Monthly Archives: July 2018

Grow Up Already!!!


Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Prayer of the Day: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Grow up!” That’s the message of our lesson from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The apostle has no patience for immature, simplistic faith that can be boiled down to pious platitudes suitable for bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. Nor does he tolerate a church that produces biblically illiterate disciples with shallow, incomplete and therefore erroneous understandings of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims. Paul does not envision a church of passive members employing professionals to do the work of ministry. In his view, the work of ministry belongs to the whole church. Proclaiming good news to the poor, the oppressed and the sinful; prophetically speaking truth to power; healing the sick; casting out demons-this is not the sole province of the “clergy.” It is the ministry of all the baptized people of God. The job of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is “to equip the saints [the whole people of God] for building up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature adulthood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” Ephesians 4:11-13.

I don’t have to tell anyone deeply involved in the life of the church that most congregations are precisely the inverse of this Pauline vision. Sadly, all the churches I have served fit this perverse description to some degree. Moreover, I must confess that I have too often encouraged passive membership by my own well meaning efforts to be a “good pastor.” For example, my response upon receiving word that a member had been hospitalized was, more often than not, “I’ll be right over to see her.” Of course, that did a lot to convince the messenger that I was a prompt, caring pastor ready to meet the spiritual needs of all my congregants. But quarry, would it not have been more Pauline for me to respond, “Gee, I will make sure to get her on the prayer list. When do you think you can get over to see her?” It was expected in my congregations that, as Pastor, I would be ready with a prayer or blessing whenever the occasion called for it. So, when asked, “Pastor, would you lead us in grace for this meal,” Perhaps I should have responded, “Why don’t you lead us this time.”

I suspect that my suggested responses in both cases would have been perceived as dereliction of duty. After all, pastors get paid for providing these services, don’t they? Actually, they do not. As Paul just pointed out, we are called to equip our people to do the work of ministry though preaching and presiding at the sacraments. If we are doing our job well, our departure should not constitute a crisis. Visitation of the sick, comfort to the bereaved, education of the young, ministry to the poor, hungry and oppressed should continue without missing a beat. Every church member should be comfortable offering prayer. Every baptized believer should know the scriptures and liturgy well enough to lead a devotional study, offer a brief meditation or lead a short worship service. Every believer should be competent, confident and willing to testify to the good news of Jesus Christ and how s/he has witnessed the transformative power of that good news in his or her own experience. There should be no need to call the pastor when such opportunities for ministry arise.

Unfortunately, we have created an ecclesiastical culture based on the model of a voluntary association providing services to its members. It’s all transactional. I attend church more or less regularly and contribute more or less generously (most likely less). In return, I am entitled to have my children baptized, confirmed and married. I am assured of pastoral care and visitation when needed and burial services when my time comes. Heaven, of course, is also an added benefit. Furthermore, because the church is all about me, my needs and my wants, I am free to switch my membership whenever another congregation offers me a better deal. Churches guided by this consumer mentality are not likely ever to “grow up.”

Changing the culture of a congregation from a consumerist outlook into a community of disciples committed to spiritual growth and mission is a daunting task. Yet there is reason for hope and it comes from the last place you would expect. There has been plenty of consternation over the last few decades about the decline of the mainline churches and, more recently, the loss of support among the so-called evangelical congregations. If the present trends continue, the consumerist model of church may simply no longer be sustainable. With ever fewer members contributing ever less in terms of time and money, we may soon be unable to continue supporting the institutional machinery necessary to carry on the professional work of mission and ministry. Circumstances will force us to change. Of course, we can deal with all this by merging smaller congregations together, closing those that are no longer able to support a pastor and reducing denominational staffing accordingly. But the task of downsizing is far more complicated and fraught with difficulties than might appear from graphs, pie charts and statistics. More to the point, it is only a rearguard defensive strategy making room for a somewhat orderly retreat and temporary reprieve. It is rather like applying to grad school after college in order to avoid the anxiety of having to find a job. To put it in Pauline terms, it is a refusal to “grow up.”

Denominational decline is not the worst consequence of failing to grow up. As Paul points out, the spiritually immature are likely to be “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles.” Ephesians 4:14. They are ripe pickings for the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson and the like whose weird mix of end times hysteria, sexism, homophobia, American/Christian nationalism and subliminal white supremacy strike a chord resonating with so many folk fearful of a future that looks dark and threatening and who are ready to grasp any straw that promises to make sense of it all. Some of this low hanging fruit has been plucked from the midst of my own congregations. To many men and women we have baptized and confirmed are very much in thrall to these charlatans and they are not happy when we publicly call them to account and dispute their ideologies. In the recent past, I called for an ecumenical Barman like declaration from our bishops and theologians condemning specifically these distortions of our faith and reaffirming with boldness and clarity the good news of Jesus Christ confessed in the ecumenical creeds. While there have been no shortage of ecclesiastical statements condemning one or another of our government’s recent policy decisions, there has been no widely subscribed confessional declaration naming what I can only characterize as the heretical perversions of our faith undergirding the present reign of evil.

