To let ourselves be found

It’s nobody’s business whom you invite over for dinner. You send out your invitations, you turn on the front porch light, you open the door, and when the last guests have arrived you close it, and soon everybody gathers in the dining room.

Chances are, nobody cares whom you invite for dinner, unless, of course, they expected to be on your guest list and never got an invitation. They drive by your house at night and see all the cars parked along the curb on both sides of the street and they see silhouettes of people in every window, and they turn to each other wondering, why weren’t we invited? Or they drive by and see all the cars and notice two vehicles belonging to people they would never want to be seen with, and now they’re relieved they weren’t invited and they make a mental note never to invite you to their house again since you’re hanging out with those people.

Imagine a house where every time you drive by a banquet is in full swing, the lights are on and the door is open, and whoever wants to come in is welcome. What do you do? Do you just park the car and join the party? Or do you notice the cars belonging to people you don’t’ approve of?  

This is the house where Jesus is the host. And people who have become used to being left standing outside most circles are welcome at table with Jesus. People who have been labeled as outsiders for so long, they almost forgot what it means to belong, are flocking to him. They eat and drink with him, and they listen. “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him,” says Luke. Not just a few, but all, he says. They were coming because Jesus lived and told a story that counted them in, a story of God’s reign in the world. They were coming because in Jesus’ story everything was illumined by God’s mercy. They continue to come near to listen because at Jesus’ table they can sit down and not feel out of place.

Some folks drive by the house grumbling, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” A friend of tax collectors and sinners they call him, and they don’t think that’s a good thing.[1] What do you think? Your answer may depend on where you see yourself on the grand scale of righteousness, if there is such a scale. Is there?

Jesus tells us a story. Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Do any of you own sheep? None? That’s what I thought. So let me tell you about Simba. Not long ago, Simba had his picture on utility poles up and down Woodlawn. Simba is a mighty name for a cute Jack Russel whose energy you could feel just from looking at the photo and you didn’t even have to stop and take a closer look. Simba was lost, and his picture was posted all over the neighborhood because Simba is loved. Somewhere between West End and Woodmont there was a home that wasn’t complete without Simba.

You wouldn’t expect a home with a hundred little dogs, though, whose owner noticed that one of them was missing, would you? And she left the ninety-nine at the dog park and went after the one that was lost, stopping by Kinko’s on the way to have the posters printed? Jesus’ story isn’t quite as fantastic, but it does stretch the imagination already with the opening question: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? It sounds like he’s asking a rhetorical question, like it’s so obvious that anybody would do that. I don’t know. I can easily imagine hearing somebody reply, “Nobody in his right mind who has one hundred sheep and loses one, leaves the ninety-nine to the wolves, the thieves, and the coyotes, and goes combing the hills for the missing one. You cut your losses and go on with the ninety-nine.” Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it?

And I can see that Simba’s owner would call together her friends and neighbors to celebrate the day she got the call that little Simba had been found, but “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost” sounds a little over the top for a sheep owner who was able to track down a missing sheep, a little over the top – unless that particular one was extra special. Was it?

In an early Christian text not included in the collection of apostolic writings, this story is told with a different slant. According to the Gospel of Thomas, “Jesus said: The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep; one of them, the biggest, went astray; he left the ninety-nine and sought after the one until he found it. After he had labored, he said to the sheep: I love you more than the ninety-nine.”[2] That’s a very different story than the one Jesus told according to Luke. In Luke’s version, there’s no room for favoritism, only for determined love and great joy.

And there’s another take, moving the action from the pastoral to the domestic:What woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?

Most women I know would not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search all day for a coin; they have other things to do. A coin is missing? Well, that’s just too bad. It’ll turn up eventually, probably in the washer or under the sofa cushion. But in Jesus’ story, the woman drops everything, she calls the office to tell them she’d have to take a personal day; then she gets the flashlight and the broom, and she sweeps the house, every floor from the attic to the basement, and she searches carefully – until she finds this one coin. And that’s not the end of the story. She gets on the phone, calls her friends and neighbors saying, “Come on over, let’s celebrate; I found my lost coin.”

Both stories end with the hope for shared joy. What the man and the woman are doing borders on foolishness, because they will not stop searching until what is lost has been found, and what is incomplete has been made whole, and until all their friends and neighbors rejoice with them. This is how God looks at people. This is how God looks at you. This is how committed God is to finding every last one of us. Every single one counts. And the world isn’t complete until you and I and everyone else are at the banquet in God’s house.

Jesus’ offensive table manners were performances of God’s will to redeem us and restore us to wholeness. And the proclamation of a God determined to find us and bring us home is the other side of Jesus calling us to repentance.

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away.

So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”

“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

The Runaway Bunny, a children’s book written by Margaret Brown, was first published in 1942, and it has not been out of print ever since. A little bunny threatens to run away from home in an imaginary game of shape-shifting. The loving and steadfast mother promises to find her child each time he threatens to escape by doing some shape-shifting of her own.

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

Some parents are uncomfortable with some of the mother rabbit’s  responses – words like “creepy”, “obsessive” and “possessive” were used in some online comments.[3] “While the emotional tone is one of love,” wrote one reviewer, “the mother rabbit’s refusal to let her child explore could be seen as stifling — a midcentury ‘helicopter parent.’”[4] But then we turn the page to the little bunny saying,

“I will be a bird and fly away from you.”

“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be a tree that you come home to.”

It is not easy for us to find words for a love that will not let us go – not because it doesn’t want us to go and explore, but because it does want us to run and swim and climb and fly knowing that we belong, knowing that we can trust the bonds between divine lover and beloved creation.

Jesus’ opponents called him a friend of sinners, not knowing that with that derogatory term they had stumbled upon the heart of Jesus’ life and mission. And why wouldn’t we who have been touched by his friendship, why wouldn’t we leave behind whatever scales of righteousness we carry around with us, and begin to see ourselves and each other as equally and joyfully dependent on God’s loyal love? Joan Chittister tells a story about this kind of friendship, without sheep or coin, puppy or bunny:

Once upon a time a Sufi stopped by a flooding riverbed to rest. The rising waters licked the low-hanging branches of trees that lined the creek. And there, on one of them, a scorpion struggled to avoid the rising stream. Aware that the scorpion would drown soon if not brought to dry land, the Sufi stretched along the branch and reached out his hand time after time to touch the stranded scorpion that stung him over and over again. But still the scorpion kept its grip on the branch. “Sufi,” said a passerby, “Don’t you realize that if you touch that scorpion it will sting you?” And the Sufi replied as he reached out for the scorpion one more time, “Ah, so it is, my friend. But just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting does not mean that I should abandon my nature to save.”[5]

I see in the Sufi’s actions a reflection of Jesus’ friendship with sinners,  of God’s love reaching out to every last one of us with great mercy. And our true nature – our true nature – is not to sting, but to let ourselves be found by the love that will not let us go.

[1] Luke 7:34

[2] Gospel of Thomas 107.

[3] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/58922.The_Runaway_Bunny

[4] Taylor Jasmine https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/book-reviews/the-runaway-bunny-by-margaret-wise-brown

[5] Joan Chittister, National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001

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Clay with a mind of its own

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”

God didn’t just tell the prophet the words God wanted the people to hear. God didn’t just start a dictation of divine speech right there, wherever Jeremiah was at that moment. And God didn’t tell Jeremiah to go to the temple, or the mountain, or the desert — none of the places we would associate with receiving divine instruction.

God sent Jeremiah to the workspace of an artisan, and there the prophet watched the potter at work. He saw a lump of clay on a fast turning wheel. He saw skilled hands gently and firmly centering the clay into a cone. He watched the clay rise, guided by the potter’s touch, and open like the bud of a flower. It was like watching a dance: potter and clay moving together, the rhythm of the foot kicking the flywheel, the vessel rising from inanimate clay like a living, growing thing, the transformation of thick mud into an object of beauty and purpose. To the prophet, it looked effortless, fluid, but he also noticed the artisan’s focused attention and how the earthen stuff on the wheel followed the master’s touch as though submitting to it willingly. Then he saw how the vessel the potter was making was spoiled in his hand, and how he, without missing a beat, reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. It was then that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. It wasn’t when the prophet looked at rows of beautiful pots drying on shelves by the wheel, or when he saw the finished pots on the other side of the shed, transformed by fire, shiny and smooth, ready for market. God spoke when things did not work out as intended: God spoke when the vessel on the wheel was a mess in need of remaking — and the potter did just that.

