Tell me, Emma Faye

In the gospel of Luke, the Spirit drives the plot. The story begins with the births of John and Jesus. John, we’re told, would be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb (1:15). Jesus’ mom would give birth to a holy child, because the Holy Spirit would come upon her (1:35). When the two mothers meet, John leaps in his mother’s womb and she is filled with the Holy Spirit (1:41). Then his father is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies (1:67). Then we meet old Simeon, upon whom the Holy Spirit rested, and to whom the Holy Spirit had revealed that he would see the Lord’s Anointed before his death; and guided by the Spirit he comes to the temple when Mary and Joseph bring their child (2:25-27). And then Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized by John and the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and led by the Spirit, Jesus enters the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil (3:22; 4:1). Then, we read this morning, Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, where he began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone (4:14-15). The Spirit drives the plot. Women and men, young and old, entrust themselves to the Spirit’s presence and direction, and the story of salvation unfolds.

And now the famous son returns to Nazareth where they’ve known him all his life and where they’ve heard stories, bits and pieces, about his teachings and other wondrous things he’s done down in Capernaum and the other villages by the lake. It’s the Sabbath, and he’s in the synagogue, and they invite him to do the second reading and teach, and they hand him the scroll of Isaiah. He opens the scroll, he finds the passage he wants to read – it’s like all the movement, the back and forth from Nazareth to Bethlehem, back to Nazareth and down to Jerusalem, to the Jordan and into the wilderness and back to Galilee – it’s like all the movement slows down to this one moment. Jesus reads 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.

Ancient words of promise and hope. Jesus sits down to teach, Luke tells us. The eyes of all in the synagogue are fixed on him. They want to hear his comments. They are hungry for a teaching, for a word to, perhaps, assure them that the ancient promise is still theirs, a word of encouragement not to give up hope, that the day would come, that their suffering would come to an end someday, and they would live in freedom. And the first word out of his mouth is “today.”

Jesus identifies himself with this Spirit-bearer, anointed and sent to bring good news to the poor, to the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. He wasn’t reading, he was giving his inaugural address. “This is who I am. This is what I’m about. This is my mission.” Good news for the poor. Release for the captives. Sight for the blind. Freedom for the oppressed. His Sabbath talk is short because his whole life is the teaching, because all he is and says and does and suffers is the embodiment of who God is for us and who we are, who we really are, as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. In great compassion, he has made our broken life his own, and his own life ours, a life of unending communion with God.

In the gospel according to Luke, the Spirit drives the plot, and in the second part of Luke’s work, the book of Acts, the Spirit continues to inspire and empower men and women for mission. Baptized into Christ, immersed into his death and resurrection, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, the church is called, anointed and sent to be the proclamation of good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed – to be the embodiment of the life of Christ. The church, of course, has been and continues to be all kinds of things, but in the power of the Spirit, we are a new humanity, fully alive in communion with God and with each other.

Good news for the poor – that is as simple as Room in the Inn, as simple as making a bed in fellowship hall and cooking a meal, so a veteran who can’t escape the ghosts of war can escape the cold and find rest for a night. Good news for the poor is as simple as the Souperbowl of Caring, reminding us of the power of sharing God’s abundant gifts. It’s as simple as a pair of jeans, a shirt, and a winter jacket for the man whose things were stolen, few as they were, when he was looking for help at the Campus for Human Development. Good news for the poor is as simple as food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and a couple of nights at the inn for the man who was beaten and left for dead by robbers by the side of the Jericho road. But it doesn’t end there; it can’t end there, because the Spirit of the Lord is the Spirit of life that is nothing but life, fullness of life, for all. We can’t stop asking what we can do to keep people from being pushed to the margins of our communities. Simple charity won’t do. We must be willing to open ourselves to the power of God who makes all things new.

A few years back I read what became for me an eye-opening story. I don’t want to merely tell it, I want to invite you to imagine walking in someone else’s shoes for a moment.

You’re Emma Faye Stewart, a thirty-year-old, single African American mother of two. You were just arrested as part of a drug sweep. You are innocent. You don’t use drugs, let alone sell them. You just happened to be there.

After a week in jail, you have no one to care for your two small children and are eager to get home. Your court-appointed attorney urges you to plead guilty to a drug distribution charge, telling you the prosecutor has offered probation. You refuse, steadfastly proclaiming your innocence. You didn’t do anything wrong.

Finally, after almost a month in jail, you decide to plead guilty just so you can return home to your children. You are sentenced to ten years probation and ordered to pay $1,000 in fines, as well as court and probation costs.

You are now a drug felon. This means you are no longer eligible for food stamps. This also means that on any job application, you have to check the box that you have been convicted of a felony. And it means that you cannot vote for at least twelve years, but that’s the least of your worries: You are about to be evicted from public housing, and once homeless, your children will be taken from you and put in foster care.

You think it couldn’t get any worse? It can and it does. A judge eventually dismisses all cases against the defendants who did not plead guilty. At trial, the judge finds that the entire sweep was based on the testimony of a single informant who lied to the prosecution. You, however, Emma Faye, are still a drug felon, homeless, and desperate to regain custody of your children.[1]

Tell me, Emma Faye, what do you hear when Jesus proclaims freedom for the oppressed? From where you see the world and know life, what does release for the captives mean? I’m asking you, Emma Faye, because you and I live in the same country, but in very different worlds.

I’m asking you, because you and I are baptized, and the apostles of the church teach us that we are one in Christ. He has made us his own, and that makes us family, and that makes us each other’s business. I can live my life quite comfortably without you, tucked away in my little world and you in yours, but in God’s household our worlds are one.

I’m only beginning to see you; only beginning to see fullness of life from your angle; only beginning to see what freedom from oppression might look like for both of us, a black woman and a white man, wondering what life outside the long shadow of slavery might be like for us.

The apostle writes, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” He says you and I are parts of one body, which is a whole lot closer than being siblings or members of one household.

It’s a dangerous metaphor, the body, because every body needs a head, and who determines who’s the head and who’s a toe and who’s the appendix? The apostle doesn’t want us to go there, I know;  he wants us to know in our bones that in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, male and female, young and old—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Each of us indispensable for all of us to be whole.

Tell me, Emma Faye, how will we let the Spirit draw us deeper into the life that is nothing but life?

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow. Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition, p. 95

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Unexpected love

Expectations. They can give you wings or be the chains around your feet. They can lift you up and take you places you didn’t think were within your reach, and they can stifle you, weigh you down, keep you from blossoming. You don’t always know where they come from, whether they are your own or your parents’ or some accumulation of the images and messages we all receive daily from our culture, subtle or not-so-subtle.

People were filled with expectation about you before you were born. They were filled with expectation when they looked at you in your crib, when you went to school, when you tried out for the baseball team, when you walked down the aisle in your long white dress, when you graduated, when you joined the church, when you had your first child, when you started your new job. And you have been trying to find your way through that thicket of expectations, the spoken and unspoken. You have been trying to find a way, to make a way that feels like your own rather than someone else’s idea of your life.

In the Gospel of Luke, we get to look at a short and curious sequence of scenes. John, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, far from following in his father’s footsteps as a priest at the temple in Jerusalem, has appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He admonishes the crowds that have come to be baptized by him to bear fruits worthy of repentance. “The ax is lying at the root of the tree,” he says with fire on his breath. He urges them to be generous, honest, and just in their relationships, and the people are filled with expectation, questioning in their hearts whether he might be the Messiah. “I baptize you with water,” he says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” And more fire to come when the one more powerful than John will judge the world, separating the wheat from the chaff.

And then Jesus steps into this scene that is charged with messianic speculation and expectation, with apocalyptic visions of judgment and redemption — but he doesn’t come down from on high, winnowing fork in hand and and an ax in the other. He comes to be baptized, washed in the river, along with all the people.

This is the Jordan, the river that Israel crossed after long years of wilderness wandering to enter the promised land. This river marks the border between what was and what is to be, between longing and fulfillment. Its waters wash away the dust and grime of the journey, the failures and the regrets, the anguish and the sticky shadows of all the things we can’t undo. Forgiveness flows like a never-ending stream, and in repentance we step into the current, we let ourselves be plunged into the deep, and we let the water cleanse and renew us, and we emerge filled with gratitude and ready to finally live as God’s people on God’s earth, according to God’s will.

And now Jesus gets in the water with us. He gets in and he makes our lives his own, our real lives with all the distortions and ugliness our lovelessness and disobedience have caused. He gets in and he lets himself be plunged into the deep, all the way down where its dark and cold, and, making our broken lives his own, he makes his life ours – his love and compassion, his righteousness and humble servanthood.