I can sympathize with our leaders. It is hard challenging the consumerist mentality of a congregation. People who have for generations believed that the church to which they belong is their church and that the length of their membership and the significance of their contributions entitle them to a degree of influence inevitably feel that something is being taken away from them. Members who have ingrained upon their psyches the assumption that faith and patriotism are two sides of the same coin and that the church exists to shore up a particular notion of American cultural values will have a hard time adjusting to an understanding of church as a counter-cultural community that sometimes must question, criticize and even oppose the dominant culture. I have experienced all of this first hand and have the scars to prove it. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a bishop charged with unifying the church facing the prospect of schism within a denominational body already under stress. There is a real danger that a lot of individuals and congregations will be driven away by a clarion call to repentance, faith and a radical change of ecclesiastical culture. But I must ask our leaders-and all of us-what is the alternative to growing up?

It seems we are coming to a crossroads. We have reached the point at which a faith seamlessly woven into the fabric of white American middle class values that demands nothing from us and promises little more than helpful programming can no longer witness effectively to the world. We have reached the point where a church that ministers globally but is peripheral to the lives of most of its members is no longer sustainable. We cannot pretend that going on with business as usual is a real option. We need to recognize the poverty of our faith, acknowledge our need for conversion and be prepared to embrace the costly grace of discipleship whatever the consequences. In short, we need to grow up.

Here’s an anonymous poem featuring the kind if preaching that just might put us on the path to growing up. It’s obviously directed to non-believers, but as none other than a Lutheran seminary president once remarked to a group of us pastors, “Our biggest problem is that our own people remain unconverted.” Can we find the courage to tell that hard truth to ourselves?

The Street Preacher

Hey there, you!
With the Floresheim shoe!
And your Brooks Brothers suit,
And your wallet full of loot!
You with the skirt half-way up your hips
And the ruby lips
And the long blond hair
With your nose in the air!
You on the grate
With your dingy little plate
Full of quarters and dimes,
Guess you’re seeing hard times!
You with the sack of books on your back
Stopping by for a snack
In the Starbucks shop
Where the Yuppies like to stop!
You all may think that you got no soul,
That you got no need to be made whole.
But whether you wanna believe it or not,
And eternal soul is what you all got.
You can lie to yourself and pretend it ain’t there.
You can tell yourself that I’m full of hot air.
But I don’t care what you say about me.
I got peace with my soul and that makes me free.
You can say I’m crazy and that’s OK.
You can say “Drop dead” or just “Go away.”
I’m speaking today in the name of the Lord
And what you’re hearing is His Holy Word.
He’s here to tell you that you got to get right.
You need to get you some inner spiritual sight.
Cause when you see you got a soul and the shape its in
The truth is gonna make your head spin.
See, your soul was made holy and pure and good,
But you done dragged it all through the mud.
You got a stain on your heart, filthy thoughts in your mind
And evil and sins of about every kind.
Yea, you can scrub your skin till it turns all pink.
You can stand in the shower but your soul’s gonna stink.
If you don’t let Jesus in to clean it out,
Come judgment day the Lord’l throw it right out
Into outer darkness to burn with the trash
And with the wicked forever your teeth you’ll gnash.
God loves ya too much to let you go where you’re going.
That’s why the wind of the Spirit is a blowing.
It’s calling you child, to come back home.
You’ve had enough time now to wander and roam.
Giving your body to men for pleasure,
Piling up money, too much to measure,
Lying and cheating to get on top
You ain’t going nowhere. It’s time to stop.
Let Jesus into your heart today.
He’s calling you brother, don’t turn away!
He’s come to make your filthy soul clean.
He’s come your whole life to redeem.
Go to him! He calls you! You can’t refuse!
Your life’s a wreck! What you got to lose?
You give him your shame, your sin, your strife
And He’ll give you eternal life!
That’ a deal, my man, you can’t pass up.
Come here and die, let him raise you back up!

An Open Letter and Plea to Republicans of Conscience

See the source imageDear Republican Friends:

I am not a member of your party, but I am a fellow citizen of our country. I am talking to you because your country needs you right now. We are in deep trouble. Yours is the governing party and you hold all the cards. If the destructive course set for the nation by Donald Trump is to change, you need to lead the way.

I am not talking to those of you who are still true believers in Donald Trump. That, I have learned, is a lost cause. No, I am speaking to those of you Republicans who know deep down in your heart of hearts that your party is off the rails and not by a little bit. I am talking to those of you who still believe in everything your party used to stand for. I am talking to those of you who still believe that the way to economic prosperity and social progress for all lies in open borders, fee markets, individual freedom and its essential corollary, personal responsibility. I am talking to those of you who believe that fiscal restraint and responsible spending are key to ensuring the future health of our nation; that a strong military sparingly used by an America taking the lead among its democratic allies in addressing global issues is the key to national security. I am talking to those of you who understand that, for every job lost as a result of international trade agreements, more and better jobs are created. I am talking to those of you who still believe that honesty, transparency and integrity are essential to representative government.

I cannot believe for a single minute that you don’t see just how far your party has fallen from the aforementioned principles. Who would ever have thought that a president from the party of Ronald Regan would one day snub, disrespect and insult our closest democratic allies while falling all over himself to ingratiate a Russian autocrat and give legitimacy to an outlaw regime that rules its people through starvation and terror? Who could have predicted that a Republican president would one day be closing borders, stifling trade and manipulating markets with punitive tariffs against our closest allies to preserve inefficient companies and outdated technologies? Who would ever have imagined that a Republican congress egged on by its president would wind up passing legislation that increases the national debt by a cool $2.3 trillion? And who can fathom how the party of “Honest Abe” came to tolerate the tsunami of falsehoods that spew out of the White House nonstop? You have thrown away all of your guiding principles in the service of Donald J. Trump. Admittedly, that got you the White House and more, but I have to ask you, was it worth it? Are you proud of what your party has become? Is your president and his supporters building the kind of America you want to leave to your children?

