Monthly Archives: June 2019

A Gentle Lord with Violent Disciples


1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
Psalm 16
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Prayer of the Day: Sovereign God, ruler of all hearts, you call us to obey you, and you favor us with true freedom. Keep us faithful to the ways of your Son, that, leaving behind all that hinders us, we may steadfastly follow your paths, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them.” Luke 9:51-55.

“A religious community that believes itself to be in possession of ‘The Truth’ is a community equipped with the most lethal weapon of any warfare: the sense of its own superiority and mandate to mastery.” Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context, (c. 2003 Augsburg Fortress).

Religious violence is as old as living memory. Indeed, the very first murder recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures arouse out of a dispute over how God should be worshiped. See Genesis 4:1-16. That same dispute lay at the heart of the mutual antipathy between Jews and Samaritans. In spite of their mutual hatred, Jews and Samaritans had much in common. Both were Israelites. Both claimed lineage from Sarah and Abraham. They shared the same language and the same scriptures. Both had far more in common with each other than either had with the Roman overlords enslaving them. But for 1st century Jews, the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple was the locus of worship. For Samaritans, their own temple on Mount Gerizim was the location chosen by God for a holy temple. The depth of Jewish animosity toward Samaritans is reflected in at least one daily prayer used in some synagogues pleading for God to ensure that Samaritans not enter into eternal life. Ellis, E. Earle, The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary, (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 151 citing Oesterley, W.O.E., The Gospel Parallels in the Light of their Jewish Background, New York, 1936, p. 162. Of course, the Samaritans were equally ill disposed toward Jews. Jews and Samaritans each regarded themselves exclusively as the one true Israel; therefore, the very existence of each constituted an existential threat to the other.

It always seems that religious hatred is most intense among those whose ties are closest. The carnage between Sunni and Shiite Muslims is far greater than between Muslims and Christians. Witness the savagery between Irish Catholics and Irish protestants. Catholics persecuted Lutherans and Calvinists during the Reformation. Once we protestants established our own territories, we returned the favor within our borders. In a rare show of Reformation era protestant-catholic ecumenism, we both persecuted the anabaptists and all of us persecuted the Jews.

I think that part of what lies at the base of all this blood letting is a deep insecurity on our part. I see it frequently in the urgent insistence of some of my more conservative leaning friends that “there is no salvation outside the church” and that only those “who have accepted Jesus as Savior can be saved.” “If we compromise on that,” one colleague told me, “then there is no point in the church. No point in evangelism. No point in anything.” For this pastor, faith in Jesus was a zero sum game; an all or nothing proposition. If we make room for other faiths or recognize the value of life without religious faith-we undermine our certainty and lose our own faith. It therefore becomes imperative to win outsiders over, give them up for lost or perhaps annihilate them.

Sadly, a zealous evangelical concern for the “lost” can easily mutate into zeal for their destruction. Such was the case for my church’s reluctant namesake, Martin Luther. Early in his career, Luther expressed sympathy and compassion for the Jews and decried their mistreatment by the medieval church. He was convinced that, once the threat of persecution was removed and the Jews were allowed to hear the gospel in its purity, they would flock to the church. When that didn’t happen, Luther turned on the Jews with a vengeance. Luther’s vitriolic rhetoric against the Jews and his calls for violence against them remains a scandal and an embarrassment to his spiritual descendants down to this very day.

James and John seem to be having a similar reaction to the Samaritans. These people were offered the Truth. They rejected the Truth.  So let’s “nuke ‘em.” But Jesus takes a different view. Though the Samaritan villagers reject him, he will not reject them. Judgement belongs to God and, as the prophet Jonah had to learn, judgment, justice and righteousness often look quite a bit different from God’s perspective than from our own limited understanding. Faith and salvation are not inseparably linked to discipleship. When Jesus encountered a gentile Roman soldier who likely knew nothing about Israel’s God and turned to Jesus looking only for compassion on his servant, Jesus marveled at this pagan’s faith. When Jesus was informed that a man not among his disciples was performing exorcisms in his name, he would not allow his disciples to hinder him. “Whoever is not against us is for us,” says Jesus. Mark 9:40. All whose lives and work bear witness to the ways of God’s gentle reign are allies of Jesus-whether they recognize it, understand it, acknowledge it or not.