This moment in the river is the gospel in a nutshell: God bears all that fractures the wholeness and fullness of life, and we are given a new beginning and a new purpose as those whom Christ has made his own.

The curious thing, though, about Luke’s account, is that he mentions Jesus’ baptism almost in passing, in a subordinate clause: Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

Luke makes sure we notice that Jesus was in the water with all the people, but the real news is the opening of heaven and the Spirit’s descent when Jesus was praying. Remember, this was a moment charged with messianic expectation, with firy judgment in the air and anxious hope for redemption – and Jesus prayed. He stood amid the flurry of expectations of John and the crowd and, not to forget, his mom and dad, his siblings and friends, and he prayed. And a voice came from heaven.

Now this is God speaking in the first person, which doesn’t happen very often in the scriptures, and if you think that it’s important to have all the words of Jesus printed in red, what color do you suggest for the voice from heaven? Gold letters in 18pt font? Or should our Bibles perhaps have a page break right after the comma to give these precious words a page of their own, so our eyes don’t just keep reading as though getting to the end of the story were a matter of speed? An extra page might slow us down enough to notice that the voice from heaven didn’t add to the already dense thicket of expectations: there’s no solemn commission to Jesus to go and save the world. Instead we read this beautiful statement of love and delight, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And that’s all. Perhaps we should insert another blank page at the end of this sentence to help us realize that these twelve words are all the voice from heaven says. No second sentence opening a whole new paragraph, “Now listen, Son, this is what I need you to do.” No parental reminder, “Now don’t you forget that, Son, or I won’t be pleased.” Only these words: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.

In Luke’s gospel, this scene by the river is followed by a long genealogy, name after name, generation upon generation, layer upon layer of family history and all that comes with family history – but Jesus’ true identity, his true name was spoken by the water by a voice from heaven. The list of generations goes back all the way to the first parents, Adam and Eve, and perhaps Luke inserts the list here to illustrate that Jesus life and work is about all of humanity in our need of redemption. He comes to make his life ours. He comes to remind us of our true identity as God’s beloved children in whom God delights. He comes to reveal to us that who we are is ultimately not defined by layers of generations nor the deep wounds of past injustice that continue to cause pain, shame, guilt, and despair. We are, every last one of us, God’s beloved children in whom God delights. And this love God has for us is the one relationship in life we can’t screw up. We can deny it, sure, we can ignore it, neglect it, forget it, run away from it, but we cannot destroy it. Nothing we do or refuse to do will change who we are: God’s own and God’s beloved.

Sometimes we forget. We forget because we’re busy sorting through piles of expectations, trying to put all the pieces together into a life we still recognize as our own. We forget because somehow life has convinced us that we are not worthy of love or too insignificant to even be noticed. We forget because pain and fear and shame bury our sense of self as God’s own and as siblings in God’s one human family. What are we to do about that forgetfulness?

Luke draws our attention to Jesus’ praying after he had been baptized. I don’t think he does this to suggest that heaven opened because Jesus prayed, but rather to remind us that the openness of heaven is a reality we can perceive with the openness of heart and mind which prayer cultivates. He wants to encourage us to pray so we will know deep in our bones and not forget that we belong to God and are loved.

Martin Luther often struggled with a deep sense of unworthiness, and when he became discouraged and dejected he would say, “But I am baptized.” It was the prayer of a desperate man hanging on to the promises of God. He even wrote it on a slip of paper he pinned to the wall above his desk, “I am baptized.” When the waves of conflict around him and within surged high, the tempter would say to him, “Martin, you’re a hopeless, stubborn, prideful, ignorant, arrogant, no-good sinner.” And he would reply, “True enough, devil, but I am baptized.”

Luther wrestled with a host of demons, he was passionate about the truth of the gospel and the faith and faithfulness of God’s people, and he was pulled in many directions by the expectations of many. I imagine that on some mornings, perhaps every morning, when he washed his face he paused and whispered, “I am baptized. Christ has made me his own. I belong to God.” Not a bad habit; perhaps you should try it. In the morning, when you step into the shower, and the water runs over your face and shoulders, pause for a moment to remember your true name and say it, “Holy One, I am your beloved child and you delight in me.”

In this morning’s reading from Isaiah is another passage where God speaks in the first person. The words were first addressed to a small band of uprooted men and women who felt abandoned by God: Do not fear. I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.

First spoken to God’s people in exile in Babylon, far from the land, far from Jerusalem, we hear ourselves included in these words, in the promise to all of God’s sons and daughters, the promise of the great homecoming from all our exiles:

Do not fear, for I am with you. I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give them up, and to the south, Do not withhold. Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth — everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.

That is the heart and the end of the story: All of us knowing ourselves and one another by our true names. All of us living fully in the love that made us, redeemed us, and never ceased to call us. Thanks be to God.

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It’s a frozen chunk of rock and ice on the edge of our solar system. Astronomers call it a trans-Neptunian object, and they named it Ultima Thule. A few days ago we got to see the first pictures, grainier than a bad first-trimester ultrasound print. The spacecraft that took the pictures, New Horizons, was launched in 2006. Twelve years to cover 4.1 billion miles. The data transmissions back to Earth take a little more than six hours. To the folks at NASA, Ultima Thule looks like a snowman; others, schooled in the aesthetics of Star Wars, noted the striking resemblance to the very cute droid BB-8.

It’s been quite a week in space news, from the edges of our solar system to the Moon, the astronomical object closest to Earth. Humankind has looked up to the moon for a very, very long time, but we first laid eyes on the far side of the moon in 1968.

“The backside looks like a sand pile my kids have been playing in for a long time,” the astronaut Bill Anders told NASA mission control. For millennia, people had gazed up at the same view of the Earth’s companion—the same craters, cracks, and fissures. As the Apollo spacecraft floated over the unfamiliar lunar surface, Anders described the new territory, which promised to be a tough landing for anyone who tried. “It’s all beat up, no definition,” he said. “Just a lot of bumps and holes.”

Fifty years later, humankind landed in the sand pile. China set down a spacecraft on the far side of the moon on Wednesday, Beijing time.[1] And on Thursday, the rover Jade Rabbit 2 left the lander and began driving around, leaving the first wheel tracks on the backside of Earth’s ancient satellite.

On Christmas Eve 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 — Frank Bormann, Bill Anders, and James Lovell, Jr. — were busy scouting landing spots on the moon for a future mission when they suddenly witnessed a spectacular moment: over the ash-colored lunar mountains, against the black backdrop of space, they saw the Earth rising like a shining, blue marble. As one science writer put it,

Major Anders had the job of photographing the lunar landscape. When Earth rose, a robot would have kept on clicking off pictures of the craters. Indeed the astronauts briefly joked about whether they should break off and aim their cameras up. “Hey don’t take that, it’s not scheduled,” Commander Borman said. Then, like good humans, they grabbed cameras and clicked away.

“Earthrise” became an iconic image, something of an epiphany. Sent to examine the Moon, Major Anders later said, humans instead discovered Earth. Apollo 8’s greatest legacy turned out to be a single photograph of home, glorious and beautiful, “fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble.”[2] Fifty years later, we know a lot more about just how fragile our planet is, and we’re still far from knowing how to be at home here, together.

Matthew tells us that in the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem. We don’t know much about them, these sky-gazing travelers from far away lands who came to Jerusalem guided by a star to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews. And because we know almost nothing about them, we have long let our imaginations soar. Matthew gave us an almost blank canvas, and we have gladly filled it with rich, colorful detail. First we looked at the map, and we listed all the lands East of Jerusalem – Arabia, Babylon, Persia, India, China – from how far East did they come, these wise ones? Then we looked at the gifts they brought – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Very expensive gifts, not the kind of stuff you can pick up at the market on your way to the birthday party — but didn’t Isaiah mention gold and frankincense, and didn’t he write about kings? That was when, in our imagination, they began to look like kings, royal visitors bearing royal gifts, and because three gifts are mentioned, we determined that there must have been three of them. And we began singing songs like We Three Kings From Orient Are, but our hunger for detail wasn’t satisfied yet. How did they get from the East to Jerusalem? Certainly they did not walk all the way — but wait, didn’t Isaiah mention a multitude of camels? Sometime in the Middle Ages, we named the three Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, and we saw them riding high on their camels, with more camels carrying their treasure chests.

With passing centuries, the stories of the wise men from the East became ever more colorful and elaborate – and all because of the child whose star they had observed and followed. This child arouses in us a holy extravagance of story, image, song, and gift, because in this baby, we see the face of God. The nations are coming to the light that has dawned, and the travelers from the East represent all of them — we come from Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, and the Americas: the whole world is gathering to pay homage to the newborn king. Matthew gives us but a hint or two, and we let our imagination run and leap and soar, because this child is the good king, born to bring us all together in the city of God, born to show us how to be at home in God’s creation, together.