You and I both know how you got to this point. It all started with the “southern strategy.” Sure, deny it if you want to. If it makes you feel better, scream self-righteously that you’re not a racist, that I’m playing the race card, some of your best friends are black and that this whole southern strategy thing is a media hoax cooked up by liberal snowflakes like me. Say whatever you like, but it’s an indisputable fact (remember, I’m only talking to those of you who still believe in such things) that, whether strategically engineered or by plain dumb luck, your party inherited the angry white southerners still bitter over losing their fight against segregation, the white evangelicals whose perverse religion has a long history of sanctifying racism and other deeply bigoted white voters that once were the backbone of white supremacy. Their emigration to the GOP is perhaps the biggest factor in your electoral success over the last five decades. Of course, you never took these idiots seriously. You didn’t really believe that abortion should be criminalized, that borders should be closed, that science is an atheistic conspiracy, that Barak Obama was born in Kenya or any of the rest of that conspiracy crap espoused by your witless new base. But you welcomed their votes just the same and you were willing to pay lip service to their nuttiness to get them, at least during the primaries. Then you moderated your rhetoric to pick up the additional votes you needed to be competitive in the general election. You know exactly what I am talking about. It’s what Mitt Romney’s handlers called the “etch a sketch” maneuver back in the election of 2012.

That seemed to work for you-until it didn’t. You probably thought the members of your newly acquired base were too stupid to realize they were being played. You figured you could go on taking their votes for granted as long as you kept throwing out the kind of mindless red meat that warms the cockles of an angry white man’s heart, like “family values” and “traditional marriage.”  You knew that you didn’t have to use the “N word” to win the hearts of bigots if only you expressed such racist sentiments in thinly veiled suggestive memes, such as the Willy Horton narrative and terms like “welfare queens.” You assumed that it was enough to spew anti-abortion and anti-LGBT proposals that you knew very well would never materialize as legislation capable of withstanding judicial review.  You knew you could advance any dead end law the crazies wanted and blame the activist judiciary, the liberal media and the Democratic majority for their failure. I have to admit, you had a pretty good run of it for a lot of years. But now your base of crazies has gotten away from you and the inmates are running that asylum once known as the Grand Old Party.

You were right about one thing. Your base of angry white folk is pretty stupid. Bigots, bullies and abusers usually are. But they are pretty good at recognizing the putrid stench of their own kind. When Donald Trump came along and took their craziness front and center, they knew that he was the real deal. Here was a guy who really would kick all those dark skinned illegals out of the country and build a wall along the entire Mexican border to make sure they don’t come back. Here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to call those femmie nazis, those uppity women who think they can wear pants to a man, pigs, dogs and a good many other things I can’t print. Here was man who cut through all that “political correctness crap” and made it OK to be racist, cool to be KKK, and just good clean fun to ridicule special needs kids. In Donald Trump, your base found an advocate for all the imagined grievances of the poor, forgotten white man who sees his power, privilege and delusions of supremacy slipping away from him. Donald Trump was the one man among the crowded field of Republican presidential candidates in 2016 who promised to make America great (read white) again and really meant it. The rest of the crowd employed the old “etch a sketch” strategy of keeping one foot in crazyville and the other in the real world. Trump, with both feet firmly planted in crazyville, knocked them off balance and sent them reeling every time.

I had hoped that Donald Trump’s primary victories would wake up the old Republican party; that enough of you would have said to yourselves, “My God! What have we done? We need to end this no matter what the backlash, no matter what the effect on this election cycle. We cannot allow ourselves to become the party of Trump.” But that moment never came. I thought that it might have come during the Republican National Convention after Donald Trump defamed and abused a gold star family whose son gave his life in Iraq. I thought the moment might have come when Donald Trump mimicked, mocked and ridiculed a disabled reporter on national television while his adoring audience laughed and clapped while the drool ran down their imbecilic faces. I thought that when the Access Hollywood tape came out, in which Donald Trump boasted of molesting women in terms too vulgar to repeat, this would surely be the end of his campaign. At first, it seemed it was. A lot of Republicans not only denounced Trump’s remarks, but even called for him to drop out of the race-until it became clear that his base-your base-didn’t care. Then these briefly incensed Republicans all came back like whipped pups with their tails between their legs to lick their master’s boots.

Your slavish devotion and/or grudging tolerance of Donald Trump demonstrates a frightening sickness in your souls. Bad enough that you tolerate his ridicule and abuse of women, people of color and those with disabilities.  What is truly pathetic is the way you let him walk all over you. Trump insulted the wife of Senator Ted Cruz and accused his father of engineering the assassination of President Kennedy. Though endorsing Trump at the Republican National Convention was a little too much for even Mr. Cruz to stomach, he eventually came prancing back to Trump, just like the faithful hound that returns to his owner no matter how badly he’s been mistreated. The same with Jeff Sessions who meekly responds to his master’s regular abuse and criticism with nothing but adoration and praise. And who can forget how the much maligned and berated Mitch McConnell meekly followed the Donald like a little lamb on a leash into the Rose Garden to announce the billionaires’ tax break and deficit bomb-the one legislative victory to which your party can point. It appears that you have as little respect for yourselves as you do any constituents outside of your beloved base. Donald Trump once said that his followers were so blindly loyal that he could shoot an innocent bystander on Fifth Avenue and they would still love him. That was perhaps the only true statement he ever made.

