us his own. We drop the masks. We stop masquerading and pretending. We allow ourselves to be the broken human beings we are and we allow the Spirit of God to heal us and clothe us anew.

On Thursday evenings, whenever I can, I go out to Riverbend prison to be part of a group of insiders and outsiders who learn together. We meet from 6 to 7:45; in the spring and fall we have a class where all of us are teachers and students, and in the weeks and months between semesters, we get together and let the conversation take us where it wants to go. We always do a round at the beginning where one of us asks a question and all of us respond; and the questions are not about our favorite food or our dream vacation.

“What gives you strength?”

“Where is your heart right now?”

“How do you keep hope alive?”

We go around the circle; we listen and speak; if any don’t want to respond, they say, “I pass;” but that doesn’t happen often. We talk and we listen, and the responses we hear can be deep, touching, funny, surprising and sad, but they rarely feel pseudo. The insiders, some of them have been in prison for fifteen and more years, have stopped pretending being somebody they are not, and that creates a space for us outsiders who come and go, to be real and vulnerable as well. We allow ourselves and each other to be the broken human beings we are and we allow the Spirit of God to heal us and clothe us anew.

John says, for him it’s like going to church. For me, it’s a gift and a challenge not to let that intimidating high fence, topped with coils of razor wire be a dividing wall totally separating “them” from “us.” Every time I look at that fence, the verse from Ephesians 2 comes to mind, “[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Eph 2:14). That little group at Riverbend is a community of reconciliation, and being part of it has taught me dimensions of being a member in the body of Christ that I doubt I could have learned anywhere else. In Christ we become who we are meant to be as people made in the likeness of God not by hiding from each other or excluding each other, but by turning toward each other in truth.

“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths,” writes the apostle, “but only what is useful for building up (…) so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Let no evil talk come out of your mouths. That’s not the same as, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all,” which Thumper said, according to Disney. Words that give grace to those who hear aren’t necessarily nice or warm and fuzzy, but they are never violent or hateful. They emerge from the love that is building up the body of Christ, and speaking them contributes to the body’s growth toward fullness and wholeness.

We talk a lot about free speech, and rightly so, and we debate passionately if freedom of speech also protects hate speech. We have known for generations that words matter. “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing,” our ancestors wrote in the book of Proverbs (12:18) for future generations to know and remember. Words build up and tear down, they wound or heal, they may give grace or condemn.

The apostle urges us to consider a different kind of freedom of speech. Because Christ has bound himself to us in love, we are bound to him and to the promise of life he has opened for us in his death and resurrection. We are free to be real, because he knows and loves us. We are free to speak non-violently, because his Spirit inspires us. We are free to speak the truth in love, cleaning the verbal air at the office or at school from sexist and racist talk, because we are not afraid. We practice holy speech, as odd and out-of-date that may sound at first. We practice speech that emerges from the deep love that constitutes the body of Christ. Speaking words that give grace to those who hear we contribute to their growth and our own toward the fullness and wholeness whose measure is Christ; we are changed.

Now to him who by the power at work among us and within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Unity maintenance

Is it really August already? I feel like I’ve been locked in the basement for a while, and when I climbed up the stairs and out into the sunlight, blinking and squinting in the white glare, I realized July had pretty much evaporated; at the end of June I fell into a wormhole and on Thursday I emerged on the other side. I do vaguely remember, though, that I spent more than a week chained to my desk, reading books I wish somebody had pointed out to me years ago and some books I wish had never been written and writing papers of varying length and profundity about all of them. Then I spent two weeks with twenty-two colleagues in a windowless room with an enormous white board covering the entire length of one wall.

Speaking of which, I wish I had a white board to draw a Venn diagram; in case you’re wondering, that’s a set of overlapping circles that help you see things that are difficult to grasp in words, like the difference between dweebs, dorks, geeks, and nerds.[1] You see, dweebs combine social ineptitude with intelligence, while geeks combine obsession with intelligence, and dorks combine social ineptitude with obsession. Nerds, however, according to our imaginary Venn diagram, represent a perfect balance of intelligence, obsession, and social ineptitude. Why am I telling you all this? Because the twenty-two of us in that windowless room at Lipscomb were totally geeking out. Imagine four afternoons of four hours and four verses of scripture each, and at the end of the day, each day, the white board is covered with scribbles, triangles and arrows representing the theory of everything and each of the twenty-two sits back in their chair and, after a quick stretch, declares, “This was awesome.” So, how was your July?

We heard a wonderful passage from the beginning of the second half of the letter to the Ephesians, and there’s a part of me that wishes we had four hours and a white board, because it’s such a rich passage. But we’re not here to study, we’re here to worship God and to listen deeply for the word of God for us in Scripture, surrendering to it with receptive hearts and inspired minds, so that we may embody it in our life together, whether we’re together or apart. The first part of the letter is an invitation to join in praising and thanking God for uniting us with Christ, for breaking down the dividing wall between God’s people Israel and the nations,

for making members of the household of God of all who once were strangers to the covenants of promise, and for creating from the two who once were ‘us’ and ‘them’ one new humanity in Christ. The first part of the letter is an invitation to join in praising and thanking God for gathering up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth, for the redemption of life from the powers of sin and death. This is who we are, God’s own people, a temple of the Lord, the body of Christ on earth, a people called to live to the praise of God’s glory. It’s like we’ve each been given a new first name, the first thing we ourselves and the whole world needs to know about us before anything else and after: our new name is child of God. And so we sing and thank God for giving us a new identity that is rooted and grounded in love, and not in fear or guilt or shame or income or education.

So, if this is who we are, we ask, how are we to live? And apparently Paul knew this question would be hanging in the air after we’ve thanked God for what God has done.What are we to do? Paul doesn’t jump right into the second half of the letter that answers that question in both its personal and communal dimensions; he ends the first half with a prayer:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Even when we’re ready to ask, “What are we to do?” and go to work, even then, or perhaps especially then, we are to remember that the work is God’s and we are called to be participants in it. And what are we to do? “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” writes Paul.

That’s called maintenance work, isn’t it? That’s a bit of a downer for those of us who like to think of ourselves as kingdom builders, isn’t it? We just finished embroidering with gold thread our new name on our white robes, and now we’re given a blue shirt with our new name over the left chest pocket flap, and on the other side, just above the right chest pocket, it says, “Unity Maintenance.”

“Lord, I thought you might need me to be an elder or a teacher, or an evangelist, pastor, bishop, or deacon.”

“I might need you to fulfill any of those functions,” said the Lord, “but that’s the shirt you’re going to wear.”

Unity maintenance. The way Paul puts it in his letter, “I urge you then – I, the prisoner in the Lord – to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” Unity maintenance. Not unity politics or unity management or unity by executive decree. Unity maintenance. Humble, gentle, patient; putting up with people who are so hard to put up with; changing the world by letting the love of God transform our hearts. Unity maintenance. One body. One Spirit. One hope. One Lord. One faith. One baptism. One God of all. 7x1=perfect unity, reflecting the unity of God. Perhaps you get a little nervous when you hear unity talk like that, I do, because I worry about totalitarian fantasies that wipe out difference. But this is no program or party platform; this is a unity far beyond our imagining; this is a body in which every member does its part to promote the body’s growth in building itself up in love; this is a community gifted with all that is needed to equip the saints for their work with God.

Since we’re talking about maintenance work, you may think that equipping is about equipment. But equipping is not just about giving somebody the right kind of tools or helping them develop the set of skills needed to accomplish a goal. That’s part of it, but not all of it. The word translated equipping is also used for the setting of broken bones or fostering healing, for making something whole and strong. The word makes an appearance in the accounts of Jesus calling fishermen to be his followers. James and John were in their boat mending the nets when Jesus called them to a life of discipleship.[2] Mending and equipping are the same word in Greek, so to equip the saints for the work of ministry is about more than training; it’s about healing; it’s about weaving wholeness where life is frayed; it’s about repairing what is broken instead of writing it off; it’s about restoring rather than discarding what is fractured; it’s about each and every one of us being needed and indispensable for what God is up to in the world. And so we don’t go looking for the church gear peddlers at the ministry fair who build flashy displays of their latest and greatest apps and gadgets; we go looking for each other. God wants Christ to have a body on earth, and you and I and all the others who long for life that is real will do. We will do. Not because we’re worthy or holy or grown-up by any measure we use, but because we are beloved and called and gifted according to the measure of Christ’s gift. We go looking for each other to help each other trust and see that no matter what life has done to us, we are worthy because we are God’s beloved; we are holy because God never ceases to call us to wholeness; and we are growing into the fullness of life whose measure is Christ alone. God wants Christ to have a body on earth, both for our sake – so we become who we truly are as God’s own – and for the sake of the world – so the glory of God will shine forth from every nook and cranny of creation.

Now somebody will probably tell me this afternoon that this was the perfect moment to wrap things up, but I want to highlight just one more thing in this rich passage. At the beginning Paul writes, “I urge you then – I, the prisoner in the Lord – to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” It’s a letter from prison, like Paul’s letter to the Philippians or Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. However, Paul doesn’t simply refer to himself as a prisoner, but as a “prisoner in the Lord.” We can read that to mean he’s in prison because of his faith in Christ and his proclamation of Christ as Lord. But earlier in this letter as well as in two other letters, Paul refers to himself as a prisoner of the Lord.[3] Now we can still read that to mean he’s in prison for the sake of the Lord, but to me it’s a curious phrase, a prisoner of the Lord.