What about the other king? Imagine King Herod’s face when his staff informed him that visitors of considerable wealth and status were entering the city. He was very fond of hearing his underlings refer to him as Herod the Great, but imagine the satisfaction in his eyes and the regal pace with which he made his way to the palace window to see his own majesty and greatness reflected in the very important visitors from far away. They had come from distant lands to meet him and, no doubt, pay him homage, to admire the magnificent building projects under way in the city, especially the temple — he was Herod the Great, King of the Jews, the most important person in the realm, was he not? Imagine his face when the foreign visitors entered and asked him where they might find the newborn king of the Jews.

We hang a star in the baptistry window during Advent and Christmas. It’s beautiful, especially at night, and it’s hard to miss. It’s been made to stand out. It’s been made to illumine for us the path to the manger and from the manger to the cross. But in Matthew’s story, only the astronomers from the East notice the one star among the thousands of others visible on a clear night. Herod doesn’t see what they see; nor do the experts in reading the sacred texts whom he consults. They talk about Bethlehem, but they can’t see the star, they can’t see the house, they can’t see God’s saving presence in this child, Emmanuel, God with us.

Epiphany means manifestation, appearance, showing forth – but Matthew wants us to see the hiddenness of Christ, how God slips into the world by way of a poor family in a one-light town. “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.” Matthew knows the words by heart, but he wants us to see that the glory of God has risen, not upon Herod’s palace or his spectacular temple, but a little ways to the south, upon a dusty hill town called Bethlehem. “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn,” the prophet declared, and Matthew shows us the nations coming to the light. “They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord” – and they do, but all Herod can see is a threat to his own reign.

As Rome’s puppet king and client of the emperor, Herod’s task was to foster loyalty to Rome’s power. He presided over a political system that benefited a small elite while depriving many of their daily bread. Describing Herod’s cruelty, the Roman writer Macrobius penned the memorable line that it was “better to be Herod’s pig than his wife or son.”[3] He was used to getting rid of people who didn’t serve his ambition. He had ten wives and ordered multiple assassinations, including the murder of some of his own sons to make sure the one of his choosing would take his throne when he died. No epiphany for Herod, only fear and cunning and ruthless determination.

Matthew’s story is not about three kings, but about two, Herod and Jesus. The contrast between their kingdoms runs through the whole gospel, all the way to this year and this moment and to us and whether we see the glory of the Lord that has risen upon us or only lights of our own making; whether we see the epiphany of God-with-us in Mary’s boy and let him guide us or put the vision away together with the rest of the Christmas decorations.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined,” Isaiah declared.[4] Our reading is from chapter 60, but the background against which Isaiah calls us to arise and shine, is found in chapter 59:

“Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter.”[5]

“The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Therefore justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us; we wait for light, and lo! there is darkness; and for brightness, but we walk in gloom. We grope like the blind along a wall, groping like those who have no eyes …”[6]

Groping along a wall, of all things… I laughed when I read about us, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. It was the uncomfortable laughter of recognition. We’ve become experts at Herod’s game, but our redemption, our hope, and the hope of the Earth, “fragile and miraculous as a soap bubble,” lies on the way of peace Jesus has opened for us. Let us walk in the light of the Lord.



[3] Warren Carter, “Between text and sermon: Matthew 2:1-12,” Interpretation 67, no. 1 (January 2013), 64-65.

[4] Isaiah 9:2

[5] Isaiah 59:14

[6] Isaiah 59:8-10

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My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Mary sings of the magnifying gaze of God. She sings of the Holy One of Israel who looks with favor on what is small and poor, easily overlooked or ignored. She sings of God’s magnifying gaze that has changed her life and the course of the world.

An angel came to her and told her that she would get pregnant and give birth to a boy, and that she would name him Jesus. And that was only the beginning; the surprise kept unfolding. God would give to her boy the throne of David, and of his kingdom there would be no end. And this child of hers would be called the Son of the Most High.

Then the angel lingered a little, didn’t just depart, having delivered the divine birth announcement. The angel lingered a little, because this pregnancy was not just a matter of divine fiat. The angel waited to hear what Mary would have to say. The angel waited because the good news for all people does not overwhelm us, manipulate or coerce us. God speaks and patiently awaits our response, our consent to let our lives serve God’s saving purpose.

“Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” Mary said. “Let it be with me according to your word.”

Under the magnifying gaze of God we become fully visible in our dignity and freedom as creatures made in the image of God. None of us are mere means chosen and used for God’s ends. We are partners whose consent God desires and honors.

“Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary said.

Then the angel departed, and Mary departed as well, with haste, to go and see Elizabeth down south, in the hill country. It’s with Elizabeth, that Mary finds words beyond her courageous, “Let it be.”

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

My dictionary defines to magnify as to 1. praise highly; glorify; extol; esp. render honour to (God); 2. make greater in size, status, importance, etc.; 3. increase the apparent size of (a thing) as with a lense or microscope. Mary glorifies and extols God her Savior, because the Mighty One of Israel doesn’t act like the mighty ones of the world. God’s merciful gaze magnifies small things and seemingly insignificant people, making them greater in size, status, importance, etc. Mary has spoken her world-changing “Let it be” and now she magnifies the Lord because God has looked with favor on her lowliness and asked her to participate in the great work of salvation.

“Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me,” she sings, but her song quickly moves from the very personal to the horizon of God’s promise to Abraham: all generations will call her blessed for her faith and her participation, and in the end all the families of the earth will be blessed because God is faithful.

The prophet Micah reminds us that God’s magnifying gaze is by no means a new thing, but the way God looks at the world.

“You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel … He shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, … he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.”

Of all the towns and clans of Judah, God chose Bethlehem. Of all the sons of Jesse, God chose David. Of all the nations, God chose Israel. Of all the women, God chose Mary, a teenager from some town called Nazareth that nobody had ever heard of. Under the magnifying gaze of God, what we easily ignore or overlook or dismiss as marginal and insignificant becomes fully visible in its true stature and dignity.

Wendy Farley wrote,

When we expect the power of redemption to mimic the power we see around us every day in fathers, judges, rulers, warriors, or captains of industry, it is because we have not been able to digest the shocking images of power we celebrate every Christmas and Easter.

Christ has always been a terribly offensive icon of the Holy, not least because he is perhaps the poorest display of power one sees in any of the world’s religions. In him, we see immortal, invisible God birthed into this world through an impoverished and nearly outcast young woman. We watch Jesus wander around a little rag-tag occupied country for a while and then leave it by one of Rome’s most hideous methods of execution. Although we love these stories and tell them over and over again, they capture something about divine power that [many of us] often find indigestible. Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus.

Our love of power finds little satisfaction in Jesus, and we are tempted, forever tempted, it seems, to fashion God in the image of imperial and autocratic rulers.

For centuries, Christians have recited Mary’s song in their evening prayers, with the desire to join her exuberant praise of God’s world-flipping redemption and with the hope of having their own vision of life, of power, of the world shaped by God’s own magnifying gaze.

You have shown strength with your arm;

you have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

You have brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly.

You have filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

You have helped your servant Israel,

in remembrance of your mercy,

according to the promise you made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The song reaches far into the past, into the time of promise, and it reaches deep into the time of fulfillment, even as the time of fulfillment reaches into the present with the birth of Mary’s child. We sing with Mary, because we trust that the Spirit who filled Elizabeth and came upon Mary is at work among us. We sing with Mary, because we trust that the God she birthed into this world is moving creation toward its consummation with redeeming mercy. We sing Mary’s words of confidence and courage, because in the singing our own hearts become a little more confident and courageous and willing to follow Jesus on the way. We sing justice. We sing redemption. We sing the end of hunger and war. We sing the resurrection. We sing the power of love overcoming the love of power.

During the years of military rule and civil war in Guatemala and El Salvador, those in power banned the public reading of Mary’s song because to their ears it sounded subversive. When Martin Luther first translated the Bible into German, the princes who gladly supported Luther in his struggles with the Holy Roman Empire, were nervous about the peasants singing too lustily with mother Mary of the One who has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. Luther was convinced he needed the princes’ support, and so he left Mary’s song in Latin. Only that kind of maneuvering did not then nor will it ever prevent God’s merciful gaze from lifting up the lowly. In the late 80’s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Christians in Leipzig gathered on Monday evenings in and around St. Nikolai church to pray for peace and to sing. They lit candles, week after week, and they sang songs of hope and protest, and their numbers grew from a few dozen to more than a thousand and eventually to more than three hundred thousand men, women, and children. After the fall of the Wall, a reporter asked an officer of the Stasi, the dreaded secret police, why they did not crush this protest like they had so many others. The officer replied, “We had no contingency plan for song.”