I have watched potters at the wheel off and on since childhood, and my admiration for their craft only grew when, years ago, I learned the basics of throwing a pot myself. I took classes with the Clay Lady out in Bellevue, at a small workshop at Red Caboose Park. The wheel was driven by a motor, so I only had to focus on coordinating my eyes and hands, and not a kicking foot as well. How hard could it be …

Well, the seemingly effortless motion of pulling a pot from a lump of clay turned out to be the hardest thing I ever tried to do with my hands. And the results of my considerable efforts, even when they looked OK, sort of, never resembled what I had in mind when I sat down at the wheel. My teacher told me that to some extent the clay would always determine what would be made from it. “Clay has a mind of its own,” she told me, “and you must learn to respect that; neither you nor it entirely determine the result. If you try too hard, it gets tired.”

“What do you mean, tired?”

“It simply collapses.”

Mary Richards, a teacher and potter, connected with Black Mountain College in North Carolina, wrote:

You can do very many things with [clay], push this way and pull that, squeeze and roll and attach and pinch and hollow and pile. But you can’t do everything with it. You can go only so far, and then the clay resists. … And so it is with persons. You can do very many things with us: push us together and pull us apart and squeeze us and roll us flat, empty us out and fill us up. You can surround us with influences, but there comes a point when you can do no more. The person resists, in one way or another (if it is only by collapsing, like the clay).[1]

Clay has a mind of its own. God knows that. God has been working with humans for a very long time. The image of God as artisan is among the first we encounter in the scriptures. Genesis 1 portrays God as the first poet, designer, metalworker, and landscaper, as God speaks, divides, fashions, and populates heaven and earth. In Genesis 2:7 God first shapes clay, sculpting and forming humankind from earth. As God’s hands knead and smooth the moist dirt, God breathes life into God’s new creation, so that the human being is simultaneously grounded by this connection to earth and animated by the very breath of God.[2] We are made with divine intention and purpose, all of us collectively, and each of us individually.

Israel, Jeremiah tried to remind the citizens of Judah and Jerusalem, had a particular purpose as God’s covenant partner; they were meant to be vessels of divine light in the world, but they were forgetful, easily distracted by their own purposes and ambitions, just like we are. The clay has a mind of its own, a mind not always in tune with the mind of the maker.

God spoke to the prophet when the vessel on the wheel was a mess in need of remaking — and the potter did just that. Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

God is a God at work, hands-on, hands in the dirt. The pot on the wheel is a work in progress. The vessel is in the potter’s hand — although spoiled, it still is in the potter’s hand; it can be remade, re-formed into a vessel fit for its divine purpose. As the potter’s wheel continues to turn, there is hope. God isn’t sitting back watching the world collapse. God is a God at work. Creation isn’t something God did for seven days at the beginning of time. It is a work in progress. Humanity is a work in progress. Israel is a work in progress; the church is a work in progress; each and every one of us is a work in progress. And as the potter’s wheel continues to turn, there is hope that we will all be what we are meant to be.

Jeremiah reminds us that we’re not passive, malleable material in the cosmic artisan’s hands. God knows we are clay with a mind of our own and wants it that way. We’re not objects turning out just so in a deterministic universe where everything turns out just so. Mary Richards described how the clay changed her in the process of turning a pot:

It is the physicality of the crafts that pleases me: I learn through my hands and my eyes and my skin what I could never learn through my brain. I develop a sense of life, of the world of earth, air, fire, and water (…) which could be developed in no other way. And if it is life I am fostering, I must maintain a kind of dialogue with the clay, listening, serving, interpreting as well as mastering. The union of our wills, like a marriage, it is a beautiful act, the act of centering and turning a pot on the potter’s wheel.[3]

I listen to these words and I hear her speak of God who not only fosters life, but creates and sustains it, maintaining a dialogue with the clay, listening, serving as well as mastering. I listen to these words and they remind me of God’s limitless willingness to embrace life, including its uncertainty and pain. Her words remind me of Jesus Christ in whom the union of divine and human wills was and remains complete.

The psalm for this Sunday speaks from a place of intimate knowledge between human and creator. You have searched me and known me. You are acquainted with all my ways. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. To me these are words of profound trust in the One who made us, the One we have the privilege to know and address as “you”. It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. Here too, God’s knowing is imaged through physical, hands-on action — knitting, weaving, touching — and the human knowing of this reality leads to wonder, awe, and praise.

The psalm speaks of the vastness of God’s reality that is far beyond our words and concepts, greater than what our minds can grasp — but not unknowable.

We can know ourselves as intimately known by God – every moment, every thought, every word, every habit, every fear – we can know ourselves as intimately known by the One who made us, and in that intimacy, through that intimacy come to know ourselves more fully.

At the end of the psalm – the verses were not included in today’s reading – we are encouraged to join the psalmist in saying, Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

The psalm begins with the words, “Lord, you have searched me and known me,” and it ends with us speaking of our desire to be so known – fully, completely, intimately – in order that we might know ourselves for who we really are and live the life God desires for us. That was the hopeful reality Jeremiah saw and received in the potter’s house: a people fully responsive to the presence, vision and touch of God.

 

[1] Mary Caroline Richards, Centering In Pottery, Poetry, And The Person (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 19.

[2] See Anathea Portier-Young http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2972

[3] Richards, Centering, 15.

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Source or cisterns?

The opening lines of The First Letter of John have something like nine verbs in them:

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it.

Testimony is what we say when the truth is at stake. Testimony is a word we associate with a court room with judge and jury, attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant, and witnesses who testify. Around these parts, chances are the word also brings up, at least for some of us, memories of a hot revival tent with folding chairs, ladies with funeral parlor fans, an atmosphere saturated with anxiety and the promise of redemption, and the stories of the converted who testify.

Lynna Williams wrote a very funny short story called “Personal Testimony.” It’s about a twelve-year-old girl, the daughter of a fire-breathing preacher from west Texas, who is compelled every summer to spend a couple of weeks at a Bible camp for children in Oklahoma. During the day this Bible camp is very much like most other summer camps, with hiking, swimming, arts and crafts. But at night, every night, a revival meeting is held for the campers, with sweaty “come to Jesus” preaching and high pressure on the kids to surrender their lives to the Lord. The unwritten expectation is that at some point during the week, every camper will come forward to give a moving personal testimony. And the problem, of course, is that a good many of the kids simply don’t have the kind of testimony that’s come to be expected.

And that’s where the twelve-year-old preacher’s daughter comes into play. She figured out that she could make a little money by running a ghost-writing service for Jesus, composing for her fellow campers touching stories of conversion and spiritual break-through, stories they could share, amid tears and hallelujahs, at evening worship. For five dollars she wrote a wonderful testimony for Michael, about how in his old and sinful life he used to be very bad and would take the Lord’s name in vain at football practice. Now that Jesus has come into his heart, though, his mouth is as pure as a crystal spring.

Michael’s testimony was a good one, no doubt, but her best piece of testimonial literature she wrote for Tim Bailey. It was about how his life was empty and meaningless until he met Jesus in an almost fatal, and utterly fictitious pickup truck accident near Galveston, a near catastrophe in which Jesus himself seized the steering wheel and averted disaster. That one took some imagination, and she charged twenty-five dollars for it.[1]

Testimony is truth-telling, but in the pressure cooker of religious conformity little more than truthiness will rise to the surface; and the joy of testifying to what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — the joy of testifying is replaced by the desire to please authority figures or impress the audience.

Testimony is different. Say, your friend has been in the hospital for two weeks, losing weight and everybody knows why, but nobody wants to bring up the subject. One day you’re visiting and you’re a little worried because you don’t know what to say, and in a quiet moment he says,

I had a dream last night. I was in a boat, slowly drifting down the river, away from our home; Paula and the kids were sitting on the deck. I paddled hard against the current, but the boat kept moving the other way. I was naked and I was afraid, but then I noticed that the water carried me. I was no longer in the boat but floating on my back, the river carried me, and I felt a deep peace. I believe the dream was God’s way of telling me that everything would be alright.

Testimony is when we speak truth, when with an openness we never thought we would be capable of we name the river that carries us through life, through struggle and fear.

Jeremiah reminds us that in order to name that river of grace we must remember well. Jeremiah takes us to that other place where testimony is given, where witnesses promise to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Jeremiah takes us to court, and we overhear God’s indictment against Israel; we hear it suspecting that we are meant also, that we’re not just spectators up in the balcony: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?”