The root meaning of the word prisoner is bound or in bonds, and that opens up a surprising connection. In verse 3, Paul urges us to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” and the word for bond here has the same root as the word translated prisoner. Paul certainly was a prisoner when he wrote from prison, but he also wrote as one bound by Christ or one in the bonds of Christ and therefore one whose identity and life were inseparably bound to Christ, whether in or out of prison. Likewise, what is holding us together in unity is not some chain or rope tightly wrapped around us. We are being held together by the love of Christ who has bound himself to us, so that our death would be his and his life, ours. What is holding us all together is the bond of Christ’s peace, and so we too are “bound ones” in Christ for the sake of God’s mission to liberate all who are still bound by powers other than love.

Now to him who by the power at work within us and among us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


[1] Thank you, Pete Cashmore

[2] Mt 4:21; Mk 1:19

[3] Eph 3:1; 2 Tim 1:8; Phm 1:1, 9

To the other side

“Let us go across to the other side,” Jesus had said to the disciples that evening when they took him with them in the boat. There was a great windstorm that night, and waves were beating into the boat, and the disciples were terrified, fearing the boat would go down and all of them with it, but Jesus commanded the sea to be still and the wind to cease. They crossed over to the other side to the country of the Gerasenes, and it was a stormy crossing. When they reached the other shore, immediately a man out of the tombs met Jesus, a man possessed by a legion of demons, and Jesus commanded the demons to leave the man, and they entered a herd of pigs, and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned. The storm at sea had only been the prelude to the storm unleashed on land, a storm of liberation among people who had not known the power of God who redeems the oppressed.

Crossing over to the other side appears to be Jesus’ preferred direction: From heaven to earth, from Jewish communities to the world of the Gentiles, from the streets where the poor struggle to survive to the homes of the wealthy, from rural Galilee to the city of Jerusalem, from rules written in stone to justice written in mercy, from death to life.

Crossing over to the other side appears to be Jesus’ preferred direction, but his crossings are never random zig-zag trips to wherever. They are purposeful invasions. They bring the very life and power of God into situations where life has been kept from flourishing.

I’m lingering with this theme of crossing over because on Friday the Supreme Court of the United States decided in Obergefell v. Hodges, a case marking a major cultural and legal shift in how we think and talk about marriage. For many of us, the decision affirmed what we believe equality before the law demands for same-sex couples. For some of us, the decision also affirmed what we believe to be the meaning of marriage as a Christian covenant of love and fidelity between two adults. For others among us, however, the court’s decision marks the end of Christian teaching informing the secular definition of marriage. The Supreme Court has ruled, but in the church things are far from settled. And so we must continue to be patient with each other, because some of us think the boat is being swamped by terrifying waves and there’s no way we’re not going down, while a good number of us are convinced we have finally reached the other shore where equality and a fuller meaning of marriage are at home.

Nancy and I had our twentieth wedding anniversary on Thursday. We were married in this sanctuary on Sunday, June 25, 1995, during morning worship. We celebrated our anniversary with a short trip, and before you get too carried away with ideas of a romantic get-away to the mountains or the lake, let me bring you back to earth. We went to visit Tennessee Tech and the University of Tennessee with our son; Miles will be a Senior after the summer, and we want him to see a few schools before he decides which college to attend. It was a curious choice to celebrate our anniversary with a college tour, but it was only partly driven by our schedules; our children and their well-being have been and will continue to be a significant dimension of our marriage, and so a college visit didn’t seem foreign at all. We toured UT on Friday morning, and I caught a headline about the Supreme Court decision on my phone, but I didn’t have time to read more; we were exploring dorm rooms, rec centers, and libraries. Yesterday I had time to read through the ruling, and I was moved by the language of the final paragraph concluding the argument for marriage equality:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.  In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.  As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death.  It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage.  Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.  Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.  They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.  The Constitution grants them that right.[1]

I believe this is a good decision, and not only for constitutional reasons. This decision lifts up and affirms the profoundly biblical character of marriage as a covenant rooted in God’s covenants of love and fidelity. The conversation isn’t over, though, it never is, and so we must continue to be patient with each other as we talk about the meaning of Christian marriage in an age when commitments of all kinds are under pressure by self-centered visions of life. I have lingered with the theme of crossing over to help us remember that we are in the boat with Jesus, and that the journey to the other side is a journey of promise, because Jesus brings the very life and power of God to us.

Our gospel passage for this day begins, “When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him.” Jesus doesn’t cross over randomly, but to bring life, new life to all who are oppressed by the power of death. Jesus comes and people gather. One of the many in the crowd is a synagogue president named Jairus, a man with a name, a man with a reputation and a position to uphold. But he is clearly a man at the end of his rope, a desperate man. He falls at Jesus’ feet, his hands and knees in the dust, and he begs him, 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.” His love for his daughter has made a beggar of Jairus. He doesn’t have the power to make her well, but he has heard enough about Jesus to be drawn to him. Driven solely by his love for his child and leaving behind any thought of position or propriety, Jairus falls to his knees and begs Jesus to come and lay his hands on his daughter. And Jesus comes with him. The child is at death’s door, but Jairus trusts that the touch of Jesus’ hands is the touch of life. How far is it from the shore to the house? How big is the crowd they have to push through to get to the girl’s bed? How long will it take? How much time do they have? Can’t you see him, pushing against bodies, gently at first, with his hands, then with his shoulders, pleading, shouting, “Let him through! Please, step aside! My little girl is dying.” And then, surrounded by people on every side, Jesus turns around and says, “Who touched my clothes?”

We’re the only ones who know about the woman in the crowd, the woman who has been bleeding for twelve years, the woman who has spent all she had on medical bills, the woman who hasn’t touched anyone in twelve years because of her condition and no one has touched her, the woman whose life has been dripping away slowly, the woman who heard about Jesus and came up behind him, saying to herself, over and over again, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well,” only we know about the woman in the crowd who reached out and touched his cloak.And immediately she felt that she was healed, but we’re the only ones who know about her.

Jesus is aware that power has gone out of him, and when he turns around and asks, “Who touched me?” she comes forward in fear and trembling and tells him the whole truth of her suffering and her poverty, the whole truth of her loneliness and her shame, and her hopelessness that ended when she heard of him and how all she could think of was, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

That was all the faith she had, and now Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, free from your affliction.” He calls her daughter, which is such an important part of the whole truth, because she is not just some anonymous impoverished woman in the crowd, but a member of God’s family, a child of God. He calls her daughter, and that reminds us of Jairus and his little girl, and suddenly we remember the urgency with which he begged and pleaded. What about her?

The people who have come from the house say it’s too late now. “Your daughter has died; why trouble the teacher any more?” But Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, only have faith.” Hold on to the faith that brought you here. He goes to the house where the funeral is already underway, and he takes her mom and dad into her room with him, and he takes her by the hand and says, “Little girl, get up!” And she gets up.

That’s almost too much to take in, isn’t it? We know too many stories with a different ending. I’m praying for a family and their little girl who almost drowned in the pool on Wednesday; she is in a coma and I ask Jesus to go into her room with her mom and dad and take her by the hand and say, “Little girl, get up!”

But it’s not about knowing the magic words that will produce the outcome I want. As much as I or Jairus or any mom and dad might want that power to make our kids well or to change the world in an instant to make it a home for them and their children; to make it a world where each one’s uniqueness is honored and cherished, a world where the dignity of every child of God is sacred. It’s not about knowing the magic words, it’s about trusting God; it’s about holding on to the faith that draws us to Jesus. It’s about letting ourselves trust in him.

Crossing over to the other side appears to be Jesus’ preferred direction: from heaven to earth, from Jewish communities to the world of the Gentiles, from the streets where the poor struggle to survive to the homes of the wealthy, from rural Galilee to the city of Jerusalem, from rules written in stone to justice written in mercy, from death to life. Crossing over to the other side appears to be Jesus’ preferred direction and he takes us with him to where life in fullness awaits us all.


[1] Opinion of the Court, p. 28

Mother Emanuel

This is a time for lament. Please stand and, with a reading of their names, let us honor the lives of our brothers and sisters who were murdered on Wednesday:

Rev. Clementa Carlos Pinckney, 41, was the pastor of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and a member of the South Carolina Senate.

Cynthia Hurd, 54, served as the manager of the St. Andrews branch of the county library, a job she loved because it brought her closer to people.

DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, was the mother of four daughters – the youngest is in junior high school and the oldest is in college.

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, was a coach for the girls’ track and field team and a speech therapist at Goose Creek High School. She was also on the church staff.

Tywanza Sanders, 26, had graduated from Allen University last year.

Ethel Lee Lance, 70, was a sexton at the church and had worked there for more than three decades.

Ethel’s cousin, Susie Jackson, was a longtime church member and died along with her; she was 87 years old.

Rev. Daniel L. Simmons Sr. was a retired pastor who attended Emanuel A.M.E. every Sunday for services and Wednesdays for Bible study.

Myra Thompson, 59, was teaching Bible study when she was killed.

This is a time for lament. This is not a time for rushing on to whatever is next in this age of constant distraction but for sitting still for a while. This is a time for mourning. This is a time for helping each other bear the burden of anger and rage, of helplessness and hopelessness and speechlessness. This is a time for lament.

How long, Lord, must I call for help,

but you do not listen?

Or cry out to you, “Violence!”

but you do not save?

Why do you make me look at injustice?

Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?

Destruction and violence are before me;

there is strife, and conflict abounds.

Therefore the law is paralyzed,

and justice never prevails.

The wicked hem in the righteous,

so that justice is perverted.[1]

Three themes have kept playing in my heart and mind these past few days.