In the darkness of injustice, lovelessness and hatred we sing the birth of Jesus. Soon we will set out once again and go to Bethlehem to see what God has done for us. We will enter the house where the promises of God come true and new life comes into the world. We will kneel next to the manger, and all that is proud and powerful in us will be brought down and scattered. And all that is lowly and poor, humble and hungry in us will be lifted up and strengthened and filled. And the hungry will eat. And those who flee for their lives will find refuge. And those who thirst for righteousness will drink. All of us will know and live the good news of great joy. And together we will magnify the Lord and rejoice in God our Savior.

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Being at home before getting there

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

The poetry of Advent invites us to stand on the tip of our toes, our eyes raised with expectation, our parched souls ready to drink and enjoy life’s restoration from the deep wells of God. In exile, the prophet sings of homecoming. In deep  darkness, the prophet sings of light. In a culture of injustice and oppression, the prophet sings of freedom and righteousness.

The lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water.[1]

When the poor and needy seek water,

and there is none,

and their tongue is parched with thirst,

the Lord will answer them,

I the God of Israel will not forsake them.

I will open rivers on the bare heights,

and fountains in the midst of valleys;

I will make the wilderness a pool of water,

and the dry land springs of water.[2]

I will pour water on the thirsty land,

and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,

and my blessing on your offspring.[3]

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;

and you that have no money, come, buy and eat![4]

In the midst of exile — with all its physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma — the prophet sings the promises of God and invites the exiles to sing along, celebrating Israel’s repeated experiences of God’s deliverance.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation, because God is faithful. With joy, so don’t let your mortal flesh keep silent! Sing the river in the desert. Sing the light in the night. Sing of home on the road.

“We carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home that beckons us,” wrote Frederick Buechner. The prophets of Advent give voice to that vision and our musicians give it melody – for us to sing and sway and join the procession home. “To be homeless the way people like you and me are apt to be homeless,” wrote Buechner, “is to have homes all over the place but not really to be at home in any of them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us.”[5]

Real peace. Intricately interwoven lives of righteousness. The home that love builds. Paul wrote about it. He sat in a prison cell facing capital charges, and he wrote a letter to his friends in Philippi, his siblings in Christ who courageously lived and proclaimed the gospel of life in a hostile environment. He sat in a prison cell knowing that he might die soon, concerned about his friends, knowing that they were worried about him and about the church.

“Even if I am being poured out as a libation,”  — he speaks of his own possible execution here — “even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.”[6]

Joy is woven through the text of Paul’s letter from jail to the church in Philippi like a string of Christmas lights through the branches of a tree. Joy shines forth throughout. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Always, at all times, regardless of circumstances: Rejoice!

The good news of the world’s redemption in Christ has become Paul’s life. He knows that Christ has made him his own and that is all that matters anymore. They can lock him up and throw away the key; they can beat him, they can even execute him – nothing they do can change or undo what God has done in Christ. The horizon of Paul’s world – whether he is on board a ship on the vast ocean or confined to a cell – the ultimate horizon of Paul’s world is the love of God. That is where he lives now, nowhere else. He doesn’t worry about anything. The Lord is near. The peace of God is guarding his heart and mind. Paul knows something about being at home before getting there. He knows that in Christ, God came to complete the journey with us.

These are times when we feel homeless like we haven’t in a long time, mostly because we have run out of ways to guard our hearts and minds ourselves, and anxiety has crept in. Paul tells us, Do not worry about anything; not because there is nothing to worry about or because the things we do worry about are unimportant. Rather he wants us to inhabit the wide horizon of God’s love and to place our anxieties, fears, and concerns in the context of our relationship with God who raised Jesus from the dead. For him, the cross marks the center of reality and the resurrection the hope of all whom Christ has made his own. Paul knows something about being at home before getting there. “For Paul, the Lord is near in two ways,” wrote David Bartlett.

The Lord is near, present, close at hand, even in the difficult times of imprisonment. The Lord is near in the comfort of the Spirit, in the loving prayers of other believers, in the astonishing fact that Paul’s imprisonment actually fosters the spread of the Gospel. For the Philippians, the Lord is also near, working reconciliation, strengthening prayer, deepening love - even if life is not invariably comfortable or physically secure. The Lord is also near because Paul believes the Lord will soon come again, and in that coming those who are faithful will be justified and those who ignore or persecute the faithful will be judged. For Paul, joy is closely tied to hope. Because we have confident hope in God’s vindication of God’s cause we can rejoice even when happiness seems a remote memory or a foolish dream.[7]

A week ago yesterday, a special mass was held in Oran, Algeria, celebrating the beatification of six women and thirteen men who were killed between 1993 and 1996, while Algeria was locked in a 10-year civil war between the government and a ruthless Islamic insurgency. Among the martyrs were seven Trappist monks — Fathers Christophe, Bruno, Celestin and Christian as well as Brothers Luc, Michel and Paul — who were kidnapped and murdered in 1996 by members of the Groupe Islamique Armé.[8] On Christmas Eve 1993, six armed members of the group entered the monastery in Thibhirine where they lived. One of the six, the leader, was responsible for the beheading of 12 foreign workers in a nearby town, a couple of weeks earlier. Father Christian de Chergė, the prior, talked to the man, reminding him of the monks’ commitment to peace and refusing any attempts by the Islamic militants to draw them into collaboration. Eventually the six left, promising to come back.

As a child, Father Christian had lived in Algeria while his father, a ranking officer in the French military, was stationed there. His mother had taught him to respect Muslims as people of faith, and he developed a deep and lasting belief in kinship between Muslims and Christians.

When he became a monk, he recognized the commonalities between the monastic life and the villagers’ practice of Islam: a commitment to regular prayer, times of fasting and penance, the high premium placed on hospitality, and an ethos of submission to the will of God. The villagers saw the same commonalities in the monks: in the villagers’ eyes, the monks were good Muslims.

After Christmas 1993, there were several attempts by the Algerian government and church authorities to offer the monks refuge or provide them with a military presence, but the community rejected the proposals. Instead they reaffirmed their commitment to remain at Tibhirine as witnesses for peace and companions in solidarity with the local Muslim villagers.

On March 27, 1996 the monks were abducted by the Groupe Islamique Armé, and on May 21, 1996, the group announced the beheadings of Father Christian and six of his brothers. A few days later, his mother opened a sealed letter he had written three years earlier, anticipating his own death. I want to share with you excerpts from this letter:

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. … I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.

I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the ‘grace of martyrdom,’ especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of extremists. …

This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his passion, and filled with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences.[9]

Father Christian had the courage to love deeply, because the vision of wholeness that beckoned him was the life of God. He simply participated in the movement of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully deligthing in the differences.

With joy he drew water from the wells of salvation even when terror and death appeared to reign. Like Paul, he knew something about being at home before getting there.

[1] Isaiah 35:6-7

[2] Isaiah 41:17-20

[3] Isaiah 44:3

[4] Isaiah 55:1

[5] Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 110 and 140

[6] Philippians 2:17f

[7] David Bartlett, “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” The Living Pulpit 5, no. 4 (October 1996), 14.

[8]; their story was told in the film “Of Gods and Men.”

[9] Karl A. Plank, “Muslim neighbors,” The Christian Century, December 12, 2006, pp. 10-11 and

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Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

These are the closing lines of the book of Malachi. After reading them, you turn the page and you realize you’re at the end of the Old Testament. One more page, and you’re looking at the beginning of the gospel according to Matthew. The Christian Old Testament ends with Malachi, the last of the prophets, with the promise of Elijah’s return as a messenger of reconciliation.

Our Jewish friends and neighbors read the ancient scriptures in a different order. First the Torah, the five scrolls of Moses, just like in our Bible, but then the prophets, followed by the writings. The Jewish Bible ends with 2 Chronicles, where King Cyrus of Persia, after his defeat of the Babylonian empire, says to God’s people in exile, “The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and has charged me with building him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Any one of you of all his people, the Lord his God be with him and let him go up.”

The reader of the Jewish Bible closes the book with a look to the end of exile and the return of God’s people to the land of God’s promise. The reader of the Christian Old Testament turns the final page looking for a messenger. That’s not just a curious bit of Bible trivia. Jews and Christian have organized our sacred scriptures around our deepest hope.