The plaintiff asks a question, but there’s no witness for the defendant; no one rises to give a statement. There’s silence in the court room, and the indictment continues. At this point you’d expect to hear an itemized list of things Israel, in breach of covenant agreements, did or did not do, but the focus is on what Israel did not say: “They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up from Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, who brought us into a plentiful land to eat its fruit and its good things.’”

They failed to ask where the Lord was who had freed them from bondage, provided for them in the wilderness and brought them to a plentiful land. They failed to ask and so they failed to connect their everyday lives with the formative relationship that made them who they were: Exodus people. Promised land people. God’s people.

They didn’t ask and so they failed to remember. They didn’t ask and so they forgot that they were a people captured and kept by a liberating grace that drew them into relationship and made covenant with them. Distracted by comfort, boredom, anxiety, or ambition they stopped asking, and amnesia set in. And not just amnesia, according to the plaintiff’s indictment.

After they had entered the plentiful land of promise, they turned away from the One who had brought them there to consider other options; like shoppers they looked for the best bargain and the most promising power. The moment they stopped asking “where is the Lord who brought us up from Egypt” they started assuming that the question of who ultimately directs our lives and claims our allegiance is negotiable.[2]

There are, of course, impressive powers that promise us the good life, but they are idols that cannot deliver because life flows from the heart of God. In Jeremiah 2:18 the plaintiff asks, “What do you gain by going to Egypt, to drink the waters of the Nile? Or what do you gain by going to Assyria, to drink the waters of the Euphrates?” Egypt and Assyria were the superpowers of the day, and some contemporaries of Jeremiah’s were thirsting for some superpower water, a sip of military might and just a little swallow of cultural dominance. We know the taste.

“Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate,” Jeremiah cries out on behalf of the Lord, “for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

Cisterns are marvelous systems for the control and management of life-giving water, but they are not springs, they are not sources. All our technologies are marvelous tools of transformation, calculation, management and control, but if we forget to tell our stories with God as a central and foundational character, we break up with the Giver of life and we begin to proclaim our own manufactured idolatries as theologies of promise.

The line that stuck with me from our passage is, They went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves. According to the prophet, we become what we pursue. If we pursue what is empty, we become empty. If we pursue vanity, we become vain. If we pursue darkness, we are assimilated into the darkness. We become what we go after. Except that going after success doesn’t make us necessarily successful; it only means that we will begin to define ourselves by our success or lack thereof. Going after popularity doesn’t make us popular, but we will judge ourselves by our popularity or lack thereof. Going after the perfect body won’t make us perfect, but it will distort our self-image as well as how we look at others.

They went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves. Idols are worthless things and going after them will only leave us smaller, poorer, emptier, thirstier. But why look for water in cracked cisterns?

As the church, as followers of Jesus Christ, we understand ourselves as created, freed, and claimed by a gracious God who desires fullness of life for us. We understand ourselves as claimed not as a nation, but as a global polity, a worldwide household whose members know themselves and each other as kin and as covenant partners of God. We understand who we are by telling the mighty acts of God, by singing and speaking of God’s acts of liberation from slavery, from the bondage of sin and death, the captivity of guilt and shame, the oppressive weight of lovelessness.

We remember who we are by immersing ourselves in the testimony of our ancestors and of those who are on the journey with us, and we do it by testifying what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— without ghost writers. Testimony is what we say when the truth is at stake, when with an openness we never thought we would be capable of we name the river that carries us through life, through struggle and fear.

Jesus promised that those who drink of the water that he gives, will never be thirsty. And the water he gives will become in us a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.[3] May we drink deeply.


[1] Lynna Williams, “Personal Testimony,” in Kay Cattarulla, ed., Texas Bound: 19 Texas Stories (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1994), 191-204.

[2] See Patrick Miller, Jeremiah (NIB), 608.

[3] See John 4:7-14

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Shabbat shalom

On July 30, thousands of people in Ethiopia got their hands dirty as the nation planted an estimated 350 million trees across the countryside over the course of only 12 hours. The effort is touted as a new world record for the number of trees planted in a single day; it was part of the nation’s “green legacy” initiative.

In the early part of the 20th century, the landlocked nation in the Horn of Africa was 35 percent forested. By the beginning of this century, however, that figure dropped to less than four percent. That’s one reason the government is sponsoring an initiative to plant 4 billion mostly indigenous trees, or about 40 trees per citizen.

Dan Ridley-Ellis, head of the Centre for Wood Science and Technology at Edinburgh Napier University, told The Guardian that reforestation of any scale can have immense benefits to nations like Ethiopia.

Trees not only help mitigate climate change by absorbing the carbon dioxide in the air, but they also have huge benefits in combating desertification and land degradation, particularly in arid countries. They also provide food, shelter, fuel, fodder, medicine, materials and protection of the water supply,” he said. “This truly impressive feat is not just the simple planting of trees, but part of a huge and complicated challenge to take account of the short- and long-term needs of both the trees and the people.[1]

The trees and the people, the soil and the climate, they are all connected in a single fabric. In 2006, William Easterly, an economist, wrote,

I am driving out of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to the countryside. An endless line of women and girls is marching in the opposite direction, into the city. They range in age from nine to fifty-nine. Each one is bent nearly double under a load of firewood. The heavy loads propel them forward almost at a trot. I think of slaves driven along by an invisible slave driver. They are carrying the firewood from miles outside of Addis Ababa, where there are eucalyptus forests, and across the denuded lands encircling the city. The women bring the wood to the main citymarket, where they will sell it for a couple of dollars. That will be it for their day’s income, as it takes all day for them to heft firewood into Addis and to walk back. I later found that BBC News had posted a story about one of the firewood collectors. Amaretch, age ten, woke up at 3:00 A.M. to collect eucalyptus branches and leaves, then began the long and painful march into the city. Amaretch, whose name means “beautiful one,” is the youngest of four children in her family. She says:

“I don’t want to have to carry wood all my life. But at the moment I have no choice because we are so poor. All of us children carry wood to help our mother and father buy food for us. I would prefer to be able to just go to school and not have to worry about getting money.”[2]

At first glance, Amaretch is bent nearly double under a load of firewood, but it’s poverty that’s weighing her down.

Jesus encountered a woman bent nearly double on a sabbath at a synagogue, a woman bent by powers that rendered her quite unable to stand up straight. “Bound by Satan” Jesus called her condition. “Bound by Satan” may still conjure up images of a scaly-skinned, horned fellow with a tail, easily dismissed as a mythical, pre-rational attempt to explain the reality of evil, but I suggest we don’t dismiss the figure entirely. It allows us to name the systemic and pervasive character of forces that wield sin like a scepter, oppressing us, fragmenting and isolating us.

The woman who appeared in the synagogue where Jesus taught on that Sabbath had been crippled for eighteen years. We don’t know how old she was, if she was in her 20’s or past her 40’s. We don’t know if she was married or not, if she had children or not, if she came from a family of wealth or if she had to beg for food. All we know about her is that for eighteen years she was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. She could not walk upright.  She could direct her gaze only to the ground below. The horizon of her world had collapsed to only a fraction of what most of us see in our mind’s eye when we hear the word – horizon. She knew people not by their faces, but their sandals. She must have been in constant pain. I wonder what nicknames the children had made up for her, if they teased her from across the street or laughed behind her back. Eighteen years of all of that must have completely redefined normal for her. Perhaps she could not even imagine anymore that there was another way of seeing or being in the world.

But Jesus could and he did. When she appeared in the synagogue he saw her and called her over. It was customary for the teacher giving the sabbath talk to sit in a chair at the front. Jesus didn’t get up and walk over to her at the end of his talk. He called her to come to him as though he wanted to make sure everybody in the room took notice.

Her presence was not an interruption of his teaching but a part of it, possibly the most important part of it. “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” he said to her and laid his hands on her. That’s all he did, proclaim her release and touch her. And she rose, slowly, I imagine, surprised by every inch of long-forgotten movement, delighted by the sudden ease of breathing, the wonder of seeing her own astonishment reflected in the faces of the people around her, until she stood upright with her head held high, words of wonder and praise pouring from her lips. What a joyous moment it was!

Only joy had to wait. The synagogue leader was indignant; he too was bent, though not as visibly as she was; he too was unable to see far beyond where he stood:  “There are six days on which work ought to be done,” he said to the congregants; “come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” He missed the fact that the woman hadn’t asked to be cured, healed, or released.

The seventh day was holy, set aside by God for rest, and keeping it holy meant refraining from work. For one day each week, God’s people were to live not by the work of their hands, but solely by the gifts of God. For one day each week, God’s people were to experience the freedom of complete dependence on God. This synagogue leader wasn’t just a joyless rule enforcer; he had the holiness of God’s word on his mind and he was committed to a life of faithfulness, in his personal life as well as in his role as a congregational leader.