One – In April, a young man in South Carolina got a .45 from his dad for his twenty-first birthday, and today, on Father’s Day, we are still struggling with what to call the man who shot and killed nine black men and women: a racist mass murderer or a troubled young man or a white supremacist terrorist?

Two – For some of us, Charleston, along with Ferguson and Baltimore, Birmingham and Little Rock and Memphis, now has become short-hand for the deadly consequences of the deeply entrenched racism in this country, a wound that just won’t heal, but for others the violent events those city names represent are only slightly troubling and soon forgotten episodes in a drama that can’t keep our attention because other things are more important.

Three – The flag of the United States and the South Carolina state flag are flying at half-mast at South Carolina government facilities while that cursed war flag is still there and still flying high on the grounds of the State Capitol in Columbia – for some of us the thought alone is unbearable, for others it’s no surprise or no big deal or a matter of pride. The mess we’re in is deep. The violent mess we have inherited and to whose continuance we contribute, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally – the mess we’re in is deep. Please turn to the insert in your bulletin where you will find the words of Psalm 130, and let’s say the psalm together responsively.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,

Lord, hear my voice!

O let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my pleading.

If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,

Lord, who could stand?

But with you is found forgiveness:

for this we revere you.

My soul is waiting for you, Lord.

In your word is my hope.

My soul is waiting for the Lord

more than watchmen for daybreak;

more than watchmen for daybreak.

O Israel, wait for the Lord,

for with the Lord there is mercy

and fullness of redemption.

The Lord will redeem Israel

from all its iniquity.

We are in the depths and we cry to God and we wait for daybreak. This was not the first time a place of worship and those who gather in it became the target of terrorist violence. African-American churches in particular have been burned and bombed by white men across the South ever since such churches existed, and racially motivated murder is hardly a new thing. We truly are in the depths.

More than fifty years ago, on September 15, 1963, a bomb exploded under the entrance to the 16th Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama; four girls were killed in the blast, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carol Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14). They had a stained glass window in the sanctuary at 16th Street, a pretty window with Jesus in it, and in the explosion the window was barely damaged, except for the face of Jesus, which was blown out. I wish they had kept the window as it was and not restored it as a reminder that we are made in the image of God and that whatever we do to each other, we do to Jesus. That bombing was over fifty years ago, and there’s a memorial for the four girls at the church, and there’s a civil rights museum across the street, and yes, so much has changed since then, but, Lord help us, so much has not changed at all. Survivors of the shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. church tell us that the shooter said, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

On September 16, 1963, the day following the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, a young white lawyer named Charles Morgan, Jr. spoke at a meeting of Birmingham businessmen. “Who did it?” he asked, “We all did it! The ‘who’ is every little individual who talks about the ‘niggers’ and spreads the seeds of his hate to his neighbor and his son ... And who is really guilty? Each of us. Each citizen who has not consciously attempted to bring about peaceful compliance with the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States, every citizen who has ever said ‘they ought to kill that nigger,’ every citizen who votes for the candidate with the bloody flag, every citizen and every school board member and schoolteacher and principal and businessman and judge and lawyer [and parent and grandparent] who has corrupted the minds of our youth; every person in this community who has in any way contributed during the past several years to the popularity of hatred, is at least as guilty, or more so, than the demented fool who threw that bomb.”[2]

Who did it? After the murders in Charleston it took the police only 14 hours before they arrested the suspect, and South Carolina is a death penalty state, so we know what to expect. But what about us? What about our role in perpetuating systems that privilege white folk and marginalize black and brown folk? What about the myth that killing the perpetrator will bring about justice, when all it does is perpetuate the deadly illusion that ridding the world of bad guys will somehow make it better, the very logic of exclusion and elimination that motivated the murderer? What about a culture of violence where a .45 is just the right birthday present for a young man? What about Sandy Hook? What about our amnesia?

More than fifty years ago, on September 18, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a eulogy at the funeral for three of the four girls killed in the bombing. He said, “These children—unoffending, innocent, and beautiful—were the victims of one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. (…) They have something to say to each of us in their death. They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows. They have something to say to every politician who has fed his constituents with the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. (…) They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”[3]

The epistle reading for this Sunday contains Paul’s urgent plea for the Corinthians and for all to be reconciled to God. Reconciliation is about the restoration of broken relationships, the end of hostility and enmity, and the overcoming of alienation. Reconciliation in Christian terms is about God’s initiative through Jesus to restore us to our full humanity through forgiveness and healing mercy. And reconciliation in Christian terms is about our courageous participation in the divine mission of redemption as members in the body of Christ.

“Our heart is wide open to you,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians in response to some painful difficulties they were having, and then urged them, “open wide your hearts also.”[4] This vulnerability of love, this frankness of speech that is unafraid of honesty in hearing and in speaking, this courage to risk embracing the other for the sake of wholeness and fullness of life is the heart of reconciliation.

I invite you to turn again to the insert in the bulletin, and to look at the picture of Jesus. It’s a stained-glass window given by the people of Wales to 16th Street Baptist Church in 1964. Here we see the vulnerability of God’s love that welcomes sinners. We see the arms that embrace us all for the sake of wholeness and fullness of life. We see the face of God.

Mother Emanuel, its pastors and its people, its prayer and its hospitality, its witness in word and deed and even in death, faithfully embodied this vision of life that has room for all, to the glory of God. The nine who were murdered have something to say to each of us in their death: “Our heart is wide open to you; open wide your hearts also.”


[1] Habakkuk 1:1-4

[2] See Additions in brackets are mine.

[3] See

[4] 2 Cor 6:11,13

Impressions from Israel


My recent trip to Israel with a group of leaders from Nashville's Jewish community and fellow pastors from area churches left a deep impact on me. On Wednesday, June 24, at 6:30 p.m., in Fellowship Hall at Vine Street Christian Church, I will show some pictures and talk about this deeply transformative experience. I know this presentation could last hours, but it is scheduled to be over no later than 8 p.m. We will serve lemonade and cookies, and infant/toddler care as well as programming for young school-age children will be provided. If you are interested and free that night, please come over and join us.

Stories to live with

On our first day in Israel, after landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, we got on the bus to Jerusalem, and after only a few miles we stopped. We got off the bus and looked around; we were in the middle of nowhere. The land was rocky, dry, and hot. We were each given a small hoe and a twig—a twig no more than eight or nine inches long, with maybe seven tiny leaves on one end and a few roots on the other, and we went and dug holes in the rocky, dry, hot dirt, and we each planted one tree. They were oaks, we were told, but they didn’t look mighty at all; tender little things they were, softly asking us to take care of them, but we splashed some water on them, said a prayer, got back on the bus, and drove on. Out of the sixteen we planted, perhaps only one or two will grow and flourish, but that will be enough to continue to heal and restore the land.

The moment reminded me of a story I have long loved. It’s of a hiker in the mountains in the south of France who one day, while looking for water, met a shepherd who invited him to spend the night.

I gratefully accepted. We gathered his sheep and walked to his cabin in a steep valley. After dinner, the Shepherd left the room and returned with a small sack. He dumped the contents – about two hundred acorns – out on the table. He scrutinized each one carefully and sorted them into piles. He discarded all with cracks. Through this process he eventually ended up with ten piles of ten acorns each. He placed this carefully selected piles of acorns into a bucket of water, then showed me to a corner where I unrolled by blanket and made my bed for the night.

The next day, he invited me to join him as he walked to the top of a nearby ridge. He carried an iron staff the thickness of my thumb and about shoulder height in length. As we reached the top of the ridge, the Shepherd began poking his staff into the ground, making small holes about two inches deep. Into each he placed one of his carefully selected acorns. He was planting trees. I asked if this was his land. It was not – he did not know who owned it. Perhaps it was common land, or owned by the parish. It did not matter to him. With the same care with which he seemed to do everything, he planted one hundred acorns.

At midday, he returned to his home for lunch. Afterward, he again sorted out one hundred acorns. When I told him that in thirty years his ten thousand oaks would be a magnificent forest, he responded by saying that if God granted him health, in thirty years these ten thousand oaks would be but a drop in the ocean.

The story is based on the life of Elzéard Bouffier who, after the death of his wife and son, moved to the mountains, and over a period of fifty years planted hundreds of thousands of trees.

He began planting trees, he said, because the land was dying for want of trees, and he had nothing more important to do.[1]

Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, how, he does not know. Jesus doesn’t give us a timetable for the coming of the kingdom of God, nor does he provide a blueprint or a constitution for that wondrous realm of peace. Instead of answers to our questions of when and how and where, he gives us stories with shepherds and gardeners, trees and birds in them – parables that explain very little. Who is this gardener who scatters seed on the ground, and then nothing is mentioned about watering or weeding or keeping the rabbits away? Are we to think of God as the gardener or Jesus, or perhaps anyone who plants seeds trusting that they will grow? Are we to think of ourselves as gardeners or as the soil in which the seed of Jesus’ life and teachings take root and flourish into a harvest of life, and we don’t know how? Or are we to think of ourselves as perhaps both the soil and the gardener, in turn receiving and spreading the powerful little seeds of God’s reign?

“We have so little to do with Christ’s nearness to us,” says Wendy Farley, “that we can just go to sleep. In fact, it might be better if we did sleep through the whole thing, snug and safe, resting like babies in our mothers’ arms.” No doubt, the man who planted trees rested like a baby every night. No need to go back day after day, anxious to see how the acorns were doing. He simply got up every morning and went out to poke holes in the soil and plant seeds, because he had nothing more important to do.