We turn the final page waiting for a messenger, expecting a messenger. Malachi announces the coming of ‘my messenger who will prepare the way before me’ and our ears are ringing because we run into John the Baptizer in each of our four gospels where he is in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. We look at John and we recognize one whose coming had been announced.

In Malachi we read of the coming of a messenger who is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap, a messenger who burns and scrubs to purify and refine— and who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

I don’t know a thing about refining silver, but I read in a commentary that a silversmith knows that the refining process is complete when she can see her own image reflected in the mirror-like surface of the melted metal. We are made in the image of God, meant to reflect the face and the glory of God, and the refiner’s fire speaks to me of God’s commitment to remove anything that would keep us from shining, anything that would keep us from being who we are meant to be.

Many generations after Malachi, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas— something happened. Luke situates his story in time by listing imperial, regional, and religious authorities of the day, which was a common thing to do for writers of his time. But he does more than just follow literary convention. We hear this roll call of big names of men of power, and we are prepared to hear an important announcement, the kind of world news for which broadcast stations will interrupt their regular programming. What was the big announcement?

The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

The word of God came— not to the emperor or one of the governors or rulers, not even to the high priests, not to any of the connected people who are used to journalists taking notes whenever they open their mouths, but to John son of Zechariah. The word of God came to a man on the periphery of the world, far away from the cities and markets, the media centers, the palaces, and the temples. The word of God came to John in the wilderness as once it came to Moses and Elijah and the prophets of old, and he began to speak of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. The word of God came and the wilderness became once again a place of hope and deep change.

When Israel was in captivity in Egypt, the word of God came to Moses, and the people, weighed down by the yoke of oppression and exhausted by years of toil, stood and raised their heads, because their redemption was drawing near. In the wilderness, the prophet declared, the Lord would make a way and lead them to freedom. And against Pharao’s stubborn resistance, the Hebrew slaves followed God’s call through the desert and the sea to the land of promise, in the great exodus.

Generations later, Israel was again in captivity in Babylon, and the word of God came to Isaiah. The prophet declared that the Lord would end their exile, gather the displaced, and bring them home in a long procession of joy on a highway through the wilderness. “Make a road for the Lord, and make it straight. Fill in every gulley, every pot hole, and grade the land until it is level. Where it’s crooked, make it straight. Where it’s rough, make it smooth. This is the road to freedom, this is the way home.”

Generations later, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, with Rome’s legions occupying the land, the word of God came to John in the wilderness. And it wasn’t a call to arms against the foreign occupier— it was a call to repentance, and John sounded just like Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord. Another exodus was in the making, and those who heard the call, entered the water of the Jordan, just as their ancestors had done when they crossed the river into the promised land. It was a new start. It was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Those who passed through the water didn’t change where they lived, but the transition was no less dramatic, because they were committed to changing how they lived.  The world was governed by powerful men, but the reign of God was drawing near and those who came to hear John in the wilderness began to live in that nearness.

John is the messenger who calls us to repent, and that is more than a call to look back and feel sorry for what we have done and left undone. It is a call to turn and look in the direction of God’s coming reign and to begin to live in its advent, our faces turned toward the rising sun. John’s father had sung at his birth,

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

John announces the dawn and calls us to live in its light: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to us? No, God makes a way out of no way. Does God need us to prepare a way for God to get through to others? No. We are the ones in need when it comes to preparing the way of the Lord.

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus, whose name means the Lord saves. It doesn’t mean the Lord comes to visit us in our exile and make it a bit more bearable. God in Jesus comes to us calling us to follow Jesus on the way. It’s the way from oppression to freedom, from the reign of sin to the flourishing of righteousness, from terror and violence to peace, from the long shadow of death to the new light of life. Jesus comes to us to be for us the way into God’s future, and to be with us on the way.

And so preparing the way of the Lord is not a seasonal exercise, but a daily discipline. It’s a discipline of letting myself be reminded daily who is coming and where I’m going. It’s a discipline of letting God show me daily the valleys that need lifting up and the mountains and hills that need lowering — whether that’s in my attitudes and habits or in the disparities around me. It’s a discipline of letting God show us daily how we can be part of the Jesus road crew that makes a way by beginning again and again to follow him on the way.

What I hear John saying is, “Brother, you gotta prepare the way of the Lord, because if you don’t, you’re preparing a way you don’t want to be on. You gotta prepare the way of the Lord— for hope’s sake, for love’s sake, for life’s sake.” The word of God has come to us in our wilderness, calling us to repentance, calling us to live and walk in the light of the coming One. In this light, penetrating the darkness around us, we see where we are and we know where we’re going. In this light we are given orientation in the wayless wilderness, and we become messengers ourselves: road builders, kingdom servants, truth tellers, justice seekers, breach repairers, peace makers. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

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For this I was born

One who rules over people justly,

ruling in the fear of God,

is like the light of the morning,

like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,

gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.[1]

This hope for one who rules over people justly goes back as far as ancient legends and songs can take us. The hope for one who rules in the fear of God is as old as the persistent reality of rulers who don’t. We smile when we hear the words of Psalm 146, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” We smile because we recognize the wisdom cautioned by experience.

Just a few years before Jesus came to Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate had been appointed governor over Judea, a remote but strategically important corner of the Roman empire. Fully aware that he represented the greatest power in the mediterranean world, Pilate ruled the province with an iron fist. A contemporary of his described him as “rigid and stubbornly harsh, wrathful and of spiteful disposition,” and that his rule was marked by corruption and “ceaseless and most grievous brutality.”[2] Whoever raised their head too high or their voice too much, risked being disposed of as a threat to Rome’s dominance.

Pilate had heard about Jesus, preliminary intelligence reports about a Galilean whom the crowd had greeted at the city gate as king of Israel.[3] “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked Jesus whom the temple authorities had brought to him at his headquarters. He looked at the handcuffed man before him the way he looked at everything and everyone: through the eyes of those who would decide whether to advance his career or terminate it. Pilate played the empire’s game, and he knew that if he didn’t handle matters in Jerusalem to the emperor’s liking, his next appointment would not be a move up.

I wonder if he asked himself sometimes if keeping a lid on Jerusalem’s restive population on Rome’s behalf was what he was meant to do. Was he living the life he wanted to live, or did he feel like he was just another piece in someone else’s chess game? Was he living somebody else’s life or his own? Jesus told him, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” and I wonder if Pontius Pilate could say something like that with similar clarity, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world…”

Parker Palmer wrote about waking up to questions about his vocation in his early thirties.

By all appearances, things were going well, but the soul does not put much stock in appearances. Seeking a path more purposeful than accumulating wealth, holding power, winning at competition, or securing a career, I had started to understand that it is indeed possible to live a life other than one’s own. Fearful that I was doing just that – but uncertain about the deeper, truer life I sensed hidden inside me, uncertain whether it was real or trustworthy or within reach – I would snap awake in the middle of the night and stare for long hours at the ceiling. Then I ran across the old Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.”[4]

Palmer was encouraged by those words and thought he knew what they meant: he lined up the loftiest ideals he could find and set out to achieve them. He wanted his life to speak only of the highest truths and values. It took him a while to realize that the words meant something quite different,

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.[5]

Let your life speak, and listen to what it is telling you.

When Pilate met Jesus, their lives embodied two very different realities: the empire and the kingdom. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked Jesus rather routinely, to see if the Galilean had any revolutionary ambitions.

And Jesus responded with a question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Whose question are you asking? Is it your own or is it just another one from the counter insurgency manual? What is it you want to know? Are you open to hear words that don’t fit into the simple frame of your political calculations? Can you imagine a king who has no ambition to sit on Caesar’s throne?

The issue of Jesus’ kingship had been raised before. He had fed thousands by the lake up in Galilee, and when he realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he went away.[6] The empire, of course, excels at controlling the masses with bread and circuses, but the kingdom is a very different story. This king doesn’t command an army of followers who fight to keep him in power. This king doesn’t live in a palace behind high walls and guarded gates. This king bows to wash the feet of his friends. This king tells his companion who still carries a sword to put it back into its sheath. This king insists that should any blood be shed, it would be his own.

“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus told Pilate – leaving unsaid that nevertheless his kingdom is for this world and in this world and for the life of the world.

“So you are a king?” Pilate asked.

“Yes he is! Hallelujah! King of kings and Lord of lords!” I hear choirs of angels sing, with the saints above and the saints on earth joining the unceasing praise. Only Pilate doesn’t hear a thing. He cannot see the truth that is standing before him in flesh and blood. His imagination is too small for a king who washes the feet of his followers. He cannot wrap his mind around a king who doesn’t command armies but whose word sets the oppressed free.