Harnessing the energy of racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist paranoia has been a winning strategy for you. It’s gotten you the White House, both houses of congress and a good crack at stacking the Supreme Court. Congratulations! But, oh, my friends, what a price you have had to pay! How much you have had to sacrifice! As each day brings out more sordid details about Mr. Trump’s and his associates’ political, financial and sexual misdeeds; as the most extreme representatives of racial hate become ever more emboldened in his shadow to spew their vile rhetoric and engage in acts of violence, all under your party’s brand; as the strategic alliances that have kept the peace in Europe and defended democracy around the globe for six decades crumble under the weight of Donald Trump’s gigantic ego; as all of this goes on day after day I keep asking myself, how much more of this can your consciences endure? Your leaders have jeopardized the security of our country, thrown their own families under the bus, compromised their careers and sacrificed their integrity on the altar of this pathetic little man baby and his delusions of grandeur. How much of your party’s soul is left to sell? What will it take to tickle your gag reflex? How far will this man go before you finally say “Enough!”

You know all of this to be true whether you are willing to admit it or not. So why do I waste my breath telling you what you already know? Because I still have a faint hope that there are enough Republicans of conscience like you left to bring the GOP back to life. I still hope against hope that you will finally recognize that you own this mess and it’s yours to clean up. I still cling to the possibility that you love your country enough to put its well-being ahead of your party’s unprincipled lust for raw power and that you will find the courage to act on what used to be your convictions. My question to you is this: can your country count on you to be who you always said you were?

Church: It’s Not for the Faint of Heart


2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. Grant that we may know your Son to be the true bread of heaven and share this bread with all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:18-19.

One might say this fragment from the second lesson for the coming Sunday sums up the reason for the church’s existence. The church is where you go to be filled with the love of Christ. Yes, I know there are plenty of folks who have left the church complaining that they found nothing of the kind there. Instead, they experienced hypocrisy, judgment, self-righteousness, arrogance and a host of hurtful behaviors that look nothing like love. So they left. I get that. I really do. But here’s the thing. Knowing the love of Christ does not come easily. You don’t learn tolerance by living among people who look and think exactly like you. You don’t learn forgiveness by sticking with people who never rub you the wrong way. You will never be led to repentance and a change of heart without people who push your buttons, criticize you and tell you things you don’t want to hear. You will never know love like that of Jesus until you are challenged to love people for whom love does not come naturally. If you are looking for a community that affirms you, accepts you as you are, meets all of your needs and makes you feel good, try a Yoga weekend in the Poconos. If you are looking for a community where you will learn to love as Jesus loves, the church is the place you need to be. It’s called sanctification. It’s what we do. But be warned: it’s a lot more like boot camp than Club Med.

Here is the hard word: the church is not there to meet your needs. It has a mission. The church exists to serve and witness to the reign of God. It is made up of people Jesus calls to be formed for participation in that mission. When you join the Marines, you don’t get to choose the people in your unit. When you join the church, you don’t get to choose your fellow disciples. That’s Jesus’ prerogative. The single biggest complaint about Jesus in the gospels was the company he kept. The religious leaders were offended that Jesus ate with harlots and tax collectors. Simon the Pharisee was offended that Jesus allowed a woman who was a “sinner” to touch him. The disciples were annoyed that Jesus permitted a nameless woman to anoint him. If you are going to follow Jesus, you will have to accept that he hangs with people you probably won’t like. If you want to learn to love as Jesus loves, you must begin by believing that everyone in your church, even-no, especially-the least appealing, least loving, least seemingly Christlike member, has something to teach you that no one else can. Church is living together with people you would never choose as friends, but whom Jesus has called to serve his life giving mission of reconciliation along with you. Church is a process of learning first to tolerate, then to care and finally to love. Not everybody is up for that.

Our Gospel lesson for Sunday sets the stage for a lengthy discourse throughout chapter 6 of John’s gospel between Jesus and the crowd that was initially attracted to him. It is the familiar story about how Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people in the wilderness with a few loaves of bread and some fish. So impressed are the people by this work of power that they are ready to acclaim Jesus as their king. But as Jesus engages them in a discussion about their deeper hunger and the bread of life he offers and that they so desperately need, their enthusiastic support gradually changes to hostility. By the end of chapter 6, the crowd and even most of his followers will have deserted Jesus.  “This teaching is difficult,” they grumble, “who can accept it?” John 6:60. Only the twelve remain faithful. “To whom shall we go?” asks Peter rhetorically. “You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68. Life is eternal only when “rooted and grounded in love.” Ephesians 3:17.

In contrast to our dying culture that is increasingly divided politically, racially and ideologically, the call of Jesus is for his disciples to thrive as an alternative community whose members work together under the reign of God in the same harmony different parts of a body display as they function to serve the well being of the whole. The church exists to let the world know that the walls we have built to divide ourselves are permeable; that there is a way out of the vortex of mutual enmity and retaliation threatening to swallow us. It takes more than love based on mutual attraction, admiration for the pastor, a liking for the church’s sanctuary, music, liturgy and preaching to form and hold such a community together. Forging the Body of Christ out of willful, selfish, thin-skinned, individualistic people like us is a slow, painful process. But it is the process through which one comes to experience “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so [as to] be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:18-19. It’s called church and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Here is a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaking about the fusion of life into love that, in biblical terms, is deemed “eternal.”