Martin Luther clearly saw himself as a sower when he wrote, “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses on it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.” You can enter the parable imagining yourself to be the gardener, or the seed, or the soil, and each entrance takes you into a different story that is still the same parable. Once the seed is in the ground, the miracle happens, we don’t know how. Parables resist complete explanation; they aren’t locked treasure boxes that reveal their splendor only to those who find the proper key. No, they are living stories that mess with our presumptions, surprise and confound us, revealing ever new facets of meaning to those who live with them as companions on the way to the kingdom. Parables just won’t sit still long enough so we can turn them into simple one-liners we can add to our list of the facts of life. Parables don’t offer answers that settle things, but rather point us back, again and again, to the one who speaks the word to us with many such stories that keep us wondering and who is himself for us the parable of God.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” Jesus asks, “or what parable will we use for it?” And he wanders the whole realm of nature, teeming with mighty creatures like the lion and the eagle, the bull and the bear, creatures gladly chosen by human empires as symbols of power, but conspicuously absent from Jesus’ stories of God’s reign. If not one of those emblems of strength, how about the mighty trees that since the days of the prophets represented the great empires?

Consider Assyria, a cedar of Lebanon, says Ezekiel: beautiful branches, forest shade, towering height; indeed, its top went up between the clouds. Waters nourished it, the deep raised it up, making its rivers flow around the place it was planted, sending forth its streams to all the trees of the field. So it towered high above all the trees of the field; its boughs grew large and its branches long, from abundant water in its shoots. All the birds of the air made their nests in its boughs; all the animals of the field gave birth to their young under its branches; and in its shade all great nations lived. It was beautiful in its greatness and in its lush foliage; for its roots went down to abundant water.[2]

Ezekiel dreamed of God planting a tender shoot on Israel’s mounainous highlands, and how it would send out branches and bear fruit. How it would grow into a mighty cedar, and birds of every kind would nest in it and find shelter in the shade of its boughs.[3]

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God,” asks Jesus, “or what parable will we use for it?” How about the mighty cedar, the majestic oak, or the elegant and generous date palm? There are so many to choose from, but Jesus returns from his nature walk holding up – a mustard seed.

Many of us barely remembered that mustard is a plant; we know it primarily as the stuff in yellow bottles we squeeze on our hot dogs. Some of us may note how every time we clean out the fridge we find another handful of the little plastic packets, left over from some burger we brought home who knows when, and we wonder how long they have been hiding behind the ketchup. The mustard seed may be small, but the packets are invisible to the human eye until they want to be found – how about that for a parable? But no, there’s nothing mighty or majestic about mustard. It has medicinal uses and adds flavor to many dishes, but few gardeners would sow it on purpose. It grows all too readily on its own, and once it appears, it takes over first the bed, then the garden and the farm, and then the neighbors’ fields. You can call it a plant, but you could just as well call it a weed: fast-growing, drought-resistant, and impossible to control, it tends to take over where it is not wanted.

“With what can we compare the kingdom of God or what parable will we use for it?” asks Jesus, and in response he talks about an invasive weed. Mustard grows dependably wherever there’s just enough soil for the tiniest of seeds to take root. It grows just about anywhere, not just on the mountain heights of Lebanon or the hills of Rome or by the great rivers of Egypt or Babylon. Another notable detail about the mustard shrub is the fact that it is an annual plant. It doesn’t just sit there and simply get bigger and bigger with the years; it depends on renewed sowing.

I hear in this parable a divine affirmation of seemingly small actions by ordinary people. I hear a divine affirmation of the small things we do in the name of Jesus that may seem utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of history, but are indeed seeds of God’s reign that grow – we don’t know how – until the harvest comes. Every small act of love and compassion matters. Every unsung moment of forgiveness, every little word or gesture of encouragement matters. No matter how rocky, dry, and hot the land. We have nothing more important to do.


[1] The story is fictional, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true, does it?

[2] Ezekiel 31:2-7

[3] Ezekiel 17:22-24

Coming home

I was in Capernaum a few days ago. Then, after a stop in Nazareth and a night in Tel Aviv, I came home. It’s good to be home. It’s good to have a place to call home and come back to.

As many of you know, I was in Israel with a group of seven Jewish leaders and nine Christian clergy from Nashville, and the trip was all I hoped it would be and more. Our immersion in the beauty of the land and its many layers of history and memory was brief, but deep. I knew at the end of our first day in Jerusalem that I wanted to come back.

I came home Thursday night after spending more than 24 hours on planes and in airports. The flight from Tel Aviv to Newark, New Jersey took eleven hours. Our bodies fly through the air at almost 600 mph, but our souls, our capacity to integrate all we have touched and seen and heard, tasted and smelled and learned, our souls take more time. I arrived Thursday night, but I’m not quite here yet; my soul is still catching up.

On Tuesday I was in Capernaum, the home base of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and I walked among the ruins of a synagogue built on the foundations of a synagogue from the time of Jesus, and across the street was a church, built on the foundations of earlier churches, and the bottom layer of rocks belonged to a house, the house of Peter and Andrew, according to tradition.

In chapter 3 of Mark, we read that Jesus went from the synagogue to the lake, and from there up the mountain with the twelve, and then, it says in verse 20, he went home. Home has to be one of the strongest words in any language. It was good for Jesus to be home, I imagine; to sit in his favorite chair and put his feet up; to look out the window and see the familiar view. Where do you imagine Jesus went when it says, he went home? Didn’t he say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”?[1] Other English versions of this passage stay closer to the Greek by translating, ‘he entered a house.’ Capernaum was the home base of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, and the house he entered may well have been the house of Peter and Andrew, just across the street from the synagogue. Going there at the end of a long day of healing and teaching must have felt like coming home, but once more such a crowd gathered round them that they had no chance even to eat. The house sat like an island in a sea of people who wanted to be near him, people who were drawn to Jesus because of his power to heal and forgive. And then his family showed up; his mother, his brothers and sisters, outside. The people who had been with him the longest, the people, presumably, closest to him, the people who knew him best; and they were there not out of concern for his well-being, that he may not be getting enough sleep or may not be eating right, no, they had come to get him, to restrain him, if necessary. “He is out of his mind,” they said. His own family did not recognize the power at work in him. They thought it was madness and had come for an intervention. They wanted to take him back to the life before his baptism, back to the familiar routines untouched by the proclamation of God’s coming kingdom, back home, we might say, or what they considered to be his home.

And they were not the only ones who didn’t quite know what to make of his work and words. Religious experts from Jerusalem were watching the scene and making their comments, accusing him of being in league with the master of demons, alleging that his work and words were sorcery and black magic. Like his own family, they did not recognize the power at work in him to be the power of God. His teachings, his actions were too disruptive.

His family and the scholars from the city were not slow or blind; they, like us, were living in difficult times, and like us they wanted to maintain what little stability was left in their domestic and religious life. And Jesus was rocking the boat. He was healing and liberating folk from all that kept them captive to powers other than the love and mercy of God, and he did it regardless of who they were or where they came from or what day of the week it was – there was no proper order to it; his words and actions seemed extravagant and reckless, frightening even to some. They were not slow or blind; they were living in difficult times and they wanted to hold on to what they knew, and protect what little normalcy and peace they had. Jesus was too disruptive; to them his power felt like chaos. “He is out of his mind,” his family said; “he’s fighting demons with demons,” the scholars from the city concluded. The presence and work of God in Christ was not unambiguous, and what was liberating and healing to many, looked like madness or even the devil’s work to others. Again, they were not slow or blind; they did not know what to make of the disruptive presence of Jesus to whom the wounded and the oppressed were drawn.

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

Jesus was at odds with his family and in conflict with the religious authorities, but not because he was a young man with wild ideas. Jesus identifies himself as the thief of God who has come to plunder the strong man’s house. He has tied up the strong man and now he’s ransacking the place. Jesus is the thief of God who has come to rob the biggest thief of all. Life belongs to God, not to the master of demons, the whispering liar who sows the seeds of lovelessness that grow into thickets of sin in which our true humanity is lost. Jesus has his eyes on the strong man’s house, a house as big as the world, and on us who are tempted to believe that living in the strong man’s house is as good as it gets. Jesus ties up the strong man, demon by demon, fear by fear, lie by lie, and leads the captives to freedom, leads them home.

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

A crowd is sitting around him and pressing in at the doors and windows, aching to be near him, and they say, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside asking for you.” And he looks at all the humanity sitting around him, all of us wounded ones, all of us lost ones in the thickets of sin, all of us with our hunger for life that is really life and not just death’s prelude, and he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus sits in the midst of those who long for healing and freedom, and where Jesus is present, God speaks and shines and rules. The beauty of his mission is that the closer we draw to him with our desire to touch and be healed by his wholeness, the closer we draw to each other. And the closer we draw to the reality of suffering and longing in each other, the closer we draw to him and the wholeness he brings to creation.

There’s a little house with Jesus in it; it was first seen in a village on the western shore of the sea of Galilee, but since then people found it in communities around the world. It’s where Christ’s power to heal and forgive resides. It’s a little house that’s big enough for all of us; it’s home.

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

Israel Day Seven - Nazareth to Tel Aviv

The final day of our Israel trip took us to Mount Precipice in Nazareth, a flourishing community of Israeli Arab Muslims and Christians. From the top of the cliff we enjoyed the spectacular view of the Jezreel Valley and Mount Tabor. Yes, everywhere you step here, a biblical story pops up.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Mount Tabor rising ("like a belly button," according to our tour guide, Doron) fromt the Jezreel Valley.