It is helpful to remember that disciples are called to be witnesses to the truth. It is not the role of a witness to persuade. That belongs to the advocates. It is not for the witness to decide the case. That is for the judge. As witnesses, “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20. The rest belongs to God.

Furthermore, what we have heard and seen, wonderful as it surely is, does not constitute the entirety of what can be said of God’s saving work. As Jesus reminded us two weeks ago, we do not yet have “all” the truth. John 16:13. Indeed, it is presumptuous for us to imagine that we can ever “have’ the Truth. But Jesus assures us that the Truth has a hold on us. We need to be led each day ever deeper into that Truth which is God. It should not surprise us that, as we grow ever deeper in our understanding of God’s Triune life, we discover more evidence of God’s working in the lives of God’s people, especially those whose understandings differ from our own. We can marvel and wonder, but never doubt that God is at work in every corner of the universe reconciling creation, filling its cracks and healing its fractures with the love which the Father has for the Son from eternity. It is not for us to short circuit that long and loving process by forcefully converting, dismissing or purging people who, from our limited perspective, seem not to fit.

Here is a poem by the Muslim poet, Mahmoud Darwish, reflecting on his sojourn in the City of Jerusalem, holy to Jews, Christians and his own faith tradition. Listen for the mixture of Jewish, Christian and Islamic images over against the harsh reality of occupation. Can you hear the sound of God’s reign struggling to be born?

In Jerusalem

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy … ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t be safe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Muhammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me … and I forgot, like you, to die.

Source: The Butterfly’s Burden. (c. 2008 by Mahmoud Darwish, translated into English by Fady Joudah and pub. by Copper Canyon Press). Mahmoud Darwish (1942-2008) was a Palestinian poet and author. He was born in al-Birwa, Galilee, a village that was occupied and later destroyed by the Israeli army. Darwish lived for many years in exile in Beirut and Paris. He is the author of over thirty books of poetry and eight books of prose. He won numerous awards for his works. Darwish used Palestine as a metaphor for the biblical themes of losing Eden, of birth and of resurrection. He sees in the suffering of his people the biblical anguish of dispossession and exile. Darwish also served as an editor for several literary magazines in Israel. You can read more about Mahmoud Darwish and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


Sarah Huckabee Sanders Sues the Devil

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source imageFormer White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is suing the devil, seeking to rescind her contract with him. A multi-count complaint filed in the United States District Court for the District of Arkansas alleges that Satan procured Ms. Sanders’ signature on their contract through duress and failed to fulfill his own obligations under its terms. “Bottom line,” said Sanders, “I want my soul back.” She further explained, “When I first took on the job of White House press secretary, I was desperate. My predecessors had all failed both to satisfy the president and represent him in a positive light to the public. I had no idea how I could possibly do this job and I didn’t know where to turn. When Satan offered me supernatural powers of persuasion in return for my soul, it seemed like an offer I could not refuse at the time. Of course, I realize now that it was a bad decision.”

Ms. Sanders’ attorney, I.M.A. Pettifog of the law firm Shyster & Pettifog, Esqs., told reporters he is confident the district court will declare the contract null and void. “It is a long standing principle of equity that contracts procured through duress may be declared unenforceable. We think there is little doubt the judge will find that Satan employed duress and exercised undue pressure against Ms. Sanders in the making of this contract.” Mr. Pettifog went on to point out that, even assuming the contract is held to be otherwise valid and enforceable, it must be rescinded because the devil failed to perform his obligations under its terms. “My client relied in good faith on the devil’s promise to give her extraordinary powers of persuasion so that she could do her job effectively. Yet after two years of diligent effort on her part, the president’s approval rating is in the thirty percentile range. Public support for his impeachment continues to grow. Satan didn’t come through with his end of the bargain. It’s as simple as that. It’s not for nothing they call him ‘father of lies.’”