Healing on the sabbath was a difficult topic. The common understanding of the sabbath commandment was that medical emergencies could be and even had to be attended, but that chronic illnesses were a different matter. Non-emergencies could wait. In the leader’s mind, Jesus could have said, “Woman, come and see me tomorrow.” After eighteen years, what’s one more day?

But Jesus didn’t wait. Who wouldn’t untie their ox or donkey from the manger on the sabbath in order to lead them away to give them water? Untying farm animals and leading them to the water on the sabbath was common practice, and not only was it considered permissible but necessary for the animals’ well-being. If we can see the need to untie a thirsty animal, Jesus argued, how can we not see the need for a human being to be unbound and released to her full humanity?

Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

At the beginning of his ministry, on a sabbath in his hometown synagogue, Jesus read from Isaiah, “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 then he sat down to teach, and he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[3]

Today, he said. It was time for every child of Abraham to taste the sweetness of sabbath. It was time for every son and daughter of Abraham to be set free from bondage: breaking their yokes and chains didn’t compromise the holiness of the sabbath day – on the contrary, it finally brought the joy of sabbath to the bound and the bent.

Yes, the sabbath is a day of rest for the weary and a day of remembrance for all of us forgetful ones, but the sabbath is also a promise, an announcement of that seventh day when creation is complete in the peace of God, when all creatures simply are what they were created to be, to the glory of God.

Today, Jesus said, not someday. Today it begins, he said in his first sabbath sermon. Healing the bent woman was not a sabbath violation but its fulfillment for her. And for the rest of us, it is the announcement of what has begun: the redemption of creation, the liberation of humanity from all that binds and bends and blinds us.

The whole world seems bent by the unbending ways of lovelessness and injustice, but today we sing. We sing, even though our lives are still weighed down by worries and fears and so much we cannot name. We sing with them who hear the news of burning forests and go and plant a tree. We sing with her who stood up tall in the synagogue, praise rising from her lips. We sing of the One who bends toward us with great tenderness and the power to make whole.


[1] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/ethiopia-plants-350-million-trees-12-hours-180972760/

[2] William Easterly, The White Man’s Burden (New York: Penguin, 2006), Snapshot: Amaretch. The BBC story is at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/picture_gallery/04/africa_ethiopian_wood_collector/html/1.stm

[3] Luke 4:18-21

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That fire

C.S. Lewis’ celebrated children’s story, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, tells of the adventures of four children in the magical kingdom of Narnia, a land of talking animals and mythical creatures that is ruled by the evil White Witch.

In one scene, the children meet Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, who describe the mighty Aslan to them.

“Is — is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-sea. Don’t you know who is the King of the Beasts? Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”[1]

Lewis’s story is, among many other things, a story about life and redemption, and Aslan is a Christ figure.

Some of us may have been wondering if we walked into the right story this morning, hearing Jesus talk about his desire to set fire to the earth, and that he didn’t come to bring peace, but rather division.

 “Is he — quite safe?” you may have asked yourselves, with our knees knocking.

“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Teresa Berger wrote in an essay about fifteen years ago, “Our culture seems to prize a God with an infinite capacity for empathy, a God who is ‘nice.’ (Bumper stickers tell you that ‘Jesus loves you’ even if everyone else thinks you’re an ogre or worse.)”[2] I can hear Mr. Beaver’s response, “Nice? Who said anything about nice? ‘Course he isn’t nice. But he’s good.” But not every segment of our culture, not even fifteen years ago, has imagined a God with an infinite capacity for empathy. There have long been those whose imagination has been captivated by God’s fiery anger and hot-burning wrath, by lakes of fire and flames of torment. They need Jesus to stand between them and the flames, making sure that none of them ever touch them — and here he is, talking about wanting to cast fire on the earth and how he can’t wait to get it started. They are not just curious about this portrayal of Jesus that seems so out of character, they are frightened. And that terror has nothing to do with the fear that makes your knees shake in the presence of the Holy One. That terror belongs on the world-size pile of things Jesus can’t wait to see burnt away from creation and utterly consumed.

Jesus had set his face to go to Jerusalem, which is to say, he was determined to announce the coming of God’s kingdom at the center of Jewish life and its oppression. He knew what awaited him there as a disturber of the peace. He knew he would be met by power arrangements that had no room for his authority. He knew he was headed for a violent confrontation with the empire of sin and with death — and he followed his path with single-minded focus. He sent messengers on ahead of him. Along the way, they entered a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritan villagers refused to welcome him because he was determined to go to Jerusalem.  Two of the disciples, James and John, saw this, and they said, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” All he had to do, had that been the kind of fire he had in mind, all he had to do was say, “Sure, go ahead, burn those infidels.”

But instead Jesus turned and rebuked the two.[3] Not that kind of fire.

John the Baptist had announced Jesus’ coming, saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming ... He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[4] And again fear creeps in. “What about the chaff, preacher? How will we ever know if we’re worthy of being gathered in like wheat at harvest time or end up on the chaff pile?”

How could you not be worthy of being gathered in? You are fearfully and wonderfully made, created in the image of God! Everything that makes you doubt that, that is the chaff. The chaff is your fear that you are what you have become under the tyranny of sin. The chaff are the layers of lies you have come to believe as true. You are not chaff, nor is your neighbor, even if you and everyone you know thinks he’s an ogre or worse. That which keeps us from recognizing each other as beloved members of God’s household is chaff. Second amendment idolatry is chaff. The devious and overt ways in which racism persists is chaff. Injustice, dehumanization, greed and any kind of lovelessness — that is chaff. And the one who is holding the winnowing fork in his hand, the one who can judge us properly and is saving us into fullness of life in communion with God and creation, is Jesus.

One of the commentaries I consulted includes the following statement:

“The sayings on the fire that Jesus wishes to cast on the earth and the baptism he must undergo are sufficiently obscure as to leave open their precise point of reference.”[5]

So it’s not a simple matter of this means A and that means B — which is dreadful news to some and a great relief to all who live by more than precise points of reference. Another commentator suggests that “[Jesus] longs to see the earth ablaze and consumed by the fire which his coming was meant to enkindle.”[6]

What kind of fire might that be? In one of the early Christian writings not included in the Bible, the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, “Whoever is near me is near fire; whoever is distant from me is distant from the kingdom.”[7]

The mysterious fire which his coming was meant to enkindle is creation set free from bondage under sin. It is to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[8] It is the kingdom of God. Jesus was on fire and his deepest yearning was for our lives and all of creation to glow with the glorious splendor of God’s shalom.

Why then did he say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” Peace was and is and will be the purpose of his mission, but is hasn’t been it’s sole effect. Jesus’ presence and proclamation have not left “domestic tranquillity … undisturbed.”[9] He did not come to validate the social realities we have constructed, realities that reflect, no matter where and when we look, our deeply engrained tendency to create and perpetuate systems that favor those who hold positions of power at the expense of those who don’t. That kind of peace he came to disturb.

Wherever the word of God has been proclaimed, division has occurred among the people who heard it — between those who heard it as the word of God and those who heard it as nonsense: a fool’s babble, a heretic’s ravings,  a fanatic’s rant. Wherever the nearness of God’s kingdom has been announced, not everyone has wanted or welcomed the divine peace plan. Jesus gave his followers a heads-up. He wants us to be on fire with God and for God’s reign, but he doesn’t want us to be surprised when our commitment to his mission becomes divisive, impacting our relationships and obligations to others, even those closest to us.

At the end of today’s reading, Jesus addresses the crowds and he sounds frustrated: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret this moment, this fateful hour?” He sounds like he’s talking about the weather; how good we are about noticing small changes in wind direction and adjusting our weather forecast accordingly. But the weather is just an example. He’s talking about how our attention seems to be easily triggered by some things, while other things, more important things like kingdom matters, completely escape our attention. There he is, the kingdom of God in person, right in front of them, and most of them don’t see it.

His talk of fire, his hope that his kingdom passion would spread like wildfire on the wings of the Spirit, and his talk of scorching heat became the context in which I heard the news that July was really hot.

In fact, it was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth’s temperature in July 2019 was 1.71 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th-century average, the warmest month since record-keeping began in 1880. Of the 10 warmest Julys on record, nine have occurred since 2005.[10]

It appears we can no longer take it for granted that we know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, even though the data are better and more conclusive than ever.