From Nazareth we drove to Netanya for a short, but most interesting meeting with Shachar Zahavi, Founding Director of IsraAID, a non-profit NGO working in disaster relief and sustainable development. Check them out, they're doing great work from what I've heard and seen so far.

From Netanya it was just a short trip to Tel Aviv where I ate the best falafel ever for lunch, before we went to the Yitzhak Rabin Center, both a memorial to this "soldier in the army of peace" and a Israeli history museum. We took time to tour the exhibit and then had our closing session in one of the class rooms there. We were asked to name what we were bringing back to Nashville from this trip. Each of us had been asked to take two "boxes" with us when we first started our journey, one with a gift just for us personally, the other with a gift for our respective communities. I'll talk about these when I get home. I want to close this post with a poem by Yehuda Amichai, written in stone at the end of the exhibit hall at the Rabin Center, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English:

The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai

From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the Spring.

The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.

But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plough.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

Here's to the whisper of hope. L'chaim.

Israel Day Six – Golan and Capernaum

This morning we drove up to the Golan Heights, bordering Syria and Lebanon, for a view of the abandoned city of Kuneitra and a nearby UN outpost. Our guide talked about the Yom Kippur war of 1973 and the debate within Israeli society since then over whether or not to keep the Golan Heights, e.g. for strategic reasons. We then drove to the hills overlooking the Hula Valley where, from the perspective of former Syrian fortifications, we discussed the security challenges before the Six-Day War.

From there we continued to Banias, better known among readers of the New Testament as Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” We learned much from our tour guide about the role the location played in the Roman empire in Jesus’ day.

We returned to Lake Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, for lunch at St. Peter’s Restaurant, and then drove to Capernaum to visit the remains of a synagogue from the 2nd century C.E. (under the ruins of a synagogue from the 5th century) and the layered remains of several churches just about across the street, churches that were built, as many archeologists believe, over the site of Peter’s house. This is a real possibility since synagogues and churches frequently were built on the location of former synagogues and churches. This is why archeologists wonder if perhaps there might be remains of a 1st century synagogue under those from the 2nd century one.

Our next stop was the Mount of Beatitudes, a beautiful hill with a spectacular view across the lake. We heard again Jesus’ words of blessing from Matthew 5, and I know that I will return in my mind to this view of the lake every time I hear those words again in the future. The landscape, the hot desert sun in Judea, the lush green around the lake, the view from the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem – those are all impressions I will take with me and that will continue to shape my imagination and my thinking about Scripture.

We ended the day with a group conversation to continue to process our experiences; we had had several of these during this week, but this one was memorable because we met in the bomb shelter of our hotel. It was a stark reminder of the long road to peace for God’s children on all sides of the many borders in this region. Conflict management is not enough.

Israel Day Five – Jerusalem to Sea of Galilee

Yet another incredibly rich day of learning. It began with a text-study at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, where Jamie Salter helped us explore the Zionist movement through biblical texts and writings by Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha’am.

Then we drove to Kafr Adummim, a settlement in the West Bank, about 15 minutes outside of Jerusalem, where a young Israeli woman welcomed us and talked about her hopes for a peaceful future for Jewish and Arab Israelis and Palestinians. From her perspective, there’s no alternative to real proximity between the groups in shared neighborhoods, schools, and towns where people get to know each other from a young age; but the opportunities for that to happen are decreasing rather than increasing. She didn’t express much confidence in the current political process, though, but rather in the many, often small efforts by individuals and groups that organize cultural programs, children’s camps, etc.

Our next stop was Qumran, famous among Bible scholars for the discovery in 1947 of the oldest known manuscripts of all Old Testament writings (all except Esther and Nehemia) and other texts. We had lunch there and enjoyed the spectacular view of the Dead Sea and the mountains of Jordan.

From there we drove to Kasser Al Yahud, the spot on the Jordan where according to Christian tradition Jesus was baptized by John, the same spot where according to Jewish tradition the Israelites crossed over the Jordan River into the promised land and where the prophet Elijah ascended to heaven. I was glad to see the Jordan with a little more water flowing than in the recent past when agricultural water use had reduced it to a polluted creek. Apparently the Israeli and Jordanian government agreed on a restoration plan that was successful.

We continued to drive northwards along the Jordan Valley, through Tiberias, to our final destination, our hotel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.


Israel Day Four - Bethlehem


I knew it's complicated, but it's even more complicated than I imagined. We began our day with a presentation by Col. (res.) Benzi Gruber, Deputy Commander of an Armored Corps brigade of the Israeli army; he talked about the ethics of military action and dilemmas in the field. Then we took a short bus trip to view the security border from a hill, on the Israeli side, just opposite of Bethlehem and Beit Jala, and heard from our tour guide about the history of its origins. Near a checkpoint we met our second guide, a Palestinian Muslim journalist who talked to us about growing up in East Jerusalem and the impact of the "security barrier" on Palestinians; in Bethlehem we saw how they live in the towns and camps behind the wall/fence. We stayed in Bethlehem for lunch and to visit the Church of the Nativity (both of them, the politics of memory are complicated) and the souq. After lunch we heard a brief presentation by the Executive Director of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, a Palestinian Christian, who also talked about the challenges of life so close to the city of Jerusalem and yet so distant from it because of Israeli security concerns. One of the most troubling issues was brought up by our Israeli tour guide, who told us that his kids didn't have any encounters with Palestinian children; this can only deepen the estrangement between the two groups. We returned to the hotel to gather around the big table to process the information, our questions and concerns. "I knew it's complicated, but it's even more complicated than I imagined" was a kind of tagline for me for the day, and it turned out to be so for most of us. We left the room with a sense that the loss of easy answers because of the complexities of the issues is a good place to begin the crucial work of hope and change. After dinner at the hotel (maybe I should mention again that the food here is fantastic, on both sides of the fence) we walked through the streets for a couple of hours to enjoy the cool of the evening. 

تصبح على خير Good Night! לילה טוב

Israel Day Three - Jerusalem

Today began with the spectacular view from the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, to the Temple Mount with the iconic Dome of the Rock glistening in the bright morning sun. We walked through the ancient Jewish cemetery, via the Dominus Flevit Church (Latin, "The Lord wept"), all the way down to the bottom of the valley to the Garden of Gethsemane.

The landscape and the rocks we walked on and touched made a deep impression on me, much deeper than the buildings that had been erected at various times over the past centuries to commemorate particular moments from the gospels. To imagine that Jesus walked across this hill from Bethany had a greater impact on me, just like the ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane did more to connect my soul with the past than the church that was built there. However, I walked into the Church of All Nations just as a priest was celebrating the eucharist, and I joined the congregation in saying the Lord's Prayer. I have long liked to remember that we join with those who have gone before when we pray with Jesus, "Our Father..." Saying this prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane I felt in my bones the bond of divine love that makes us one.

We walked up to the old city, through the Lions Gate, and followed the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The church has a great history and has brought forth many stories that will make you scratch your head (and, no, I won't begin to tell them, because it's way past midnight again and I need to go to bed...).

We ate lunch in the Armenian Quarter, before meeting Hana Bendcowsky, Director of the Jerusalm Center for Jewish Christian Relations, who introduced us to the fascinating variety of Christian traditions in the city. Then we continued our history hike and visited the Garden Tomb, another site beside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus might have been crucified and buried. Again, the sites built to commemorate particular events weren't nearly as helpful for connecting me with those events as the landscape and the city as a whole.

We wrapped up the day with dinner at the hotel and a walk (yes, another walk!) down Ben Yehuda Street, a pedestrian mall where people old and young were enjoying a lovely, cool evening. We looked at lots of tschotschkes, but I couldn't decide what to buy to bring back. Perhaps tomorrow?

I'm listening to Craig Taubman sing Hashkiveinu, a lovely prayer for bed time.

Grant that we may lie down in peace, Eternal God, and awaken us to life.
Guard our going forth and our coming in and bless us with life and peace, from now and to eternity.

Israel Day Two - Jerusalem

What a day. Today I realized that I would have to come back to this land, to this city. We began the day with a session with Rachel Korazim who not only gave us a framework for understanding the challenges of remembering the Holocaust, but insight into the challenges the diversity of Judaisms present for Israeli society. 

We then visited Yad Vashem and our group leader had to come and get me after a what seemed like only moments, because the group was waiting and I was only about half-way through the exhibits. I want to walk through these exhibits again at my own pace. The Children's Memorial alone was one of the most powerful experiences of any kind I have ever had.

View from the Holocaust Memorial Museum to the land - l'chaim.

From Yad Vashem we walked up to the National Military Cemetery on Mt. Herzl to recall landmark events in modern Israeli history in which these soldiers gave their lives and visit the graves of Theodor Herzl, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin.

After a short break at the hotel, we went to the Western Wall, part of the ancient temple complex, to witness the energy and joy as hundreds gathered for prayers to welcome the Sabbath. As the Jewish prayers came to a close, the Muezzin's call rang out from two minarets that are part of the same ancient temple complex, and on our way back I looked across the Kidron valley to the Mount of Olives with Gethsemane and the Dominus Flevit church. I've known for so many years that this city is home to all Abrahamic faiths, but to stand in that reality, feet on the ground, ears and eyes and heart wide open is knowing of a different kind.

Our group was invited to the home of Chaya and Hillel Lester for a beautiful Sabbath dinner with singing, poetry, stories, laughter and tears, wonderful food and wine, and it's past midnight here, and I really shouldn't be writing anyway, it's Sabbath, after all. So, good night and good Shabbes!

עושה שלום במרומיו 
הוא יעשה שלום עלינו 
ועל כל עם ישראל 
ואמרו, אמרו אמן. 