We cannot live, except thus mutually
We alternate, aware or unaware,
The reflex act of life: and when we bear
Our virtue onward most impulsively,
Most full of invocation, and to be
Most instantly compellant, certes, there
We live most life, whoever breathes most air
And counts his dying years by sun and sea.
But when a soul, by choice and conscience, doth
Throw out her full force on another soul,
The conscience and the concentration both
Make mere life, Love. For Life in perfect whole
And aim consummated, is Love in sooth,
As nature’s magnet-heat rounds pole with pole.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was held in high regard throughout her lifetime surpassing nearly all other female poets of the English speaking world eclipsing even the work of her poet husband, Robert Browning. She had a formative influence upon American poet, Emily Dickinson who hung her portrait in her bedroom. Browning was highly skilled in multiple languages reading voraciously the Greek and Latin classics as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. Though the beneficiary of a privileged upbringing, she was a passionate advocate for the oppressed on the issues of slavery, child labor and the exploitation of colonized peoples. You can read more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

What God Wants for the Poor, Hungry and Oppressed: Solidarity, not Charity


Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Prayer of the Day: O God, powerful and compassionate, you shepherd your people, faithfully feeding and protecting us. Heal each of us, and make us a whole people, that we may embody the justice and peace of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

It is Easter Sunday. Though thoroughly exhausted by the ordinary rigors of Holy Week and the extraordinary rigors of a funeral for a suicide victim and the hospitalization of a young girl tragically rendered comatose by a brain anyrism, I am nonetheless pumped for celebrating the resurrection. This is one of the few Sundays when the church is filled to capacity. The morning is clear, warm and sunny. It is everything you could ask for on Easter. Led by the choir, the congregation breaks into a chorus of Jesus Christ is Risen Today. I look out over the congregation with satisfaction-and suddenly my heart sinks.

Standing at the rear of the church I see him. It’s Neil. Neil is well known to every pastor, priest and rabbi in Bergen County. He is sure to have a problem that only cold hard cash can solve. He always shows up on Sunday morning when he knows very well that you are too busy to give him much attention and that any state or county agency to which you might refer him is closed. He does this because he knows that you know that the easiest way to get rid of him is just to give him a twenty dollar bill and be done with it. I don’t want to deal with Neil this morning. I just want to rest in the light of the resurrection with my people. They deserve this. I deserve this.

I can’t help but suspect that Jesus felt something of the same dismay when, after finally escaping the crowds in a desperate search for solitude following God only knows how many days of ministering to needy people, he is met by yet another crowd of needy people. I would not be surprised if Jesus’ disciples, who had just returned from a healing mission themselves, were hoping that Jesus would direct them to turn the boat away from the shore where the crowds were gathering. But the Good Shepherd will not leave a flock of helpless sheep to wander in the wilderness. Jesus goes ashore to meet this bottomless pit of need head on.

None of this is to say that we should deny ourselves the rest we need to remain healthy and whole. Pastors, of all people, ought to know that we can’t take good care of others unless we take good care of ourselves. Airplane rule: put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to assist others. It appears from the gospel narratives that Jesus did, in fact, take such care for himself and for his disciples. But Jesus will not separate himself from the people he came to redeem. He will not let anything stand between himself and the world for which he ultimately will give his life. Jesus identifies fully with the crowd and its needs. That is the hallmark of his ministry. Jesus does not merely heal broken bodies. He restores broken relationships. Jesus does not merely teach. He befriends his disciples. Jesus does not merely feed the poor and hungry. He invites them to the messianic banquet.

Very often I think that the church prefers to “help” those in need rather than befriend and incorporate them. That is understandable. The needs of people we confront often defy simple solutions. Clearly, Neil needed a lot more than a twenty dollar bill that Easter morning when he graced my church with his presence. But I am quite sure that Neil would not have been receptive to the kind of help I thought he needed. There was no way I could possibly have “fixed” Neil and that is why I just wanted him gone. He obviously needed help from someone with greater expertise than me. So why bother? Why not simply contribute generously to food pantries, homeless shelters and social service agencies who might actually be able to help Neil with his problems? The trouble with such “generosity” is that it can too easily absolve me from making eye contact with the guy on the street corner holding up his cardboard sigh, conversing the woman who notices my clerical collar and begins babbling incoherently about God and space aliens or, for that matter, taking time for Neil on Easter Sunday. Better to leave these tough cases to the “experts.” Often I think that our “hands off” attitude toward those in dire need is reflected in the prayer of this anonymous poet:

A Rich Man’s Prayer

God bless the beggar.
Fill his dirty cup with change.
God bless the lunatics
Whose ravings are so strange.
God bless the runaways
Lurking in the subway.
God bless the sad eyed girl
Who sells herself for money.
God bless the drunkard
Who can hardly even stand.
God bless the junky
With the trembling, shaky hand.
God bless the prisoner.
May he one fine day be free.
God bless all suffering souls
and keep them far from me.