Will he, I ask myself and you, will he who rebuked James and John for dreams of bringing down fire on a single village, will he not open our blind eyes and lead us from captivity to peace?


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch & The Wardrobe (HarperCollins, 1994), 85-86.

[2] Teresa Berger, “Disturbing the Peace,” The Christian Century 121, no. 16 (August 10, 2004), 18.

[3] See Luke 9:52-56

[4] Luke 3:16-17

[5] Luke T. Johnson, Luke (Sacra Pagina), 209.

[6] Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (Anchor), 994.

[7] Gospel of Thomas, 82.

[8] See Luke 4:18-19

[9] Luke T. Johnson, Luke (Sacra Pagina), 209.

[10] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/gabrielsanchez/heres-what-earth-looked-like-during-its-hottest-month-ever

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The summit of human felicity

Marie Kondo has risen to international stardom as a lifestyle authority. “I have yet to see a house that lacked sufficient storage. The real problem is that we have far more than we need or want,”[1] she declares in tidy prose in one of her best-selling books. Before Marie Kondo, there was George Carlin (not quite as tidy):

Stuff is important. You gotta take care of your stuff. You gotta have a place for your stuff. That’s what life is all about, tryin’ to find a place for your stuff! That’s all your house is; a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time. A house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. So now you got a houseful of stuff. And, even though you might like your house, you gotta move. Gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff! And that means you gotta move all your stuff. Or maybe, put some of your stuff in storage. Storage! Imagine that. There’s a whole industry based on keepin’ an eye on other people’s stuff.[2]

In Jesus’ story, the rich man said to himself, “I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” The tone of contentment barely conceals the man’s underlying anxiety, the fear of running out, the fear of not really knowing if ample might not one day turn out to not have been enough.

The rich man was talking himself into believing that bigger barns would provide the sense of security that would finally allow his soul to relax. And we find ourselves in a cultural moment where there’s not only a storage industry, but an equally thriving anxiety industry and a decluttering industry – all with a single promise, a single goal: to allow us to relax, eat, drink, and be merry.

I was three when my sister was born, my brother was seven. For three years, the three of us and our parents lived in a 2-BR apartment with one bathroom. I bet Marie Kondo would have been very pleased with how we arranged five sets of towels, wash cloths, and tooth brushes around a single sink. The environment wasn’t exactly zen-like, my brother and I made sure of that, but I also can’t remember a day when, while practically living on top of each other, we didn’t relax, eat, drink, and play merrily with what little stuff we had.

Much of the gospel tradition is about stuff: having too much stuff, not having enough stuff, having trouble letting go of stuff, loving stuff more than people, wanting stuff more than God. We want enough stuff to live without worry. We want the right stuff to live with joy. And really all we want is to relax and enjoy life’s fullness.

Jesus was on the way to Jerusalem when he taught the disciples about not worrying. “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.”[3] He taught them to proclaim the good news fearlessly and to be bold in confessing him before the authorities who wanted to silence them. That they could trust the Holy Spirit to give them, at that very hour, the courage and the eloquence they would need as witnesses for the kingdom. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat,” he told them, “or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens,” he said, “they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them.”[4]

It was in the course of these teachings about worry-free living that he told the story about a rich man whose land had produced abundantly.“ What should I  do? I have no place to store my crops,” the man thought to himself. And he continued, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” He had all his heart desired, but apparently there was no one to talk to but himself. During his brief inner monologue, he managed to say “I” six times and “my” five times, and even the lovely pronoun “you,” meant for direct address of another, he used only to talk to his own soul. Didn’t he have a family? Didn’t he have neighbors? Didn’t he hear the news we hear of droughts, floods and war that destroy farms and crops and homes and leave so many neighbors facing foreclosure and famine? At some point in his life, the man in the parable had chosen to live in a world of one.[5] He thought to himself. He spoke to himself. He lived by himself and for himself and within himself. It didn’t occur to him that he could gain the whole world and lose his soul. 

God, overhearing the man’s sad soliloquy, cut short his solitary fantasies of his soul’s content. “You fool,” God said. “This very night your life is being demanded of you.”

“Why is this man called a ‘fool?’” the writer of an old commentary asks the reader. “Because he deemed a life of secure and abundant earthly enjoyment the summit of human felicity.”[6]

What then might the summit of human felicity be, if not a life of secure and abundant earthly enjoyment? Jesus warned his audience, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”[7] But what did he mean when he spoke of being “rich toward God?”[8]

Shel Silverstein wrote a little poem, The Search.[9]

I went to find the pot of gold

That’s waiting where the rainbow ends.

I searched and searched and searched and searched

And searched and searched, and then—

There it was, deep in the grass,

Under an old and twisty bough,

It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine at last ...

What do I search for now?

What might be the summit of human felicity, if it’s not the abundance of possessions, not the pot of gold or the bumper crop in the bigger barn? Barbara Brown Taylor suggested that

the rich man was a fool because his quest for treasure was too limited. Or to put it another way, his sense of purpose was too small. He had fallen for the … myth that accumulating stuff was a big enough purpose for human life on earth. He had watched too much television. He had actually believed that his soul was made to thrive on the things that he saw there.[10]

She wrote this back in 2002, imagining the rich man in front of his tv, dreaming of a Land Rover, a Swedish mattress, a house on the lake, and a bigger boat. I imagine him scrolling through endless feeds, his eyes glued to one screen or another all day, every day, not noticing that he had begun to actually believe that his soul was made to thrive on that inflated pseudo-abundance of things to absorb, believe, reveal, laugh at, click with outrage, click with ironic detachment, click with what felt like genuine engagement, and, of course, click to buy—endless streams of stuff to buy, storage units to rent, and custom plans to order for barns of every type and size with same-day delivery.

Jesus doesn’t tell us what he means by being “rich toward God,” but he gives us some hints. He draws our gaze up and out to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, asking us to consider them, to notice how they participate fully in life’s abundance, how they flourish in life’s givenness, how they simply are what they were made to be.

He asks us to consider God’s faithfulness to all that God has made, including ourselves, and to give ourselves in turn to a life rooted in wholehearted love of God and neighbor. “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink,” he tells us, “and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them.” And then he points to the one purpose big enough for human life to become fully human, the summit of human felicity: “Strive for Gods’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”[11]


[1] https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/41711738

[2] Quoted by Cynthia Briggs Kittridge https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/august-4-ordinary-18c-luke-1213-21

[3] Luke 12:11-12

[4] Luke 12:22-24

[5] Matt Skinner http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5368

[6] From the Commentary on the Whole Bible (Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, 1871) http://www.ccel.org/ccel/jamieson/jfb.xi.iii.xiii.html

[7] Luke 12:15

[8] Luke 12:21

[9] Where the Sidewalk Ends (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 166.

[10] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Treasure Hunt: Luke 12:13-21,” Review & Expositor 99, no. 1 (Wint 2002), 101.

[11] Luke 12:29-31

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Jesus' real wants

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples asked him for a prayer lesson. Apparently praying doesn’t come naturally like breathing, eating or sleeping, or so this disciple thought.

Why ask for a prayer lesson? Is prayer like an art or a sport, or is it more like already knowing how to talk but wanting to learn what to say? Do we need lessons about when and where and how often and how long we should pray; whether we should close our eyes and fold our hands; stand up or sit down; lower the face to the ground or raise our gaze upward, with hands stretched up and out? We want to do it right, don't we?

Herbert McCabe knows a lot about prayer and I’ve learned a lot from him. He writes,

You must indeed pray for the right things; but the right things are not the noble high-minded things that you think that you ought to want, they are the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want. Genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before the Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart — never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.

People often complain of ‘distraction’ during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off on to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and ‘religious’ to want it. So you pray high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in [Syria] or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu – when in fact you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising from what you really want – [say a job you would actually like or a little less flab in the middle] … Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants.

So what am I to do with those pesky distractions?

If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer.

He goes on to tell me,

Never mind then if your prayer seems ‘selfish’ or childish. If you will be honest in prayer, acknowledging that you are not very altruistic, that you do worry about your own interests, if you will just try to be, and admit to being, as you are, the Holy Spirit, I promise you, will lead you into a deeper understanding of who you are and what you really want.

He says that prayer is all about simply being honest in the presence of God.