יעשה שלום, יעשה שלום 
שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל 
יעשה שלום, יעשה שלום 
שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל.

May the One who makes peace in high places,
make peace for us 
and for all Israel, 
and let us say, Amen.

Israel Day One - Jerusalem

We landed on time at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv this morning a little after 10 a.m. (2 a.m. in Nashville). We were pretty tired from the long flight, but were so excited to be here, we just ignored it. After meeting our tour guide, Doron, and our driver, Avi, we got on the bus.

Our first stop was at Neot Kedumim where we each planted a tree - citizens and visitors have planted more than 50 million (!) trees in Israel in an effort to restore and protect the land. The prayer we offered ended with the words, "Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless this land that it may flow again with milk and honey."

Then we drove on up to Jerusalem where we stopped on a terrace overlooking the Mount of Olives and the old city; I took some pictures, but the sky was hazy from sand and dust, so I didn't get the pretty tourist shot. Looking over the city, we listened to Psalm 137 and recited the Shehecheyanu, a benediction spoken when tasting a fruit for the first time in the season, when moving into a hew home, at the beginning of the Jewish holidays, and on many joyous occasions, such as our initial arrival in Jerusalem!

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָם שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה׃

Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha'olam, shehecheyanu, v'kiyamanu, v'higiyanu lazman hazeh.

We give thanks to you, Lord our God, Ruler of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and for enabling us to reach this moment of joy.

For lunch we got our first taste of Israel's version of Mediterranean cuisine - wonderful salads, bread, roasted vegetables, grilled chicken, lentil salad, and watermelon, it was delicious. Then we checked into our hotel with just enough time to brush our teeth before we met with Paul Liptz of Tel Aviv University and Hebrew Union College, a social historian who gave a very informative talk about societal and economic realities in Israel that added great details to the reading we had done in preparation for the trip; his entire presentation was built around questions we had submitted a couple of weeks ago.

I look forward to going to bed soon. Tomorrow will be a full day, beginning with a meeting with Holocaust scholar, Dr. Rachel Korazim and a visit to Yad Vashem.

God's vision, God's initiative

Imagine you turn on the news one night and the lead story is about a festival on the streets of Jerusalem. You see parades, musicians, and dancers, every food truck imaginable, and thousands upon thousands of people from Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, you name it, celebrating the end of violent conflicts across the Middle East. Then the news anchor transitions to the next big story: the floating island of trash in the northern Pacific that has been collected and filtered out of the ocean and recycled; coral reefs around the globe are thriving, and COlevels in the atmosphere have dropped below 300ppm. Imagine you turn on the news and no child has been abused or abducted, no spouse murdered, no neighbor robbed, and there wasn’t a single person on the whole planet who went to bed hungry. You try the channel changer, but it’s the same story across the entire spectrum of broadcast and cable news: peace everywhere you turn. It blows you away! A gust of joy is rushing into your home through every screen of every size, through every speaker and window, a gust so powerful it knocks over your easy chair and you find yourself lying on the floor, laughing and crying because it’s all so good, so very good. Unbelievable? The question is, how concrete do you allow your vision of the whole world redeemed and restored by God to be?

Luke paints a scene with Jerusalem at the center. The last thing the risen Jesus had told the disciples was, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” They had no idea what exactly they were waiting for and what it would feel like to walk around dressed in power and what sort of power it would be. But devoting themselves to prayer, they waited. While they were waiting they had a nominating process, and they elected Matthias to take Judas’s place as one of the twelf apostles; it was all done in the proper sequence and order. And then it happened. It started with a sound like the rush of a violent wind that filled the entire house, and then it burst into tongues like firy flames, one resting on each of the disciples, and all of them began to speak in languages none of them had ever learned, and the house could not contain all that. A crowd gathered and they were bewildered, because each heard those Galileans speaking in their own native language. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the disciples spoke of the mighty deeds of God, and their speech was heard in the languages of every nation under heaven.

At this point, Luke adds a list feared by every man and woman called upon to read Scripture in public worship on Pentecost Sunday. We know how to say Egypt and Libya, Arabs and Asia, but that’s about it; the rest are like trying to say the names of Icelandic volcanoes or Georgian weight lifters. The really curious thing, though, is that those names don’t just give you and me a hard time; the world’s finest New Testament scholars continue to wrestle with what to make of them. Jacob Myers writes about “Luke’s wonky list of Pentecost observers gathered in Jerusalem – a motley patchwork of Elamites, Cretans, and Arabs sewn together with folks from Egypt, Lybia, and Rome!” Elamites? The Elamites had been nearly wiped out by the Assyrians in 640 B.C., and the Medes had been nonexistent as a distinct ethnic group for over five-hundred years![1] What are Elamites and Medes doing in 1st-century A.D. Jerusalem? The question is, how concrete do we allow our vision of the whole world redeemed and restored by God to be?

In Luke’s picture, the disciples of Jesus asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” They were ready then to see their deepest hopes fulfilled, but now the outpouring of God’s Spirit expands their limited scope of vision along with ours. God’s redemptive and restorative work extends not only to the ends of the earth in geographical terms, or from Pentecost into the future in historical terms, but also into the past to include Elamites and Medes and every tribe and nation under heaven.

“Whoa, preacher, easy now,” some of you might be thinking. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – that we can see, that we can trace on our maps, the spread of the good news into Asia and Africa, Europe, the Americas and Australia – but into the past? I don’t know, preacher, what did you put in your coffee this morning? We hear words like perplexed, bewildered,  and amazed in the text, and that is what we are, baffled, more than puzzled, blown away.” No wonder some of the observers concluded the disciples were drunk. But Peter said no. “It’s only nine o’clock in the morning,” he said, which was such a weak point, he should have skipped it and go straight to reciting the bold prophecy with Joel’s name on it. In the last days God’s Spirit would be poured out upon all flesh – not just chosen people, note just male people or church people, but all people – male and female, young and old, slave and free. All would have visions. All would prophesy. All dreams would be given voice. God’s Spirit would blow through all our carefully constructed boundaries of culture, ethnicity, and language not to eliminate them, but to weave us together into a unity of life where all are at home. And this was the beginning. Pentecost was the eruption of God’s vision for the world: resurrection writ large, all of creation transformed into new creation, all of life redeemed. The church wears red on Pentecost, because the passion, the fire and light of God’s Spirit is now loose in the world, claiming us as Christ’s own, inspiring and empowering us to live into that vision as his witnesses.

Many of us are worried about what is becoming of the church in the United States, what will be the future of our ministry here in Nashville. The ground is shifting under our feet; our governance models are eroding; our buildings are too large and inflexible; and our habits still reach deeper than our imagination. But today the church wears red. Today the church around the globe celebrates our beginnings in the movement of God’s Spirit in the world. Jesus told the disciples who didn’t know yet how to be witnesses of the risen Lord to stay in the city and wait until they had been clothed with power from on high. And devoting themselves to prayer, they waited. They didn’t hang around and do nothing or whatever they felt like doing or what they knew how to do because they had done it for years, they waited, tuning their hearts and minds to the movement and vision of God. And on the Day of Pentecost a mighty wind blew through the house on a backstreet in Jerusalem where they had come together and gave them everything they would need to change the world: not money, not a set of bylaws and a lectionary, not even ordained leadership, but the breath and Spirit of God. This is where the church begins, again and again, with God’s initiative, because the risen Christ needs a body in the world.

I wonder if perhaps our observance of Pentecost is a lot more subdued and understated than what we do around Easter and Christmas, because it is so much easier to celebrate what God has done for us and for all in the incarnation and life of Jesus, his death and resurrection, than to celebrate what God intends to do with us for the sake of the world. We turn on the news and nine times out of ten we don’t like what we hear and see, because it reminds us what is wrong with us and the world. But this is the world in which we live and raise our children, and for all that is wrong with it and with us, it is God’s and so are we. And that is why things don’t have to be or remain the way they are.

Paul writes that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God. And we too groan while we wait for redemption, and we are not alone, for the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray while we wait, but the Spirit intercedes for us and for the whole creation, with wordless groaning, with sighs too deep for words. The groan you hear coming from deep inside of you when you are reminded yet again how ugly we can be to each other and how mean, and how difficult it is for us to communicate freely and honestly, and how thoughtless self-absorption, greed and hatred appear to gain ground in human affairs every day instead of going away – the groan you hear then is yours as much as it is God’s. It comes from the place where life that longs for wholeness encounters the God who is making all things new and who is calling men and women, young and old, people of privilege and people from the margins to participate in that healing work as members of the body of Christ in the world.


[1] Jacob Myers

Us and the promise of God

Luke tells us a very funny story, easily one of the funniest in all of scripture. The disciples were having a conversation with Jesus when suddenly he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. What are we supposed to visualize here? Jesus floating up like a helium balloon or zipping skyward like Iron Man? Then there’s the moment when the disciples are standing there, gazing up to where they last saw Jesus, when suddenly two men in white robes appear and ask them, “Galileans, why are you staring up toward heaven?” It’s a perfect Monty Python moment just waiting for a hilarious punch line to pop.