In short, writing a check is much easier than forging a relationship. But relationship is what Jesus’ mission is all about. The gospel is about solidarity, not charity. Disciples of Jesus are not called upon to “fix” people anymore than they are called to save the world. God has both of those jobs covered. What we are called to do is invite folks like Neil into our community, recognize them as gifts to our fellowship, learn to love them and come to understand what Jesus would teach us through them. That’s a tall order. I know because I have served churches that are home to people nobody else would have. I cannot say that we have always been able to change their bad habits, alter their unappealing behavior or put them on a trajectory for substantial improvement. But we have learned through them to see ourselves more clearly and honestly. People like Neil remind us what Jesus looks like and what it really means to love him, serve him and follow him. The they teach us that their need is but a pale reflection of our own desperate need for a new heart, an open mind and an accepting spirit. They teach us to pray that God might “make of the eyes of others [our] own eyes.” Here is a poem by Phillip B. Williams that touches on that very point:

From Interruptive

What can I do but make of the eyes of others
my own eyes, but make of the world a ghazal
whose radif is a haunting of me, me, me?

Somewhere there are fingers still whole
to tell the story of the empire that devours fingers.
Somewhere there is a city where even larvae

cannot clean the wounds of the living
and cannot eat on the countless dead
who are made to die tomorrow and tomorrow.

Carrion beetles and boot bottoms grind corpses
powder-soft to feed the small-mouthed gods
of gardens and wind. Roses made to toss their silk

to earth like immolated gowns, hills
spewing ribbons of charred air from cities
occupied by artillery and pilfered grain, limbs

blown from their bodies and made into an alphabet
that builds this fool song, even now, presented
before you as false curative, as vacant kiss — even

what is lost in the fabrication of strangers needs naught
from strangers. Even somewhere stings with stillness,
stings with a home not surrendered but a given.

But I have not been with my feet on the earth
there where bullets make use of skin like flags
make use of the land. My thinking is as skeletal

as the bombed-out schools and houses
untelevised. What do I know of occupation
but my own colonized thinking to shake

free from. While my days themselves tremble
from time and shake off place to feel falsely
placeless, a hollow empathy as if its soft chisel

could make of this wall — my ignorance mighty
before me upon which drawn figures alight
against the stone — my own; what is mine is

the wall my votes and non-votes, my purchases
wrapped in unthought have built and stretched,
undead gray. There are no secrets in debris.

I have a home I hate, its steel and lights
red and blue upon me. Home itself a mist
through which I pass and barely notice.

Home, to assume you are home is to assume
I am welcome in you — to what degree let the wounds
say so — and can come and go as I please.

The television tells me Over there, and one must point
with a fully extended arm to show how far from,
how unlike here there really is. Over there

where they blow each other up over land and God.
And it feels good to stretch as if from waking —
this silence could be called a kind of sleep — and think

beyond, where I am not and where those who are
are not — wall upon which drawings of fists
strike skyward and faces of activists stare into me

from my Google search. Turnstiles separate
home from home. Barbed wire catches clouds
in its coil saws. What do I know of injustice

but having a home throughout which bullets,
ballots, and brutality trifecta against
people who were here before here was here

and people were brought here to change
the landscape of humanity? That word has rolling hills
and towering walls. To hammer against it not to get

to the other side — believe nothing is there —
but to make obsolete side — know there is nothing.
I know this: my metaphors have small arms,

my wallet has made monstrous my reflection,
I have done terrible things by being alive.
I have built a wonder of terror with my life.

Phillip B. Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois and earned his Master’s degree  from Washington University.  He is the author of several books of poetry and a winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Williams is currently the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry and teaches at Bennington College. You can sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Keep speaking truth to power as long as your head remains on your shoulders

See the source image


PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Last week Jesus met with rejection in his hometown of Nazareth and warned his disciples that they could expect the same. This week’s gospel lesson raises the stakes even higher. John the Baptist pays the ultimate price for speaking truth to power. This grizzly tale of palace intrigue, injustice and violence is a grim reminder that truth is often the first casualty of power politics and that silencing the messenger is frequently the preferred method of killing the message.

This story might resonate more with me if John had lost his head for rebuking Herod over his numerous acts of cruelty, violence and injustice. Instead, John takes Herod to task for what appears on its face to be simply a matter of personal morality. Herod divorced his first wife,  Phasaelis, the daughter of King Artreas IV of Nabatea, in favor or Herodias who had been married to his brother Philip. “So what?” I am tempted to ask. What bearing does that have on his competence as a ruler? There are numerous examples of successful leaders whose family lives left much to be desired. With so much at stake for the coming reign of God, it seems almost silly for John to throw his life away by sticking his nose into the middle of a domestic dispute.

Then again, I suppose we should ask ourselves whether morality is ever strictly personal. As everyone who has ever been married can attest, marriage transforms every other relationship an individual has. It brings together and forges ties between families that were formerly strangers. Marriage opens up the potential for new persons coming into the world who will have a large stake in the health and stability of that relationship and all the others connected to it. Neither entering into nor terminating a marriage is a matter of public indifference. In both cases, life changing ripples are sent out effecting numerous other parties. As it turns out, Herod’s divorce and illicit marriage played a huge role in escalating a conflict with his father-in-law Artreas that blew up into a military confrontation ending badly for Herod and his people.