Delores Williams remembers Sunday mornings from her childhood when the minister shouted out, “Who is Jesus?” And the choir would respond fortissimo, “King of kings and Lord of lords!” And little Miss Huff, in a voice so fragile and soft you could hardly hear her, would whisper her own answer, “Poor little Mary’s boy.” Back and forth they sang. “King of kings” the choir thundered, and Miss Huff sang softly, “Poor little Mary’s boy.”[7] Together they gave testimony to the reign of Jesus; together they affirmed that “King of kings” cannot be the answer without also saying at the same time, “poor little Mary’s boy.” Each song needs the other for the truth to ring forth and be heard. The triumphant chorus without the humble tune sounds too much like the same old song.

Jesus is turning the language and expectation of “kingdom” upside down and inside out, but Pilate doesn’t see or hear a thing. His position and imagination have been shaped by the empire, by the simple patterns of bribe and force. He cannot imagine a king who refuses to rule with coercion. Many of Jesus’ own followers over the centuries have had trouble with this. They did choose conquest and control to spread what they perceived to be Christ’s kingdom, and it never occurred to them that they were living as disciples of Caesar rather than Jesus.

But by the grace of God there were also those who knew and trusted the power of God’s reign, and who honored king Jesus by serving with compassion, humility and courage. They lived as free citizens of a kingdom not from this world, but for this world and very much in this world.

Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.

In the encounter between Pilate and Jesus, one embodies the logic of empire and the other embodies the kingdom of God. Jesus knows what his life intends to do with him, because he is fully in tune with the giver of life. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” And the truth is God’s love for the world, this world, mired in blind power struggles and deadly competition as it is. The testimony of Jesus reveals love as the power at the heart of the universe, love that calls and waits, love that serves and does not overwhelm. The truth about God is God’s love for the world, and the truth about the world is God’s love for it.

In Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, one of the three kings says,

The child we seek doesn’t need our gold. On love, on love alone he will build his kingdom. His pierced hand will hold no scepter. His haloed head will wear no crown. His might will not be built on your toil. Swifter than lightning he will soon walk among us. He will bring us new life and receive our death, and the keys to his city belong to the poor.

It is a powerful thing to be able to say, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world.” As followers of Jesus we never stop to listen for our life to tell us what it intends to do with us. We never stop to listen for the voice of God amid the many voices that vie for our attention and allegiance. And we give thanks to God for Jesus who frees us from the love of power and calls us to live in the power of love.

Today is the last Sunday of the Christian year, and we glimpse through the doors of the throne room of life: all idols have been toppled and Jesus reigns

like the light of the morning,

like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,

gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

[1] 2 Samuel 23:3-4

[2] Philo of Alexandria, Legatio ad Gaium, 33.

[3] John 12:13

[4] Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Kindle Locations 53-59). Kindle Edition.

[5] Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, Kindle Locations 66-67.

[6] John 6:1-15

[7] See Barbara Lundblad

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They say it was a magnificent building, the temple in Jerusalem. Herod the Great began the ambitious project in 20 BCE, and it was still under construction some fifty years later when Jesus and the disciples came to Jerusalem. Known as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, Herod’s temple project wasn’t completed until 63 CE. It occupied a platform of more than 900 by 1,500 feet—twice as large as the Roman Forum with its many temples and four times as large as the Acropolis in Athens with the famous Parthenon. The massive retaining walls that supported the temple, including the now well-known Western wall, were composed of enormous blocks of white stone, 12 feet tall, 18 feet wide, some of them 40 feet long.  The front of the temple itself was a square of 150 by 150 feet of sculpted rock, much of it decorated with silver and gold. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, described the gold as “[effecting] so fierce a blaze of fire that those who tried to look at it were forced to turn away. Jerusalem and the temple seemed in the distance like a mountain covered in snow, for any part not covered in gold was dazzling white.” The temple complex could be seen from miles away by pilgrims journeying to Jerusalem to worship there, and in bright sunlight, the luminous city nearly blinded them. This was the center of the world, the dwelling place of God’s name; this was, carved in stone, the promise of God’s presence with God’s people Israel. Here they could, even when they failed to lead holy lives, approach their holy God in worship. Rituals of atonement and purification along with festivals of liberation and thanksgiving sustained a community striving to live faithfully with their God.

Jesus was standing in the courtyard with the disciples. He had just drawn their attention to a widow giving her last two coins to the temple treasury, but she didn’t keep their attention very long. Dazzled by the architectural marvels surrounding them, one of the disciples, his eyes wide with awe, his hands perhaps touching one of the colossal blocks, said, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” He saw great beauty, he saw overwhelming grandeur; he saw the biggest, boldest, and most unshakeable symbol of divine presence he had ever layed eyes on.

Jesus saw something else. “Do you see these great buildings?” he replied. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Jesus saw destruction and collapse, a pile of rubble.

“Tell us, when will this be?” the disciples asked him.

The Gospel of Mark was written in a time of war. The weight of Roman occupation had become too much to bear for the Jewish population. In the years 62-66, increasing violence by various groups was disrupting life in Jerusalem. A band of assassins, called sicarii, dagger men, attacked and murdered people, even a high priest, in broad daylight and kidnapped Jewish officials. Gangs of roaming outlaws burned and looted villages.[1] Street prophets delivered oracles of doom, and the daily news seemed to confirm their words. Jerusalem was a tinderbox in those tumultuous years, with revolutionary sentiments mounting and finally catapulting Judea into open rebellion against Rome. Josephus, the Jewish historian writing for a Roman audience, reported, “Deceivers and impostors, under the pretense of divine inspiration, fostering revolutionary changes, they persuaded the masses to act like madmen and led them out into the desert in the belief that God would give them signs of deliverance.”[2] Insurgents took control of the city, but events in the years 67-69 unfolded under the headline, “The Empire Strikes Back.” Roman troops under Titus laid siege to Jerusalem, and in August of the year 70, the city fell and the temple was destroyed – seven years after its completion.

The Gospel of Mark was written in a time of wars and rumors of wars, and for some believers in the Markan community these catastrophic events meant that the world had reached a cosmic crisis point and that the return of Jesus in power and glory was imminent. The writer of Mark made sure that all who would hear or read the apostolic testimony would hear Jesus’ words to the disciples loud and clear: “Beware that no one leads you astray.” There will be wars and rumors of wars, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes and famines and unspeakable acts of violence, but you – don’t be alarmed. Beware that no one leads you astray. When truth is shaken, when imposters preach alluring lies in my name – don’t be alarmed: be alert. Stay true to the path I called you to follow. Beware of following your fear. Beware of giving in to despair. Beware of abandoning your call to love God and neighbor.

Wars and rumors of wars, terror and oppression are the reality of a world far from the world God desires, and for God’s creation to be whole and complete they must come to an end.  “This must take place, but the end is still to come,” says Jesus, and, “This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Birth pangs, he says. These things that make us tremble and cry and doubt and lie awake at night – they are not a meaningless pile of suffering, the tragic rubble of history, destined to be forgotten; they are labor pains, he says, telling us that the suffering of creation is to be redeemed by the joy of birth. The world is in labor, Jesus says, and God is the midwife.

“How long is this labor?” we want to know, “and when can we expect to behold new life in a redeemed world? How long until we will cry no more, except for joy?”

We don’t know. But we have a word that speaks of birth in the midst of suffering. We have a word that directs us to hope. We have the promise that with the resurrection of Jesus the whole world has indeed become new – in forgiveness, in the disruption of the endless cycle of violence, in the embrace of love that heals and renews. We have the promise that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead marks the beginning of redemption that doesn’t fade into the past but abides.


The English historian Eric Hobsbawm, born in 1917, grew up in Vienna and, after the death of his parents, with an aunt in Berlin. Berlin was not a good place to live for a Jewish teenager in those years. He was fifteen years old when one day in January 1933, as he was walking his little sister home from school, he saw the headline at a newsstand, “Adolph Hitler Appointed Chancellor of Germany.” Reflecting on those years when democracy in Germany was in its death throes, Hobsbawm later wrote, “We were on the Titanic, and everyone knew it was hitting the iceberg. … It is difficult for those who have not experienced the ‘Age of Catastrophe’ of the twentieth century in central Europe to see what it meant to live in a world that was simply not expected to last, in something that could not really even be described as a world, but merely as a provisional waystation between a dead past and a future not yet born.”[3]

I was born fifteen years after the end of WWII; I grew up in what was then known as the West – a world rebuilt after unimaginable devastation with the mantra, “Never again.” I grew up amid the tensions of the cold war and with the European project of cooperation and integration as a visionary alternative to the temptations of nationalism. I had to learn to believe in institutions despite their shortcomings, and to trust the long, hard work of consensus building despite the frustrations. And now I find myself worrying about the future. I’m witnessing the crumbling of institutions, the rise of nationalism and ancient hatreds, the spread of autocratic tendencies in many countries, the closing of borders, and the decline in international cooperation.