It’s so easy to dismiss the scene as too fantastic for our sober minds and not quite fantastic enough for our imaginations shaped by Hollywood’s power myths and their mind-blowing special effects. At a church in Kansas City, worship on Ascension Day calls for special props. Hours before the service, five or six people show up and begin filling up balloons. They pump hundreds of white balloons full of helium gas and stuff them into an enormous bag made of bedsheets. Eventually the pile of white fabric is transformed into this big fluffy thing, and with a few deliberate pushes by the prop artists, a cloud begins to take shape. The volunteer cloud squad pins the only remaining opening shut and releases the magnificent cloud to float about the sanctuary. It dips and rises over worshipers, moving wherever it wants to go. Some years the cloud takes on unruly behavior, accepting a few too many ceiling fan currents, and divebombing the candelabra. There have been cloud squads who decided to tether the gigantic white blob with ten-pound fishing line and walk it around the sanctuary like Snoopy in a Macy’s parade. All eyes, of course, are on the visual prop. Most of the worshipers tilt their heads skyward for much of the service, and the net effect of this soaring-cloud routine are stiff necks and pinched nerves.[1] Not exactly what the risen Lord envisioned for his disciples.

Luke’s story won’t tickle our funny bone, though, when, rather than watch the scene from a distance, we enter it. What we discover is the disciples moving through yet another season of change and loss. For forty days – in biblical lingo that means a good long time – Jesus had presented himself alive to them, appearing to them and speaking with them about the kingdom of God. His painful absence after his death on the cross had turned into the new life of his confusing and joyful resurrection presence, but just when they thought they knew him again like they hadn’t known him before, just when they thought their world was now ready for God’s kingdom to come in fullness, he slipped away again. No wonder they looked intently to where they had last seen him.

Now the scene is not funny at all, but heart-breakingly familiar. “One thing is for sure: there is no sense of absence where there has been no sense of presence,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor.

What makes absence hurt, what makes it ache, is the memory of what used to be there but is no longer. Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night, the empty space where a beloved sleeper once lay. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence and dust. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood, the house in which people laughed and thought their happiness would last forever.

Where do you turn when your sense of God’s presence suddenly vanishes? Where do you turn when the visible becomes invisible, the tangible, intangible; the answer, a question; the presence, an absence? Luke tells us that Jesus didn’t go away, but that he ascended to heaven. Paul tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.[2] That’s all about a Jesus, but what about us? What are we supposed to do?

Jesus says to us, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.” The absence will again become powerful presence, and we will be witnesses of the love that has found us, we will be messengers of reconciliation, truth tellers and ambassadors of the Lord’s reign to the ends of the earth. “You cannot miss what you have never known,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor, “which makes our sense of absence—and especially our sense of God’s absence—the very best proof that we knew God once, and that we may know God again.”[3]

Our gaze is stuck on that spot behind the cloud where we last perceived God’s presence in the person of Jesus, and the angels gently redirect our attention down to earth. It’s no use looking up if we want to see him. He will come to us. Our attention needs to be where his attention was when he walked on the earth. On the margins of our communities where life is far from flourishing. On the poverty of purse and of spirit that drains us of life and keeps us from recognizing each other as brothers and sisters. Our attention needs to be directed by his, and to the degree that we know what Jesus notices, we act, and to the degree that we don’t fully know where he wants to direct our gaze, we wait. He will come to us. We will be clothed with power from on high.[4]

Or so he told them, so he told the few who would become his apostles. But those were different times, simpler times, we imagine. They didn’t have Pew polls relentlessly reporting the declining numbers of believers; for them, then, it was just natural to believe in the promises of God and they, of course, weren’t nearly as busy as we are—or so we like to think. Annie Dillard wrote beautifully about this odd assumption:

A blur of romance clings to our notions of “publicans,” “sinners,” “the poor,” “the people in the marketplace,” “our neighbors,” as though of course God should reveal himself, if at all, to these simple people, these Sunday school watercolor figures, who are so purely themselves in their tattered robes, who are single in themselves, while we now are various, complex, and full at heart. We are busy. So, I see now, were they. Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead—as if innocence had ever been—and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been. There have been generations which remembered, and generations which forgot; there has never been a generation of whole men and women who lived well for even one day.[5]

No need, then, to paint the past in a rosy glow, whether it’s the days of the apostles or the years of innocence after World War II when tall steeples went up like grass after a spring shower. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God. Us and the promise that we are not on our own, but that God is at work in the world. Us and the promise that we will be clothed with power from on high and be just right – just right, you and me, just right to participate in Christ’s continuing mission to the ends of the earth.

We have our VISTA event today, immediately after worship. As we look back to evaluate and look around to assess and look ahead to make plans, the biggest challenge will not be our goal to be done by 2, but rather to let the angels gently redirect our gaze from the place where we last saw God powerfully present to the places where Jesus calls us to be present. The biggest challenge will be not just to use our best wisdom and judgment, but to trust the movement and work of God’s Spirit in the world and to offer ourselves to be part of it.

Paul tells us that God raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion. Far above doesn’t mean far away. The movement of God is not away from the world, but deeper into its brokenness in order to heal and redeem it. The movement of God is not away from us, but always to us and through us to the world. Christ reigns far above all rule and authority and power and dominion opposed to God’s kingdom, and we have the privilege to let our lives be a witness to this reign. There is no one but us. There never has been. Us and the promise of God.


[1] See Peter Marty, “Up, up and away,” The Christian Century, May 15, 1996, 543.

[2] Ephesians 1:20-21

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, Gospel Medicine (Boston: Cowley, 1995), 76.

[4] Luke 24:49

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

Visiting Israel

I will soon be visiting Israel. This is a journey I have wanted to make for decades, but I could never figure out how. I knew I didn’t want to go as a tourist or on a family vacation or as part of a Christian travel group. I knew it would have to be something like a pilgrimage; I wanted to see with my own eyes and give thanks for the flourishing of Jewish life after the Shoah. Under Nazi rule, my people attempted to kill all European Jews and, Lord have mercy, almost succeeded. This “almost” has deeply shaped my life and my faith, and I have long wanted to walk and pray in the streets of Jerusalem. I just didn’t know how to let it be the journey it needed to be.

And then, just a few weeks ago, my friend Rabbi Mark Schiftan invited me to go with him on a trip for Christian clergy and Jewish leaders, planned and coordinated by the Jewish Federation of Nashville. I felt honored, humbled and blessed, and after carrying the invitation with me for a few days, I told him I would love to go.

Our group, nine Nashville Christian clergy persons and seven Nashville Jewish leaders, will board our flight early in the morning of May 27, my 55th birthday. We will visit Jerusalem, a kibbutz near lake Kinneret, the Golan heights, Nazareth, Tel Aviv and many sites along the way. We will have conversations with academic, political, and military leaders. We will pray and study Scripture together. We will share meals, including a Shabbat dinner, and we will talk about our impressions. We expect to return to Nashville on June 4th, transformed in ways none of us can predict.

We hope for the blessings of friendship and learning, for the planting of seeds that will make us more faithful to God’s vision of peace, and we ask for your prayers.

I know in my bones this is the trip I’ve been waiting for.



The Lord reigns

O sing to the Lord a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

The psalmist invites us to sing, and what do we do? We ask one of us to open the good book and read the words for us. The psalmist invites us to sing, and what does the preacher do? He steps into the pulpit and speaks.

[Preacher sings] Am I the only one who thinks that’s curious and more than a little incongruent? [Continues, to the tune of HYMN TO JOY]

Curious, curious, no one’s humming,

no one’s chanting to the Lord;

Shouldn’t we all sing together

faithful to the word of God?

Shouldn’t we be singing, clapping,

dancing to the tune of love?

Saints on earth all joining voices,

praising God with saints above!

O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things. Marvelous things call for marvelous songs. The wonders of God’s overflowing love call for hearts overflowing with gratitude and praise.

We celebrate Mother’s Day, thankful for all the ways the life-giving and sutaining love of God has touched and shaped us through our mothers.

The life of God is love overflowing, bringing forth new life in and through us, around us, and sometimes despite us. The Lord has done marvelous things. Look around. See the faces. Remember the stories. Imagine the journeys. The daily routines and the great moments. Look around. The Lord has done marvelous things. Sing to the Lord a new song!

Ours is a singing faith. When Israel, on their journey to the promised land, escaped Pharao’s slave catchers, the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”[1] Miriam and the other women established a pattern of praise for God’s people: Sing to the Lord, for the Lord has done marvelous things. The Lord has brought us up, out of the land of Egypt. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has made covenant with us at Sinai and given us the commandments of life. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has brought us into a good land, flowing with milk and honey. Sing to the Lord! The Lord is the maker of heaven and earth, whom sun and moon and stars obey. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has saved us from our enemies. Sing to the Lord! The steadfast love and faithfulness of the Lord are from everlasting to everlasting. Sing to the Lord!

The destruction of the Temple and the exile in Babylon was a devastating experience of loss for God’s people, but even then the songs did not cease. The Lord’s judgments are right. Sing to the Lord!

Hope flourished among the exiles when the prophets spoke of a way the Lord would make in the wilderness. And then they began to return, and it was the Lord’s doing, and it was wonderful in their eyes.

O sing to the Lord a new song,

for he has done marvelous things:

The Lord has made known his salvation;

The Lord has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations;

The Lord has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.

The psalm has the familiar pattern of praise, but the radical newness of the moment of redemption and return pushes the language of praise to global and cosmic levels.

All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

God’s righteousness has been revealed in God’s dealings with God’s people. Every instrument is claimed and used to make a joyful noise, because the Lord reigns. The Lord’s faithfulness endures forever; and the Lord’s power to save extends to all.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

the world and those who live in it.

Let the floods clap their hands;

let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord.

The mighty waters offer thunderous applause while every living thing and every speck of dirt has its part in a cosmic symphony of praise. The Lord reigns and the Lord is coming to judge the earth.