When you lay your desires, your true desires, before God, you begin to see them in better perspective. Quite often you find that they are not, after all, the things you really want most of all. If you bring these desires out into the light, not only the light of day, but the divine light, the light of the Lord, you begin to see them as important but not the most important thing to you. And so through the practice of praying, God will often lead you nearer and nearer to realizing that in the end what you want most of all is [that open, honest, transformative relationship with] God. [1]

Jesus prayed quite often, sometimes for hours; he prayed at his baptism (3:21), he prayed throughout his ministry in Galilee, on the way to Jerusalem, and his last words on the cross were words of prayer (23:46). “Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciple said, and probably not because they were curious about schedules, gestures and postures or how to achieve the proper balance among praise, confession, thanksgiving, and so on. The disciples continuously witnessed Jesus’ special attachment to God, whom he called Father, and they yearned for similar intimacy and a similar intensity of desire to serve God’s purposes. Lord, teach us to pray – behind their simple request was a longing:“Tell us, what is it like to be in such intimate communion with God?”

In response, Jesus told them, told us, to say with him, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” He taught us to pray with him and to trust that the communion he shared with God was open to us. The words he spoke are very similar to what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The version we use comes from the gospel of Matthew and the long tradition of use in the church. At Vine Street, we still say the prayer using the old pronouns thou, thy and thine, and many of us love how they elevate the words from ordinary speech and infuse them with the aura of things that have been handled and used by many generations before us. Luke’s version of the prayer is utterly simple in comparison, almost bare: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” There are no embellishments, no flourishes, no fillers – just simple imperatives: give us and forgive us, and don’t bring us to the time of trial.

Jesus teaches us to pray with few words. And he teaches us to speak of God’s holy name and kingdom right next to our need for bread and forgiveness. This is how closely they belong together. We are to speak of God’s eternal purposes and our daily need almost in the same breath. We are to pray for the consummation of God’s creation in God’s glorious reign of peace and to follow that cosmic-scale request with the most everyday petition for something to eat. Relative to the coming of the kingdom, the prayer for bread may seem rather small — unless we consider that in the kingdom of God, daily bread for all is no small matter, nor is forgiveness.

In the first part of the prayer, God’s cause is foremost – your name, your kingdom. The second part is about us – our bread, our sins, our trials. But the prayer isn’t really changing themes from the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of God’s reign to more mundane things. Because bread, daily bread for all of us, is God’s holy will and God’s daily gift.

When we pray with Jesus, we don’t fly away into the weightlessness of spiritual realms. We pray with our hands touching the soil from which we receive bread to strengthen our bodies, wine to gladden our hearts, and oil to make the face shine (Ps 104:15). We pray with our feet touching the earth from which we were made and to which we shall return, trusting the God who made us and who gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater (Isa 55:10).

What is bread?

Bread is seed and soil, sun and rain, sweat and toil, says the farmer.

Bread is flour and water, yeast and salt, skill and fire, says the baker.

Bread is the sweet memory of my grandmother’s kitchen, says the old man.

Bread is expensive, says the low-wage worker.

Bread is power, says the politician.

Bread is cheap, says the rich fool.

Bread is God’s daily gift for us, say those who pray with Jesus.

There really is no such thing as my bread, there is only our bread, and every loaf contains our whole life together. When we pray with Jesus, we pray for bread and with it for our life together, for the land and all who live on it, for gentle rain to moisten the soil, for justice and compassion, and for the love that breaks bread even with the enemy. Our prayer for bread is indeed the prayer for everything that we and our neighbors need for our bodily welfare. We say bread, because there isn’t a more beautiful word for the dailiness of our needs and our dependence on God and the earth and each other.

And because we can and often do eat the bread of life without memory and without sharing, we need forgiveness. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. When we pray with Jesus we are reminded that just like there is no such thing as my bread, forgiveness cannot stop with me. God forgives our sins, for all that we have done or have failed to do – in disobedience, in ignorance, or in loveless self-absorption. And forgiveness becomes a way for us to participate in the flow of mercy in the world by unbinding and releasing each other from debts of all kinds.

A disciple asked Jesus for a prayer lesson, and Jesus invites us into the intimacy he shares with God, the fullness of love that opens us to honesty without shame and without fear. Jesus invites us to call upon God as children call upon a loving parent, trusting with our whole being that we belong and eager to grow up.

Jesus addressed God as Father. Across cultures and generations, fathers relate to their children in very different ways. The name does not by itself and necessarily characterize God as caring, nurturing, protective, compassionate, and responsive. The name by itself will stir in some of us memories of distance, of absence or hurt. Father is a word, and fatherhood a relationship, with many echoes and reverberations, not all of them life-giving, and what are we to do with those echoes in this prayer?

When Jesus speaks this name, Father, it is a declaration of mutual love and unwavering trust. Perhaps we can remember that Jesus invites us to pray not just like him, using his words, but with him. Perhaps we can remember that it is Jesus the Son who reveals who the Father is, and not our mixed experiences with fathers or the many patriarchal distortions of life (Luke 10:21-22).

The final petition in this prayer is, Do not bring us to the time of trial, and it is good for it to be the last word, as it were. We ask for deliverance from any situation, any circumstance that would threaten our faith in the God who embraced us in Jesus with healing mercy and forgiveness, and who entrusted us with embodying that good news together.

So let’s continue to pray with Jesus and align our wants with his.

[1] Herbert McCabe, God, Christ and Us (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), 8-9.

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Lay down your burden

Tim O’Brien was born in 1946 in southern Minnesota. In college, majoring in political science, he attended peace vigils and war protests, and planned to join the State Department to reform its policies. “I thought we needed people who were progressive and had the patience to try diplomacy instead of dropping bombs on people,” he said. He never imagined he would be drafted upon graduation and actually sent to Vietnam. “I was walking around in a dream and repressing it all, thinking something would [get me out]. Even getting on the plane for boot camp, I couldn’t believe any of it was happening to me, someone who hated Boy Scouts and bugs and rifles.” When he received his classification not as a clerk, or a driver, or a cook, but as an infantryman he seriously considered deserting to Canada, but he feared the disapproval of his family and friends, his townspeople and country.

So he went to Vietnam and hated every minute of it, from beginning to end. He came back to the States in 1970, with a Purple Heart and several publishing credits for personal reports about the war that had made their way into Minnesota newspapers. He expanded on the vignettes to form a book, published in 1973, with the rather blunt title, If I Die in Combat, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.[1]

He kept writing, with an obession-like tenacity, to get to the truth that can only be told in a story. In 1990 The Things They Carried was published, which was a finalist for both the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s a collection of interrelated stories revolving around the men of Alpha Company, an infantry platoon in Vietnam, and the things they carried.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.

The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.

They carried diaries, photographs, binoculars, socks, and foot powder.  They carried fatigue jackets, radios, compasses, batteries, maps, and codebooks. They carried M16s and M60s and ammo belts. They carried plastic explosives, grenades, and mines.

Taking turns, they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery.

They shared the weight of memory.

They took up what others could no longer bear.

Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak.

“They carried all they could bear,” writes O’Brien, “and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”[2]

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.

They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarassed not to.[3]

They had been sent on a mission, and the mission was everything. So they carried all they could bear, and then some. They carried heavy burdens in the name of freedom.

For Jesus the mission was everything. He appointed seventy and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He encouraged them to think of themselves as laborers in a plentiful harvest – in fact, a harvest so plentiful, that their first assignment was to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out more laborers. Am I the only one who thinks that’s a curious understanding of labor, where the workers’ first task is to ask the head of this harvesting operation to send out more workers?

Harvest makes us think of the workers in the vineyard, and of wheat and chaff, and of good soil where the seed bears fruit and yields a hundredfold. But Jesus doesn’t want us to chase farming metaphors down various rabbit holes: “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” He didn’t say, “See, I am sending you out like dogs into the midst of lambs to round them up for the shepherd.” No, like lambs into the midst of wolves, which sounds terrifying, unless you trust that the promise of new heavens and a new earth is not a distant someday-somewhere-dream, and that the banquet where the wolf and the lamb feed together is close at hand — no more distant than the next town, the next house, or the next person you encounter.[4]

Now some of you find yourselves standing among the seventy and you hear yourselves being addressed and called by the voice and words of the living Christ, while the rest of us are still observing this curious scene of Jesus sending out a hefty number of his followers.

He talks about the things they would carry, or rather not carry: no purse, no bag, no sandals. Nothing, really. No purse, meaning no cash or credit card. No bag, meaning no change of clothing, no food for the next meal. No sandals, meaning no extra pair of shoes. The ones Jesus sends on his mission, he strips down to little more than nothing, just the bare essentials. The ones he sends, all they carry is peace and the announcement that the kingdom of God has come near. For everything else they depend on each other and the hospitality of strangers. This mission is an exercise in radical trust.