Some of my worries I chalk up to old age. There’s a rhythm to life, where the world the parents grew up in and remember fades away and a new and different world, perhaps very different world, emerges.

But I don’t chalk up all my worries to old age. Many children, teenagers, and young adults I have the joy of knowing, share at least some of the concerns that sometimes keep me up at night. We worry about hateful words, about the constant threat of attacks by gunmen, about the persistence of racism, about the slow response to the threats of climate change, about the reality of hunger in the wealthiest society ever to have emerged on this earth.

Adrienne Maree Brown wrote the following in response to racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”[4] I love that line, “We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Pull back the veil to see what’s really there, to face the truth, to experience fresh sight.

In Northern California, more than 1,000 persons are unaccounted for, 71 were confirmed dead as of yesterday. Thousands of acres of land are burning, entire neighborhoods have been reduced to ashes. At the same time, people are mourning in Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Thousand Oaks after shootings at a grocery store, a synagogue, and a club; people are starving in the shadow of a relentless war, or are recovering from great losses after hurricanes, or go on long, dangerous journeys in search of refuge, because the horrors they leave behind are worse than the dangers that lie ahead. In this moment we must hold each other tight, care for each other, and continue to pull back the veil — because things aren’t getting worse, they are getting uncovered and we get to see what’s really there, what’s really going on, and respond with love: creative, courageous, and unsentimental love.

I am hopeful that together we can cultivate strong, caring, and open communities that are life-giving to all. I am hopeful because Jesus promised that the pain we feel and the suffering we witness are birth pangs. Something is struggling to be born. A new world. A new humanity. Made in the image of Christ. This is what I cling to.

[1] See Josephus, Jewish War, 2.254-56; Antiquities 20.185-88; 208-10

[2] Josephus, Jewish War, 2.258

[3] Tony Judt, Reappraisals: Reflections on the forgotten twentieth century (New York: Penguin, 2008), 117.

[4]; my italics

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The widow's gift

Again and again in Israel’s scriptures, our attention is drawn to three groups of people: orphans, widows, and strangers. Our attention is drawn to them because in their vulnerability they enjoy God’s particular attention and concern. In Deuteronomy 10 we read,

The Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.[1]

A stranger, a widow, and an orphan are the characters in the story we heard this morning. During a great drought, Elijah, the man of God, went north to Sidon, a Phoenician city on the coast, and when he came to the gate of Zarephath, he asked a woman — she was gathering firewood — to bring him something to drink. And as she turns to fetch some water for the stranger with the foreign accent, he asks her if she would also bring him a little bread to eat.

Bread? she says. I have no bread. All I have is a handful of meal and a little oil, and I’m out here gathering sticks for a fire, so I can bake something for me and my son, so we can eat and die.

And Elijah says to her, Don’t be afraid. Go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.

He asks her to share their last bite with him, to divide by three what isn’t enough for two, assuring her — the word of the Lord God of Israel — “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” And the miracle unfolds, inviting us to let our trust in God overcome our fear: she went and did as Elijah said, and the stranger, the widow, and the orphan ate for many days.

Side by side with this wondrous story we heard another one from the gospel of Mark. A poor widow put everything she had, all she had to live on, into the collection box at the temple. Nobody was paying attention, except for Jesus. He was sitting across from the treasury and watching, and he called the disciples because he wants us to pay attention to this moment.

“She has put in everything she had,” he said, “all she had to live on, her whole life.”

Pretend, if you will, that you’re a director, and you’re working on a movie based on the gospel of Mark. And now the young man who is playing Jesus turns to you — you’re getting ready to shoot this very scene at the Temple treasury — the young man turns to you and asks,

How do you want me to deliver this line? Is Jesus surprised by her action? Does he praise her? Does he want the disciples to admire her, maybe see her as a role model? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Or is Jesus sad, perhaps a little angry because this poor woman just dropped her last two pennies in the offering plate? Look at her. She has put in everything she had, all she had to live on, her whole life. Tell me, asks the actor, how do you want me to say this line? With a smile or with a broken heart?

The words alone don’t tell you if Jesus commends the widow, applauds her self-sacrifice, or invites the disciples to follow in her footsteps. You’re the director. What’s his tone of voice? Is he heartbroken? Outraged? Resigned?

While you’re thinking about that, let’s take a look at large-gift donors. In 2015, Joan Weill, the wife of Citigroup billionaire Sandy Weill, announced that they would donate $20 million to Paul Smith’s College, a small, cash-strapped school in the Adirondack Mountains. The big bundle of money came with a string attached: the school would have to be renamed in her honor, to be known forever as Joan Weill-Paul Smith’s College. Weill was a former trustee of the school, and she had made large donations in the past. Both the library and the student center already were and still are named after her. Mrs. Weill argued that with her name given top billing, more donors around the country would open their wallets.

The president and the board of trustees loved the idea. But many alumni didn’t. “It makes me sick, to be honest with you,” one of them said. “I don’t consider it to be much of a gift if you require something. Usually a gift is given out of generosity and not requiring something in return.”

Well, ‘usually’ isn’t what it used to be. According to Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership at Georgetown University, asking that entire institutions be rebranded in exchange for a gift reflects a new trend among the megarich. “There are very few anonymous donors anymore, and there are few that are satisfied to give a big donation and not have that object of the donation named after them.” Eisenberg says a lot of institutions now think of naming rights as an asset, something they can offer as an enticement, but he worries that colleges and arts institutions could wind up swapping names the way sports stadiums do. He says, “If somebody gives $20 million and someone else comes up and says, ‘I’m going to give you $50 million,’ does that mean they’re going to change their name again? It’s a crazy system.”

In the case of Paul Smith’s College, a state court judge ruled that the name change would violate terms of the original will and the original gift that established the school. Facing growing pressure from alumni and fearing a long court fight, the college decided not to appeal. And with naming rights no longer on the table, the Weill family withdrew the $20 million gift.[2]

Sitting in the temple, opposite the treasury, Jesus noticed many rich people putting in large sums. Large gifts draw attention, and the givers of large sums enjoy being known for their generosity. They love the attention. Jesus had just been teaching about attention. “Beware of the scribes,” he had told them. Beware of the ones who like to walk around in long robes. They like to be noticed; they like to be seen. They want to be greeted with respect in the markets. They love being offered to sit in the teacher’s chair in the synagogues, and they expect it. They hunger for the seats of honor at banquets. They strut about, peacocks of piety, spreading their fans, men who devour widows’ houses while saying long prayers.

Jesus was teaching in the temple, surrounded by magnificent buildings, at the heart of an institution established to the glory and honor of God, but used and abused for the worst of very human ends: vanity, self-promotion, exploitation. Nobody was paying attention to the poor widow who put in two small copper coins, except Jesus, and he wants us to pay attention to her. He doesn’t praise her, though, nor does he lift her up as an example. He only states what she just did.

You’re the director of this movie; what do you tell the actor playing Jesus? His tone of voice is critical in this scene. Do you tell him to tap into the joy that floods the heart when you witness this woman’s act of complete devotion to God? Or do you tell him to give voice to the anger that ties your innards into knots when you notice how an institution takes a widow’s last pennies? An institution that claims to glorify God whom the Psalmist calls Father of orphans and protector of widows?[3]

You don’t know what to tell the actor. Does Jesus point to the poor widow as a model for giving? Or does Jesus point to her because she is a tragic example of how religious institutions suck the life out of people?[4]

So you just sit there a little longer with Jesus, opposite the treasury. You remember how he entered the temple the day after they came to Jerusalem. You remember how he threw out those who were selling and buying there. How he overturned the tables of the money changers. How he practically shut down the entire operation, at least for a moment. “Is it not written,” he said, and you won’t have any trouble imagining in what tone of voice he was yelling across the courtyard, “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers.”[5] The whole religious apparatus had become perverted. It no longer protected widows, orphans, the poor, the vulnerable… It lived off them instead.[6] So, what do you say to the actor who’s waiting for you to tell him how to deliver that line?

The poor widow gave everything she had, she gave her whole life, entrusting herself completely in God’s hands, and in Jesus’ eyes her gift became a testimony against the institutional leadership who had turned God’s house into a den of robbers. Do you tell the actor to say the line with joy and with severe judgment? Is that even possible?