The Prince of Darkness has denied all allegations of the complaint through his attorney, Rudy Giuliani. “Duress?” said Giuliani. “What happened with this contract is no different than what goes on every day in this country. One person has what another person needs and is willing to pay for. So they make a deal. That might be called duress in failing socialist regimes like Venezuela, California and Massachusetts. But here in America we call it capitalism.” Giuliani also took issue with the claim that his client breached his contract with Sanders: “Look, Ms. Sanders undertook a tough job. She had to follow Donald Trump like a clown behind the horses in the 4th of July parade picking up his droppings. Then she had to sell them back to the American people as fudge. Now you can say what you want about opposition to the president, but he still has between 30%-40% approval. I think any jury would agree that the fact she managed to get a third of the American people to gobble up manure for two years- convinced all the while they are eating chocolate-that’s pretty strong evidence of superhuman persuasive ability. Not infallible maybe, but infallible was not in the contract.”

Some legal experts have questioned the propriety of Mr. Giuliani’s representation of Satan in this matter. “He represents President Donald Trump whose interests could, at least potentially, conflict with those of the devil in this litigation,” said Professor Oblit. R. Dictum, formerly an instructor of legal ethics at the now defunct Trump Correspondence School of Law. Giuliani dismissed these concerns. “Ridiculous,” he told reporters. “You have a conflict of interest only when you represent two clients with different legal interests. The interests of both my clients are and always have been perfectly aligned.”

No trial date has yet been set.


FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

How to Exorcise a Demon

Image result for seventeen magazine coversSECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Isaiah 65:1-9
Psalm 22:19-28
Galatians 3:23-29
Luke 8:26-39

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus casts out a demon. Its name is “Legion.” I don’t believe the name refers simply to the fact that the man of Gerasene was possessed by many demons. Palestine was under Roman occupation and its “legions” were a regular part of the landscape. The “peace of Rome” was enforced by its legions and their choice instrument to that end was the cross-Rome’s ultimate symbol of terror. Augustus Caesar, the architect of Rome’s peace, would have agreed with NRA CEO, Wayne LaPierre’s slogan, namely, “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Simply put, peace and security depend on the ability and the willingness to kill in order to preserve them. I suspect that the herd of swine into which Jesus sent the demons was being maintained to feed one of Rome’s legions. There wouldn’t have been much of a market for pork anywhere else in Israel. That would also explain why the locals wanted Jesus out of their territory. You don’t want to be seen in the company of a man who just threw the legion’s supper into the lake.

Biblical archeologist John Dominic Crossan discusses the phenomenon of demonic possession in one of his recent books. Pointing to the work of British anthropologist Mary Douglas, Crossan notes that “the physical body is a microcosm of the social body so that there is a dialectic between the personal and the social, the individual and the corporate, with regard to taboos and boundaries, with regard to the acceptable, the permissible, and the tolerable.” Crossan, John Dominic, The Historical Jesus-The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, (c. 1991 by John Dominic Crossan, Inc., pub. by HarperCollins) p. 313. That is to say, one cannot help seeing oneself as one is perceived by the society as a whole. Thus, it is a very different thing to live in the United States as a white person than as an African American descendant of slaves. For the former, the national monuments and landmarks under whose shadows we live, the historical narrative telling us who we are and the social conventions so deeply ingrained that we are hardly conscious of them reinforce our sense of value, identity and destiny. For the latter, these same things testify to a legacy of oppression; they are a reminder of marginalization; and they bar opportunity in every way forward. So, too, the presence of Roman legions in the occupied territories of Judea and Galilee were a constant reminder to the Jews of their servitude and powerlessness. There could hardly be a greater indignity for a Jew than being compelled to care for herds of unclean animals, meat that their ancestors refused to eat even at the cost of martyrdom.[1] Internalizing-being possessed by-the loathing and contempt in which you are held by the dominant culture can’t help but make you a little crazy-perhaps crazy enough to live naked among the tombs or even to bloody yourself with stones as Mark’s account of this same story tells us. Mark 5:5.