The psalm is a song of gratitude mingled with bold expectation; those who sing it take the wonders of liberation and redemption already accomplished as an earnest of the full manifestation of God’s mercy in judgment, when God’s just rule will be established throughout the world.

The Lord will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.

The psalmist challenges us to see God’s judgment, not as a matter for private celebration by the righteous and, correspondingly, dread for the wicked, but rather as the occasion of cosmic jubilation: The righteousness of God will set things right. Few of us are inclined to rejoice at the prospect of judgment, but this song of praise invites us to examine our preconceptions and embrace judgment as a promise rather than a threat. Jubilation is the appropriate response to God’s judgment, because this judgment is characterized by righteousness, that is, by God’s abiding concern to sustain, restore, and enhance relationship with us, among us, and between us and rivers, mountains, and all living things.[2] The song of the redeemed includes the whole creation. God’s righteousness is a passion for wholeness.

Ours is a singing faith. Another Miriam, Mary the mother of Jesus, when she was pregnant with the promise of God, sang of the Mighty One whose name is holy.

The Lord has shown strength with his arm and has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. Sing to the Lord! The Lord has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever. Sing to the Lord![3]

As Christians, we recognize the fullness of God’s righteousness in the person of Jesus Christ. Mary’s firstborn is the salvation that God has wrought in the sight of the nations. His whole life – that is, his life and teachings, his death and resurrection – is the passionate assertion of God’s will for the world. He is our righteousness and our salvation, and through him we join Israel in singing a new song to the Lord, for he has done wondrous things.

John of Patmos wrote in Revelation, “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea—I heard everything everywhere sing, ‘Blessing, honor, glory, and power belong to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb forever and always.”[4]

The Lord reigns. This confession of God’s people is an act of profound hope, and more than hope. The God who brought Israel out of Egypt and who raised Jesus from the dead has poured the Holy Spirit on all flesh so that we, in the face of injustice and every form of brokenness, have the courage to defy such realities as we live under God’s claim and sing the song of God’s reign.

Ours is a singing faith. Miriam’s song of triumph on the seashore; the psalmist’s call to rivers and mountains; mother Mary’s song of good news for the poor; and in the end the cosmic choir John of Patmos heard: “I heard everything everywhere sing, ‘Blessing, honor, glory, and power belong to the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb forever and always.’”

The Lord has won the victory over all that is opposed to God’s will. The righteousness of God has triumphed and will prevail over the powers of sin and death. The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now, but the whole creation is already singing of its redemption. And what do we do? [Preacher sings, to the tune of HYMN TO JOY]

Mortals, join the happy chorus,

stars of morning, take your part;

love divine is reigning o’er us,

binding those of tender heart.

Ever singing, move we onward,

victors in the midst of strife,

joyful music leads us sunward

in the triumph song of life.


[1] Exodus 15:20-21; see also the song of Moses in Exodus 15:1-18.

[2] See Ellen F. Davis, “Psalm 98,” Interpretation 46, no. 2 (April 1, 1992), 172-173.

[3] See Luke 1:51-55

[4] Revelation 5:13

Bearing fruit

Some members and friends of our congregation are in Bethany Hills for the weekend; Bethany Hills is the campground for Disciples churches in Tennessee, and we’re very fortunate that it’s only about 40 minutes from here, near Kingston Springs. It’s a beautiful place, nestled between gentle hills, covered with lush forest. There are, of course, cabins under the trees and a dining hall, but there’s also a quiet pond, fed by a happy creek, and lovely trails lead to magical places hidden in the woods, waiting to be discovered. Cell phone reception is really bad out there, which makes it the perfect place to go when you want to get away for a little while and reconnect with the  beauty of nature, with others and yourself, and with the quiet and playful side of God. Bethany Hills is an unhurried place where sun and moon and stars determine the pace of life, and a bell calls you to dinner or prayer. Some of you, I know, are wishing now you could or would have gone with them, don’t you?

Julia, Hope, and Greg have created the retreat around Psalm 1 where those are called happy who delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night. “They are like trees,” the psalmist declares, “planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.” If you were a tree, which would it be? What kind of fruit would you want to yield? Peaches? Almonds? Apples? Cherries? Mangos? Pecans? In cultures across the ancient Middle East, the tree of life was the vine, and not just any old vine, but vitis vinifera whose fruit has been crushed for millennia to make wine. The grapevine is one of the oldest fruit crops in the Old World. Seeds have been found at early Bronze Age sites near Jericho, dating back to around 3200 BCE, and just recently, in northern Iran, archeologist dug up wine storage jars that are about 7000 years old.[1] Little wonder, then, that the first food crop mentioned in Genesis, after the flood, is the grapevine.[2] But the tree of life? Some of you may have visited a vineyard here in Tennessee or in California, and seen the rows of vines, and you wouldn’t call those shrubby things trees, would you? They’re just not tall enough to qualify. Apparently, height was not the primary concern for people in the ancient Middle East when they chose a tree of life, but rather the kind of life it gave. And besides, the grapevine is a vigorous climber, growing to a height of over 60’ if left unpruned.[3]

Quite a long time ago, I went to Kindergarten in a three-story brick building behind the church, and the entire wall facing the playground was covered completely by just two vines, growing from a sunny patch near the sandbox, all the way up to the roof. Somewhere in the middle, it must have been the second floor, there was a small balcony, just big enough for two chairs, and one of my most vivid memories of Kindergarten is a moment when I was out on that balcony with Sister Rita and there, just above the rail, almost completely hidden behind the jungle-like curtain of leaves that stretched from all the way down on the playground up to almost the clouds, I saw a cluster of little blue grapes. I had tasted grapes before, big green and black ones my mother brought home from the market, but the discovery of such delicious fruit growing right by my playground was magical. “May I eat one,” I asked Sister Rita, and she said yes. She watched as I reached over the rail, held one of the blue pearls between my thumb and the tip of my index finger, and carefully plucked the grape from the cluster. It wasn’t the juiciest grape I ever ate nor the sweetest, but for me, at that moment, that little blue pearl had the whole wonder of life in it.

When Jesus talked to his disciples the night before he was crucified, he didn’t ask them what kind of tree they wanted to be in order to lead fruitful lives after his return to the Father. Instead he told them, “I am the vine. My Father is the vinegrower. You are the branches. Abide in me.” I imagine just about all of them said to themselves, “Why don’t you abide with us? Why can’t you just stay here with us?” The events of the next few days would disrupt their lives like nothing they could have ever imagined. They would betray, deny, and abandon him, and he would be crucified. They would mourn his death and the loss of all that died with him—and then he would return to find them. He would return to bring them peace and send them.

But that night when he washed their feet, he talked about a deep rootedness amid the turmoil and the chaos about to descend on them. He talked about a connection between them, strong and life-giving and eternal. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.” Abide he says, eight times the word appears in just four verses. Abide is such an old-fashioned word. Of the 17 uses listed in the Oxford dictionary, eight are obsolete. The word seems to belong to another time. “To abide” has to do with persevering, continuing, lasting, staying with it, being at home. No wonder the term is rare. What it means is rare, in this or any time and its absence diminishes us.[4] It diminishes us because we are being pushed further and further into fragmentation and isolation without the capacity to be and abide in a place, to be present in a moment, or to be committed to one another.

Abiding is a key word in John, where love means mutual indwelling or being at home in each other. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.” Fruitfulness is another theme woven into the text like a pattern into a fabric. Six times Jesus speaks of bearing fruit in these eight verses; our lives bearing the fruit of his life, his life bearing fruit in the fullness and wholeness of our lives. Even the words and phrases wind around each other like branches on a vine, and it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins, but the promise of fruitfulness emerges from the urgent and persistent rhythm of abide, abide, abide. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” My colleague, Nadia Bolz-Weber, climbed through the branches of this text, and at one point stuck out her head from behind the leaves and said, “[Vine and branches, and twigs off of branches] are all tangled and messy and it’s just too hard to know what is what. If I’m going to bear fruit I want it attributed to me and my branch. If I’m too tangled up with other vines and branches I might not get credit.”[5] She knows what she wants and she knows what we want. If it’s all about fruit-bearing, we want some credit for our productivity.

Apparently Jesus doesn’t just want to remind us of our need to be connected to him to be alive, really and fully alive. That alone is difficult enough for us independence-loving solitary trees who want to pick the best spot where we plant ourselves, thank you very much, in order to put down roots. But no, this is no Jesus garden where you find the plot you like and make it your place and start producing. Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches, and “our lives are uncomfortably tangled up together. The Christian life is a vine-y, branch-y, jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others.”[6] And that is how we bear fruit. Together. Belonging to him and through him to each other. Abiding in him and through him with each other. The jumbled mess of us and Jesus and others is where life becomes real, whole, and true. He says, “Abide in me as I abide in you,” and he abides; he hangs in with us and holds on to us. We don’t make ourselves fruitful. We simply become fruitful by abiding in him. We bear fruit not by squeezing it out of ourselves but because we are extensions of the vine, pruned by the faithful gardener-God who wants us to be fruitful.

What might the fruit be and for whom is it grown? We know how much the gardener-God loves the world. The fruit is the wine of the kingdom. The fruit is the very life of Christ saving us from getting lost in fragmented isolation and flowing through us to touch and heal the wounded, love the unlovable, and proclaim God’s power and mercy. The fruit is the communion of God and God’s people.


[1] and

[2] Genesis 9:20: Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.


[4] F. Dean Lueking, “Abide in me ...” Christian Century 114, no. 13 (April 16, 1997): 387.

[5] Nadia Bolz-Weber

[6] Bolz-Weber