Character matters. We worship the God of the covenant who keeps promises even when the cost of doing so is the life of God’s only begotten Son. Unlike God, we are frequently unable to keep the promises we make. For that there is forgiveness. But forgiveness does not absolve us of our covenant obligation to love our neighbors, even when we cannot fulfill the promises made to them in good faith.  When a marriage dissolves, both parties are responsible for minimizing the damage to their children, to their respective families and the friendships with others they share.  We are called to be as faithful in divorce as we are in marriage. It appears that Herod exercised no such care. He treated his family with the same contempt as he treated his subjects. The lethal consequences of his immorality were visited upon far more than himself and his immediate family.

Ordinarily, we think of prophecy as a very public act. Sometimes it is. But as Jesus taught us last week, the most difficult (and perhaps the most important) prophecy is exercised at home among the people with whom we live and work. It takes unusual courage to speak up for immigrants and refugees when we hear them vilified at the Fourth of July family picnic. Does what a few old white guys say around the BBQ pit really matter? Is it worth making a scene and spoiling a family event? I believe that in a culture that elected a president who mocks the disabled, ridicules women who have been sexually abused (some by himself), denigrates people of color and employs the power of the executive branch to separate children from their parents, “making a scene” might be the most important thing we are capable of doing. Prophets are called to unmask sin and expose it for what it is in the light of God’s reign. The prophet is God’s voice telling us the good news that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” That might make for some uncomfortable moments. It might cost you a friend or two. You might even put your social standing or your job at risk. But keep speaking, keep prophesying and keep telling the truth for as long as your head remains on your shoulders.

What Shall We Tell Our Children?


Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of the covenant, in our baptism you call us to proclaim the coming of your kingdom. Give us the courage you gave the apostles, that we may faithfully witness to your love and peace in every circumstance of life, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” Ezekiel 2:5

“If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Mark 6:11

Prophets have to reckon with the possibility that they will not be heard. God warns Ezekiel that his admonitions to the people of Judah might well be rejected. Jesus meets rejection head on in his own home town of Nazareth and, as he sends out his disciples to proclaim the reign of God, he warns them that they can expect the same fate. It’s hard to keep talking when nobody is listening. Harder still when your audience is shouting you down. When your opposition is bound and determined to silence you, the truthful speech we call prophecy is not merely hard. It is dangerous.

So why prophesy? Why keep telling the truth? Why put your reputation, your friendships, your job or even your very life on the line? It won’t make any difference. People hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. You can’t make anything better for the world by speaking out. You only make things worse for yourself. So, mind your own business. Tend to your own garden. Go along to get along.

For disciples of Jesus, silence is not an option. We believe that the Word of God is God’s very self. Like the prophet Jeremiah, we cannot hold that word in once it penetrates our hearts. We must speak the truth-even when the truth is unpopular, even when the truth is ugly and painful, even when the truth evokes violent opposition. God’s word will accomplish God’s purpose, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us. But it falls to each of us to speak that word.

We may not see in our lifetimes God’s purpose accomplished in our words. Few prophets do. Jeremiah endured a lifetime of neglect, abuse and persecution without ever witnessing the change of heart he sought from his people. Judah rejected Isaiah’s bold call to put her trust in the Lord rather than political alliances. Ezekiel’s message of judgment and hope likewise fell on deaf ears throughout his lifetime. Yet when Judah found herself defeated, landless and in exile, she did not turn to the comforting patriotic, nationalistic jingoism of the prophet Hannaniah, but to the difficult, painful yet truthful words of Jeremiah. These words that had proven their worth now helped the people make sense of the terrible things that had happened to them. So, too, the rejected words of the prophet Isaiah in the eight century became the prism through which the people of Judah were able to recognize a new saving act of God in the sixth century. The hard words spoken by the prophet Ezekiel and gathered together by faithful scribes more than a generation hence brought healing and hope to a wounded and grieving people. Prophets do not speak only for their own generation. They speak to keep alive the stories of God’s judgment and faithfulness for the children of the next and their children’s children.

The older I get, the more urgently I ask myself the question forming the refrain of Margaret Burroughs’ poem featured this week: “What shall we tell our children?” How will we explain to our daughters why we elected a man who thinks it his sovereign right to feel their genitals whenever he wishes-and the church remained largely silent? How will we explain to our children of African American descent how their president called their ancestoral lands a crude word for dung while praising as “fine people” those who would see them lynched-and the congress continued to support him, thirty percent of the populace continued to praise him, but the church remained largely silent? How will we explain to our LGBTQ children how we allowed their hard fought rights to dignity and equality to be eroded by an increasingly hostile and violent mob of haters pulling the puppet strings on one of America’s two major political parties, while the church remained largely silent? What will we say to the children whose earliest memories are of being torn from the arms of their families for the crime of fleeing to the nation which boldly (and, as it turns out, hypocritically) declares: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free? And all of this while the church remains largely silent. Perhaps most pressing of all, what will we say to those children who have known no other Jesus than vicious and mean spirited moralist proclaimed in the pornographic religion propagated by the likes of Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, James Dobson and Tony Perkins? If we remain silent today, we will have nothing left to say to our children tomorrow.

Here is the poem by Margaret Burroughs referred to above.

What shall we tell our Children? An addenda, 1973.