Naming demons can be a dangerous business. But Jesus knows that exposure is the first step in exorcism. Once a demon is named, once it is brought out into the light and shown up for what it truly is, it begins to lose its power to enthrall and control. It is in that spirit that I introduce the above image. It is the cover of a magazine designed for young girls. I don’t know anything about its articles. I haven’t read them. I looked at the pictures, though. If you were to do the same you would find on every page beautiful, well dressed, immaculately manicured young ladies like the one on the front. What you won’t find in this magazine are pictures of girls even slightly plump, girls with braces, girls with acne, girls horribly scared by self-cutting, punishing their bodies for not looking like the ones in this publication. Nor will you find the emaciated bodies of girls who have starved themselves half to death in hopes of fitting into the outfits this magazine advertises. The message is clear: if you want to be beautiful, then you must look like this. Having raised two daughters of my own, I know only too well the toxic nature of this propaganda. Too many of our girls are starving and mutilating themselves in order to be considered beautiful, lovable and worthwhile because they have internalized our largely male fantasy driven standards of beauty. Let us name this demon “glamour.”

In addition to naming demons, exorcism requires that we tell them to “get the hell out of here.” If we want to speak the good news about Jesus to this generation, we need to speak a frank and uncompromising word against the voices screaming at our daughters and granddaughters that they are ugly and unlovable. Our girls, and everyone for that matter, need to know that neither Cosmo nor Victoria’s Secret have the last word on what is beautiful. Beauty is grounded in these words spoken at the baptismal font: “You are my beloved child.” No word to the contrary is to be countenanced, regardless the name of the devil speaking it.

Here is a bitter-sweet poem by Norman Dubie about some beautiful women formed by a community that values its members as an extension of itself. It is the beauty of sick and forsaken individuals caring for one another and finding therein a deeper, more profound and beautiful sense of self.

The Pennacesse Leper Colony[2] for Women, Cape Cod: 1922

The island, you mustn’t say, had only rocks and scrub pine;
Was on a blue, bright day like a blemish in this landscape.
And Charlotte who is frail and the youngest of us collects
Sticks and branches to start our fires, cries as they burn
Because they resemble most what she has lost
Or has little of: long fingers, her toes,
And a left arm gone past the elbow, soon clear to her shoulder.
She has the mouth of sea perch. Five of our sisters wear
Green hoods. You are touched by all of this, but not by us.
To be touched by us, to be kissed! Sometimes
We see couples rowing in the distance in yellow coats.

Sometimes they fish with handlines; we offend
Everyone who is offended most
And by everything and everyone. The five goats love us, though,
And live in our dark houses. When they are
Full with milk they climb the steps and beg that
They be milked. Their teats brush the steps and leave thick
Yellow trails of fresh milk. We are all females here.
Even the ghosts. We must wash, of course, in salt water,
But it smarts or maybe even hurts us. Often with a rope
Around her waist Anne is lowered entirely into the water.
She splashes around and screams in pain. Her screams
Sometimes carry clear to the beaches on the Cape.

For us I say so often. For us we say. For us! We are
Human and not individual, we hold everything in common.
We are individual, you could pick us out in a crowd.
You did. This island is not our prison. We are not kept
In; not even by our skin.

Once Anne said she would love to be a Negro or a trout.

We live without you. Father, I don’t know why I have written
You all this; but be proud for I am living, and yet each day
I am less and less your flesh. Someday, eventually, you
Should only think of me as being a lightning bug on the lawn,
Or the Negro fishing at the pond, or the fat trout he wraps
In leaves that he is showing to someone. I’ll be

Most everything for you. And I’ll be gone.

Source: The Mercy Seat: Collected & New Poems 1967-2001 (c. 2001, Copper Canyon Press). Norman Dubie (b. 1945) is an American poet born in Barre, Vermont. He is the author of twenty-eight collections of poetry. Dubie is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Bess Hokin Prize from Poetry Magazine and the Modern Poetry Association and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award. He currently teaches in the graduate Creative Writing Program of Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. You can read more about Norman Dubie and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Recall that this was precisely the indignity that befell the “Prodigal Son.” Luke 15:15-15.

[2] In 1905, Penikese (spelled by the poet “Pennacesse”) Island in Buzzard’s Bay off Cape Cod was designated as the site of the first (and only) leper colony in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Throughout its sixteen years of operation, thirty-six victims of Hansen’s disease, commonly referred to as leprosy, lived on the isolated island with a handful of caregivers. The onsite doctor, Frank Parker, M.D. and his wife, Marion, went to great lengths to make their patients comfortable. Their small staff provided good food, fresh air, exercise, entertainment and nursing. At that time, the disease bore the curse of stigma and social ostracism, largely due to public belief that it was highly contagious. The Penikese colony closed in 1922.