This is the final scene in the temple, and the poor widow’s gift foreshadows the gift Jesus is about to complete: his own life, freely given in love, entrusted into God’s hands, but also taken by sin that corrupts our life together. The gift of his life is the judgment of our sin, of all the ways in which we fail one another, fail our God, and ultimately fail ourselves because of lovelessness. But the gift of his life is also a testimony to God’s power to redeem us from sin’s oppressive reign and renew us in love, make us fully human in love. The widow, the orphan, and the stranger invite us to the feast where love is host.

[1] Deuteronomy 10:17-19


[3] Ps 68:5

[4] See Peery, Feasting, 285.

[5] Mark 11:15-17

[6] See Peery, Feasting, 287.

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Face to face

Mark Horvath works with a camera. He once heard a story about a homeless man on LA’s Hollywood Blvd who thought he was invisible. A kid handed the man a pamphlet one day, and he was startled and amazed, saying, “You can see me? How can you see me? I’m invisible!”

“It isn’t hard to comprehend this man’s slow spiral into invisibility,” writes Horvath.

Once on the street, people started to walk past him, ignoring him as if he didn’t exist … much like they do a piece of trash on the sidewalk. It’s not that people are bad, but if we make eye contact, or engage in conversation, then we have to admit they exist and that we might have a basic human need to care. But it’s so much easier to simply close our eyes and shield our hearts to their existence.

We don’t literally close our eyes; we just keep our noses down, eyes focussed on the sidewalk, quietly hoping that invisibility works both ways:  The homeless person blends into the background, and we who are passing by blend into the steady stream of faceless pedestrians. Horvath once was a homeless person himself.

I not only feel their pain, I truly know their pain. I lived their pain. … Seventeen years ago, I lived on Hollywood Blvd. But today, I find myself looking away, ignoring the faces, avoiding their eyes — and I’m ashamed when I realize I’m doing it. But I really can feel their pain, and it is almost unbearable, but it’s just under the surface of my professional exterior.

After years of using a video camera to tell the stories of homelessness and the organizations trying to help, Horvath began shooting short, unedited clips of homeless men and women telling their stories, and he posted them on his website. The purpose of the project, he writes, “is to make the invisible visible.”[2]

My friend John also works with a camera. He’s paddled his canoe down the Harpeth and the Cumberland all the way to the Ohio, and then on to the Mississippi all the way down to New Orleans, taking great pictures along the way. But one of my favorite stories of his doesn’t come with a picture, which is wonderful, because you get to create your own as you listen.

He was in China, and one day he was visiting a town where he says begging had apparently been elevated to a performance art. He was walking down the main drag when he saw a man at a street corner; he was fascinated by him while at the same time trying to ignore him. The man had no legs and he was sitting in a small wooden cart; one of his arms looked twisted and paralyzed, and he used his other arm to push himself forward.

John tried to look past him, but the man wouldn’t let him. He actually spoke to John as he walked past, but John kept walking, pretending he couldn’t hear him. He thought he had escaped, but the man in the cart followed him, pushing himself forward with astonishing skill.

Now John walked a little faster, his eyes firmly locked on the end of the street, but the man didn’t stop his pursuit. John picked up the pace some more, but the man in the cart was determined and remarkably quick on his wheels.

They came to the end of the block and John crossed the street, certain that the man would give up the chase now, but no, he was relentless. Halfway down the second block, John stopped and turned around.

They looked at each other. Neither said a word. And then they just burst out laughing: deep, full-throated belly laughs that shook their bodies so hard that any awkwardness, guilt and anger simply vanished until nothing but joy remained. Then they went to get a cup of tea.

Photos can be powerful and eye-opening. Videos can be incredibly moving and enlightening. But nothing is more powerful than two human beings looking at each other face to face, seeing one another.

Seeing and not seeing, visibility and invisibility, are key themes of another story, the story of a journey. The journey begins in the towns of Galilee where Jesus proclaims the good news of God: “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”[3] He calls disciples, he heals, he teaches, and he feeds the people with parables and with bread.

The disciples watch, but they are slow to learn. “Do you have eyes, and fail to see?” Jesus says to them, and you can hear the frustration in his voice.[4]

The journey continues; Jesus turns south, following the old road that leads to Jerusalem. In Bethsaida, people bring a blind man to him and beg him to touch him. Mark writes, “Jesus laid his hands on his eyes … and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”[5] The disciples have been watching, but they are slow to understand who Jesus is, and what discipleship is about, and we wonder why Jesus can’t just lay his hands on them until they see “everything clearly.”

Instead, he continues on the way to Jerusalem and they follow. And he continues to teach them about the power of faith and the demands of discipleship; he talks to them about serving one another and being attentive to little ones – but they consistently fail to see who he is and, consequently, what it means to follow him. They are blind, and for much of the journey they have been slipping and stumbling — and we can’t say we have done much better.

“What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked James and John, and they responded, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”[6] Jesus speaks of servanthood and loving self-denial, but we dream of greatness, power and privilege.

Now the journey takes us to Jericho, down in the Jordan valley, last stop for travelers and pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem. From here on, it’s uphill all the way. And there, sitting by the roadside, is Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, calling out to people passing by to have mercy and toss him a coin or two. It’s a great spot, especially before Passover when so many pilgrims come to Jerusalem for the holidays. This is really the best season of the year and one day can make up for weeks when most people simply ignore him. Most days, people come and go, too busy to pay attention to a disabled beggar; he sits there, and the world around him passes by. He is blind, but his ears are sharp; he can tell from thirty paces away if those are three or five coins jingling in a pilgrim’s purse.

Every day, he sits by the roadside just outside the city gate, clutching his cloak. By day, he spreads it out in his lap to catch the coins that people toss his way and by night that same cloak is his bed and blanket. The fisherman has a boat and nets, the farmer a plow, and the carpenter an ax – the beggar has his cloak. The rich man has a big house, closets full of clothes for all seasons, and a bed with a soft pillowtop mattress – the beggar has his cloak. The cloak is all he has – his coat, his livelihood, his house, his bed.

When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is in the crowd coming up the road, he starts shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many in the crowd, including disciples who should know better, tell him to hush and be quiet: Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, he’s an important man on an important mission, and he mustn’t be distracted. Children and beggars need to remain quiet and invisible.

But Bartimaeus cries out even more loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Nobody has called him that, Son of David; it’s a royal title fraught with messianic expectations: clearly the blind man can see and name what no one else could, except for Peter who called Jesus Messiah, and he didn’t grasp what he was saying.

Jesus stops and says, “Call him here.” And this is the moment we must watch very closely: This blind man who has already shown that he sees more clearly than many of us who have eyes yet fail to see, this blind man, throwing off his cloak, jumps up and comes to Jesus. He throws off what little comfort and security he has, what little he owns — he leaves everything and comes to Jesus. And Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?” — the same question he asked James and John.

“My teacher, let me see again.”

Bartimaeus doesn’t ask for a little house by the side of the road, or a new cloak with fewer holes – he doesn’t ask for the things that would make his old life a little more comfortable. He asks for a new life, and with his vision healed, he follows Jesus on the way.

We are disciples on a journey. We don’t hear well and our vision is blurry at best. Jesus asks, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?”[7]

I find it hard to say anything at all anymore. No, I do not understand. I do not understand how a man walks into a Kroger and starts shooting people. I do not understand how a man puts bombs into envelopes and mails them to men and women he considers enemies. I do not understand how a man walks into a synagogue on shabbat and starts shooting people.

Very few things are making sense to me anymore. I try to take it all in and process it somehow, find some kind of frame of reference where the pieces fit together. But processing takes time: time to listen, to think, to walk, to pray, to talk, time to see patterns and ask questions. Yet the world keeps flooding in on me, washing over me, swamping my little boat – it’s just too much to take in, let alone process. It’s like every cell in my body just wants to scream, “Stop it!” Stop the shooting, stop the bombing, stop the silencing of the other, the ridiculing, the belittling, stop the twitter storms and the angry memes, stop the spinning, stop the lies and the carefully choreographed outrage, stop running in circles in echo chambers pretending they are the world. Stop it.

I’m a blind beggar, sitting by the side of the road, clutching my cloak, whispering, “Lord have mercy.”

“What do you want me to do for you?” he asks.



I want to see … you. I want to be with you on the way. Let me see the faces of the invisible ones. Let me see this broken world through your eyes. And let me be part of healing it.


[3] Mk 1:14f

[4] Mk 8:18

[5] Mk 8:25

[6] Mk 10:36

[7] Mk 8:17f.

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