What shall we tell our children who are black?
What shall we tell our children who are white?
What shall we tell children of every race and hue?
For all children are the children of all of us
And all of us bear responsibility for all children
What shall we tell them?
How can we show them the conditions of their lives
So they will see how they can change them?
Those who are poverty stricken in the midst of plenty
Who must live in rat-infested slums
While decent homes stand empty
Who go to bed hungry
While grocery shelves are heavy
Who huddle in tattered rags
While racks in stores are sagging
Who yearn for a good education
But languish in programmed illiteracy
Whose intellectual growth is stunted
And whose ignorance is compounded
While the Academies produce more drones for the labor colony
What shall we tell them?
How can we show them the conditions of their lives
So they will see how they can change them?
What shall we tell our children
The men and women of the future?
We shall tell them the truth
It is our bounden duty to tell them the truth
It may be painful. We must tell them the truth
We may be criticized. We must tell them the truth
We may be castigated. We must tell them the truth
The truth it shall be, shall show them the conditions of their lives
Of a glorified way of life, the greatest in the world

Which is not concerned with people, but with profits
Not with the well-being of many, but with the interests of a few
Not with the welfare and future of the people
But only with the profit-making present
We shall tell them the truth about a way of life
The greatest in the world
Where freedom and equality is granted to every man, woman, and child
Where everyone, providing he is willing to do what is necessary
Can become rich and wealthy by doing others before they do you
Where everyone, including you
Can acquire life’s most important goodies
Like split-level houses, with wall-to-wall carpeting completely furnished
And two cars and two color T.V.’s
And the latest style clothes and minks
And schminks and everything!
We shall tell them the truth
About a way of life
The greatest in the world
Which rejects the wisdom of its seers and sages
And whose culture is dictated and delineated by
Violent, vicious, destructive
Murderous, unfeeling, crude
And quick on the draw supermen
Who deem the men and women of the future
As expendable and shunt them off to
Purposeless death in the name of patria and patriotism
Who slaughter the innocents who protest or speak for Peace
We shall tell them the truth
​We shall tell them the truth
About a way of life, the greatest in the world
Whose primal motivation is material acquisition
Wherein the majority of the people derive happiness
From having things which others do not have
Whose all high, omnipotent
All powerful Jehovah, Jesus, Lord
God, Allah and all Supreme
Is the adulated, sought after, live for,
Steal for, murder for, Almighty D-O-L-L-A-R dollar!
​We shall tell them the truth
About a way of life, the greatest in the world
Which manipulates and expends young lives
So that parasites may live and survive
Whose aim is but to acquire and kill
And kill and acquire again and again
At home and abroad and everywhere
​We shall tell them the truth
We shall urge them to examine their way of life,
The greatest in the world
Which deliberately depresses the conditions of life
Which offers no bright future
But instead keeps people in fear
Insecurity and in constant turmoil
Which decimates their ranks
With endless predatory wars
​We shall tell them the truth
About what life could be made to be
And how they themselves can help to make it
Bright, happy and secure.
We shall show them that life
Is ever in motion, constantly going through
Processes of change, shall strengthen them in the belief
That it is possible for men and women,
For they themselves, for all of us
To live in harmony with our environment
And the Universe
Shall teach them that our knowledge increases
The more we gain control over our envirnment
And exploit it not for private gain but for our own happiness
We shall tell them the truth
We shall encourage them to expand their knowledge
Of the known and the unknown
To destroy the cobwebs of superstition
To find that there are no mysteries
Either in life or in nature
And that above all there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
​We shall tell them the truth
Shall suggest this way of life
Can truly be made to be among the
Greatest in the world
That through their own efforts
They can forge a new way
A superior way, a good way of life
Which is in harmony with the true purpose of life
Wherein the people themselves control the conditions of their labor
Wherein the people have the total benefits of their labor
And where men, women, and children
Live lives free from exploitation.
We shall tell them that a way of life is possible
Wherein the people may own the means and tools of production
And use them solely for the abundance of the whole people
And not for the aggrandizement of a few
As in the old way.
​We shall tell them the truth
We shall arm them with the knowledge of how to survive
In an atmosphere fraught with danger and hostility
We shall urge them to heed
​The wisdom bequeathed to us by the elders
And to have faith. To have faith.
In people, in themselves and their fellow human beings
And to have respect and love for all of humankind.
​We shall tell them
​To keep the belief that the purpose of life
Is to continue to grow and create
And to contribute to growth and create
And to contribute to growth and
Creativity toward a better life
For people now and for generations to come
What shall we tell our children?
​We shall tell them the truth
We shall imbue them with the vision of the new tomorrow
Seemingly far, but yet so near
We shall tell them that they hold the power in their own hands
To make this new way
A reality in our own life time

Source: What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?  (c. 1968, 1992 by Margaret Burroughs, pub. by M.A.A.H. Press). Margaret Burroughs (1905-2010) was an American visual artist, writer, poet, educator, and arts organizer. She co-founded the Ebony Museum of Chicago, now the DuSable Museum of African American History. She also helped to establish the South Side Community Art Center, whose opening on May 1, 1941, was dedicated by the First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt. Burroughs was a prolific author of children’s books and poetry. As in her visual art, Burroughs’ prose and poetry explore the themes of family, community and the fraught relations between the races. This particular poem is a 1973 revision to an earlier 1968 work entitled What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” In explaining her expansion of this poem, Burroughs remarked that “The liberation of black people in the United States is tightly linked with the liberation of black people in the far flung diaspora. Further, and more important, the liberation of black and oppressed people all over the world, is linked with the struggles of the workers of the world of every nationality and color against the common oppressors, overlords, and exploiters of their labor” You can read more of Margaret Burroughs’ poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.