And nowhere in his little send-off speech does Jesus tell the seventy to pack enough food to feed the hungry, or extra outfits to clothe the naked, or a spare blanket for the homeless. He messes with our assumptions about mission. Typically, when we think about mission, whether it’s in the neighborhood or in far-away lands, we think about pooling and sharing our resources to alleviate suffering as a witness to the compassion of God. We think about works of mercy and justice, we think about giving.

But in this episode from the road to Jerusalem, Jesus sends us to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom not solely with the things we bring, but with our need for the gifts of others. “Eat what is set before you,” he says. The peace we seek to embody and proclaim in Jesus’ name is made manifest in how we receive and eat the food of strangers. And that is not as odd as it may seem at first.

The entire story of Jesus is built around shared meals—read through any of the gospels, but especially Luke, and you will notice that he is either on his way to eat, or teaching during a meal, or just leaving the table.  Jesus eats and drinks with all kinds of people in all kinds of settings, but there’s not a single story of him giving a dinner party. He is always a guest. Even when he says, “This is my body, which is given for you,” he’s breaking somebody else’s bread. He takes whatever we bring, our best and our worst, and makes peace from it.

And that is the peace he sends us to carry wherever we go. He challenges us to let go of the control that comes with having and giving; and to let go of the power that comes with deciding who gets what, when, and why. He wants to send us, all of us, to discover how the word of peace we carry becomes manifest when we enter the world of others—their home, their town, their country, or their worldview, their culture, their story—and eat what is set before us, literally and metaphorically.

He invites us to share in his mission by sharing in his vulnerability. “See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves.” The Lamb of God is under no illusion that his mission is a safe one. He’s on his way to Jerusalem. He knows what awaits him there. Yet he continues on the way because he trusts in the faithfulness of God whose kingdom is near.

And so he says to every generation of disciples as he said to the seventy, “Go!” Begin where you are, not where you think you ought to be or wish you could be.

Whomever you encounter, whatever house you enter, say, “Peace to you. Peace to this house.” Whenever you enter the world of another, do so not as an intruder or invader, but wait until you are invited.

Stop pretending that your mission as a follower of Jesus is solely to give others something you have and they need. Drop that baggage and meet others with humility and a willingness to receive the gifts they offer. Eat whatever is set before you. In receiving their gifts you receive them.

Discover just how near the kingdom of God is, and know it together, when Christ takes what they offer and what you bring, and prepares his banquet of peace, for you and for all.

Lay down your heavy armor. Lay down your dreams of domination and supremacy. Lay down your burden of fear and shame— and carry nothing but the yoke of Christ, nothing but each other.


[1] See https://www.pshares.org/issues/winter-1995-96/about-tim-obrien-profile; read “save my ass” for [get me out]

[2] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (New York: Broadway Books, 1990), 1-9.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] Isaiah 65:17, 25

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A time of famine

Just after Hitler had been appointed Chancellor in 1933, Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and poet, fearing persecution, fled Nazi Germany and found refuge in  Denmark. One of the poems he wrote during his time there was titled, TO THOSE BORN LATER:[1]

Truly, I live in dark times!

The guileless word is folly. A smooth forehead

Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs

Has simply not yet [heard]

The terrible news.

 

What kind of times are they, when

A [conversation] about trees is almost a crime

Because it implies silence about so many horrors?

 

It is true I still earn my keep

But, believe me, that is only an accident. Nothing

I do gives me the right to eat my fill.

By chance I’ve been spared. (If my luck breaks, I am lost.)

 

They say to me: Eat and drink! Be glad you have it!

But how can I eat and drink if I snatch what I eat

From the starving, and

My glass of water belongs to one dying of thirst?

And yet I eat and drink.

What kind of times are they, when a conversation about trees is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors?

That was the line that came to mind when I sat with, or rather under, the heavy words we heard this morning from the book of the prophet Amos. The passage begins with a vision, the fourth in a series of five:

This is what the Lord God showed me—a basket of summer fruit. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A basket of summer fruit.”

That’s not very specific, so you can make that basket as big as you want it to be, and you can fill it with all your favorites — blackberries, cherries, strawberries, peaches, cantaloupes, plums, apricots… you can even slip in a few mangoes, nobody said all of it had to be local.

“Amos, what do you see?”

“A basket of summer fruit,” he got to respond, but this would not be a conversation about juicy, dripping, fragrant deliciousness. Taking a sharp turn, the Lord said to Amos, “The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.”

If you say summer fruit in Hebrew really fast, it sounds almost like end, and apparently the Lord didn’t have fruit in mind at all. What kind of times are they, when a conversation about summer fruit is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors?

There would be no conversation about summer fruit, because the Lord unleashed a verbal downpour of indictments, judgments, and punishments, falling on Amos like crushed stone, piling up around him:

The songs of the temple shall become wailings in that day… The dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place… Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land… You that can’t wait for the holiday to be over so you can go back to cheating the poor out of what little they have with your false balances, buying them with your shady loans, taking their land, their house, even the sandals of their feet… Shall not the land tremble on this account, and everyone mourn who lives in it…? I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and every head will be shaved in surrender to unspeakable grief; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

This was the fourth vision in a series of five. In the first vision, the Lord showed Amos locusts eating the grass of the land, and the prophet cried out, “O Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

And the Lord relented.

In the second vision, the Lord showed Amos a shower of fire, devouring the ocean and the land, and again the prophet cried out, “O Lord God, cease, I beg you! How can Jacob stand? He is so small!”

And again the Lord relented.

In the third vision, Amos saw the Lord standing beside a wall, holding a plumb line and announcing judgment against the house of Jeroboam, king of Israel—and this time, Amos did not plead, but proclaimed God’s judgment against the king.

In those days, the kingdom of Israel had been divided in two for nearly two-hundred years: Judah in the south, including Jerusalem, and Israel in the north, with Samaria as its capital and Bethel functioning as its national sanctuary. And Amos went straight to Bethel.

It was a time of relative peace and prosperity in both Israel and Judah, but the prosperity did not reach the farmers and artisans. All the new wealth accumulated at the top, while a growing number of farmers lost their land and had to sell themselves or their children into indentured service to pay off their loans.

We live in a very different world, but we know firsthand what happens in an economy where investment incomes have continued to grow handsomely while today’s real average wage, that is, the wage after accounting for inflation, has about the same purchasing power it did 40 years ago. And what wage gains there have been have mostly flowed to the highest-paid tier of workers. Some degree of economic inequality is probably inevitable, but an economy, and definitely a democratic society, cannot be sustained when wealth accumulates at the top, instead of being spread across the whole spectrum of workers, investors, and consumers.

Amos decried economic injustices large and small, and he took his message to Bethel, where he was confronted by Amaziah, the priest. Amaziah had already sent a report to King Jeroboam, telling him there was a conspiracy against him and that the land was not able to bear all the prophet’s words. And the priest told Amos to go back to Judah where he came from and never again to prophesy at Bethel. Bethel, he said, was the king’s sanctuary when Amos apparently assumed that it was the Lord’s.

At Bethel they were used to hearing preachers who were able to speak pleasing words to powerful people, soothing their consciences and telling them what they wanted to hear, words of comfort and affirmation. Amos was just too much, too much of a disruption of their pleasant liturgies with his talk about the poor and needy and his words of judgment against their sacred order.

What kind of times are they, when a conversation about trees or fruit baskets is almost a crime, because it implies silence about so many horrors? Dark times. Unsettling times. Trying times.

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

The good folks at Bethel thought all they had to do was send Amos back to Judah to maintain the status quo. They thought all they had to do was silence the disruptive voice for things to return to their proper balance. They didn’t think that within less than a generation, the kingdom of Israel would fall and collapse.

I was drawn to this passage from Amos because of its announcement of a time of famine, not a famine of bread, but of hearing the words of the Lord. The dark poetry of famine resonated, naming a time of desperate desire for voices that speak truthfully and faithfully, voices like Amos’s, Hosea’s, Jeremiah’s and Isaiah’s that remind us that God’s grace and God’s love of justice cannot be separated, that love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand.

Truthfulness and faithfulness have become almost quaint terms these days, along with dignity and respect and reverence. I noticed that Amos announced a time of famine of hearing the words of the Lord, which doesn’t necessarily imply that the Lord would no longer be speaking, but may well describe a moment when we have lost the capacity to hear what the Lord is saying because we don’t want to hear anything too disruptive, anything too inconvenient; or because we are too busy shouting our truths and our lies at each other and past each other; or because we have no interest at all in voices of outsiders, however we may define outside; or because we just want to be left alone with our little truth that is just the right size, thank you very much.

There are prophets among us, gifted with the vision to see what the rest of us cannot see;  you may be sitting next to one. They don’t wear badges, they don’t have certificates from prophet school. Amos didn’t either, he was a sheepherder, a guy with a southern accent who went north to tell whoever would listen that repentance opens worlds of new possibilities. Very few, if any, did listen.

But we still have his words. They were written down because some people realized that all his talk about the end had been painfully true. So by passing down his words to us, those early witnesses suggest that his calls to repentance are worthy to be heard and heeded.

The word I received from sitting and walking with Amos these past few days is, hear them out. Hold the quick labels and other forms of easy dismissal, and hear them out, those disruptive voices, those folks who speak with a heavy accent, those who stammer and stumble under the weight of their words, really anyone who is struggling, amid the twitter of constant spin and the unrelenting drone of sales pitches, to say something truthful and faithful. Hear them out.

 


[1] Bertolt Brecht, Poems 1913-1956 (New York: Methuen, 1987), 318-320.

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Under the broom tree

Dieric_Bouts_-_Prophet_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_WGA03015.jpg

I keep a picture on my desk. It shows a man in a long black robe, wearing a red cap, and wrapped in a red mantle. He’s lying on the ground, barefoot, next to a dirt path, and he looks like he’s asleep, with his head resting in his right hand. Next to him is an angel, dressed in a long white robe, with lovely light brown curls and beautiful wings, just like they painted them back in the late 15th century, in what is Belgium today. The angel is bending over the man on the ground, gently touching with their right hand the man’s left shoulder. Next to the man’s right shoulder, you can see a little round loaf of bread, sitting on top of a simple ceramic mug. The painting is part of an altar piece, and it’s known as Prophet Elijah in the Desert, by Dieric Bouts.[1]

It’s a scene from the passage from 1 Kings we just heard. I’ve kept the picture on my desk for I don’t know how many years; it’s no fancy reproduction—just a color copy from a book, in a cheap photo frame. There are usually multiple stacks of books, magazines, and papers on my desk — some people would probably call it cluttered. But there’s never been a pile in front of that picture. Prophet Elijah in the Desert. I want to be able to see him when the time comes. I put him there knowing that there would be days when I’d be alone in the wilderness and I would appreciate the reminder of God’s gentle presence and persistent faithfulness.

In ancient Israel, they didn’t have what we call superheroes, figures like Spiderman or Wonder Woman, but if they had had that cultural concept, Moses and Elijah would have been prime candidates. Heroes of obedience to the call and purposes of God. Moses the prophet and liberator, Elijah the prophet and troubler of kings.

In the days of Elijah, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were rulers over Israel, but they had abandoned the covenant of the Lord God of Israel in their fondness for other deities, and life did not flourish. There was a drought in the land, a persistent drought; the poor were starving. Elijah said to the king, “Let’s have a contest; let’s see which god is the true God. Gather the people on Mount Carmel and bring all your prophets. I’ll meet you there.” If you don’t know the story, look it up, 1 Kings 18, it’s epic. One lonely prophet of the Lord against 450 prophets of Baal; the challenge: kill a bull, prepare an altar with rocks and wood, and ask your respective god to light the fire for the sacrifice. Long story short, Baal’s bull was slowly rotting in the sun, but the Lord sent fire from heaven in the most spectacular display of power to consume the bull Elijah had prepared along with the entire altar. Elijah won and, to mark the victory, he killed the king’s prophets, all 450 of them. And then he outran the king’s chariot, in the pouring rain, on their way back to Jezreel. It was Elijah’s big day of public triumph. Ahab told Jezebel and she promised Elijah she would do to him what he had done to the king’s prophets.

Now we get to see a very different Elijah. He’s afraid. He flees for his life. He goes far to get away, all the way to Beersheba, way down south, a hundred miles, as far away from Jezebel as he can. And then he walks another day’s journey into the wilderness, sits down and tells the Lord, “It is enough; take away my life.” He is tired, not just in muscle and bone, but in his soul. He is done, spent, exhausted. No more superhero stunts, only sleep. It is enough. What was it that drained him? It’s surprising, isn’t it, after the triumph of Mt. Carmel.

The story doesn’t offer explanations, doesn’t invite psychological speculation or learned remarks about boundaries and self-care. But it has invited me to identify with the man under the broom tree, because I know the smell of the dirt under that tree, the feel of dust between my fingers.

Superhero Elijah on Mt. Carmel I worry about. Superhero Elijah I look at with a critical lense, with a Jesus lense. Superhero Elijah I can laugh at, sometimes, when it’s the right moment, like he’s the guy whose name is on the cover of some comic book. But I’ve never wanted his poster on the wall above my bed. Yet I do need to see the man under the broom tree.

On Friday afternoon, Don and Leigh Ann were sitting on the back porch of their house on the corner of Cherokee and Aberdeen. They were working on a spreadsheet, columns and rows, cells and figures, which may not sound exciting, but it was, because they were doing the numbers to see whether this might be the year when they would be able to become full-time gardeners and travelers; they were making retirement plans. And then death intruded in the most unspeakable way, took Don, and left Leigh Ann’s life hanging by a thread. For hours, she was in surgery, with her sister alone in the waiting area, calling family members, repeating over and over the horrific news.

When there’s been a crime, there’s no patient information to call or ask, so I just walked around the ER and various waiting areas, hoping to see folks who looked like they might be family of Don or Leigh Ann. And I just happened to be there when Leigh Ann’s sister looked up from her phone and we both went through that moment of half-recognizing each other after not having seen each other for a few years, and then we just sat and talked and cried and waited together, and it was good. It was good, because seeing each other, touching hands and shoulders, we remembered that we were not alone with the shock and the pain of death’s violent intrusion.

Elijah woke up when an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” It was the most basic of life-giving gestures: a touch on the shoulder, a little bread, a jar of water, and few words. Elijah ate and he went back to sleep.

And a second time the angel of the Lord touched him, and told him to eat and drink, adding that otherwise the journey would be too much for him. Elijah couldn’t even imagine that there would be a journey, but now he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mountain of God.

He went all the way back to the covenant place, the place of promise where God had given Israel the commandments, all the way back to the beginning of the relationship between God and the people of God, and there he spent the night in a cave. The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” And he answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord.”

I have stood up and spoken up for you.

I have confronted the king for you.

I have urged, warned, threatened for you.

I have ridiculed the king’s prophets for you.

I have killed for you.

I have been zealous, very zealous, for you.

“For the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

Elijah sounds to me like he felt alone and abandoned in an epic struggle for righteousness and justice. He sounds to me like he’d been expecting perhaps a little more zeal from the Lord to match his own. Some fire-from-above action to make Jezebel forsake her idolatrous ways; some mountain-splitting, earth-shaking display of divine power that would cause Ahab to repent; some spectacular feat that would make God’s people stop limping like they had been, thinking they could follow the Lord with one foot and their idols with the other.

In the days of Moses, when God made covenant with Israel, there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain. There was a blast of a trumpet so loud that the people in the camp trembled. On that day, Moses brought them out of the camp to meet God, and the mountain was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire, and smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. And as the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.[2]

Elijah sounds to me like he’s been wanting to see some of that kind of action from the Lord for some time. Something to end Ahab’s corrupt rule. Something to keep the people from wandering off. Something to stop the evildoers with murder on their mind. Something to end the cruel practice of locking up children in conditions we wouldn’t allow in animal shelters.

The Lord said to Elijah, “Go out of the cave, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces — but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind, there was an earthquake, but the  Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

It was as though Elijah’s own zeal, his righteous rage, his passion for deep and lasting change was on display all around him in spectacular fashion—but the Lord was not in any of them. There was only sheer silence, which, after all that earth-shaking noise, had a sound all its own—and Elijah heard it; he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out.

God asked him the same question again, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” and Elijah gave the exact same answer as before. Even in the very presence of God, he said, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left.”

There’s little use in us telling him that he is not alone, that he has never been alone, that he has been fed by an angel in the wilderness, and that there have always been others beside him who did not bow their knees to Ahab’s idols. There’s little use in us telling him, but we can show him—standing up with him, speaking up with him, walking with him on the way of the Lord.

This is a song I’ve been humming since Friday.

[Rhiannon Giddens, He Will See You Through]


[1] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/49/Dieric_Bouts_-_Prophet_Elijah_in_the_Desert_-_WGA03015.jpg

[2] Ex 19:16-19

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