Putting in a Good Word for Dogma

See the source imageHOLY TRINITY SUNDAY

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Psalm 8
Romans 5:1-5
John 16:12-15

Prayer of the Day: Almighty Creator and ever-living God: we worship your glory, eternal Three-in-One, and we praise your power, majestic One-in-Three. Keep us steadfast in this faith, defend us in all adversity, and bring us at last into your presence, where you live in endless joy and love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Trinity Sunday is the one and only festival of the church year that celebrates an ecclesiastical dogma apart from any particular biblical narrative. Although the term “trinity” does not appear in the Scriptures, this way of articulating the scriptural witness to God grew out of centuries of reflection by the church’s greatest pastors, theologians and teachers. The doctrine of the Trinity represents the church’s best effort to articulate the mystery of the God revealed in the Bible. That articulation is not simple or easily understood. From time to time, the church has been confronted with easier, more seemingly straightforward and understandable ways of explaining the relationship between God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. These were rejected because theories that are simple and easy frequently fail to capture the depth, goodness and beauty of our enormously complex and mysterious God.

The term “dogma” has acquired an unsavory reputation over the last century. If somebody calls you “dogmatic” it is almost certainly not a complement. Dogma is popularly associated with dry, outdated and uninspired religious, political or ideological precepts. Dogmatic people, in common parlance, are ridged, narrow-minded and intolerant individuals with an annoying propensity for imposing their stuffy opinions on others. I suspect we all know people like that. I am not defending them or their conduct. I believe, however, that we need to define our terms more carefully to ensure that we are gunning for the right target.

The word dogma literally means “teaching” and one who possesses dogma is one who has been taught. Unless you think there is some virtue in ignorance, you should not be speaking ill of dogma. Being taught is not always a pleasant experience. I frequently hear people say that they don’t want to be part of a religion that “rams its teachings down their throats.” I can relate. When I was kid, my parents and teachers rammed a good many things down my throat that I wasn’t interested in learning-like math, reading, good manners and the like. Thankfully, I was surrounded by mentors that knew better than me what I needed to learn and cared enough about me to see that I learned it-like it or no.

When I was a freshman in college, I had the good fortune to wind up in Professor S’s Old Testament History class. Professor S was a hard driving instructor with high standards. Very early on in the course, a young woman raised her hand and said, “Professor S, with all that is going on today in the world, I just don’t see how any of this is relevant to our lives.” Professor S asked in a measured tone, “May I have the privilege of knowing your name.”

“It’s Janet Jones,”[1] the student replied.

“Well, then Ms. Jones,” Professor S went on, “You are not yet at the point where you have the first idea what is and is not relevant and you are clearly not ready to have the conversation with me that you would like to have. But you are obviously bright, passionate and intelligent. If you develop the patience to listen, learn and understand, I have no doubt that one day you will have something meaningful to say to me. That time is not yet.”

You might think that was a bit arrogant and off putting. Perhaps it wasn’t the best pedagogical approach Professor S might have taken under these circumstances. There are probably better ways to make your point than by humiliating people. That aside, Professor S makes an important point, namely, that anything worth knowing takes time, patience and effort to learn. Moreover, you can’t expect to converse on a complex subject you have not taken the time to learn.

All teachers worth their salt correct their students when they are wrong, chide them when their work is less than satisfactory and push them to take their learning beyond what is necessary simply to receive a passing grade. Learning is a life long task and dogma, so far from being a finite set of precepts to be learned by rote, is a growing body of knowledge upon which further learning builds. Dogma is always reinterpreting what has been learned, expanding upon what is known and pushing forward into the unknown. So says Jesus in our gospel lesson for this Sunday:

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” John 16:12-15.

Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will guide his disciples “into all the truth” indicates that they do not yet possess “all the truth.” They must be taught the truth and this “teaching” (dogma) will occur over time. Of course, the Spirit does not begin with a blank slate. God revealed God’s self to Sarah and Abraham when God called them to leave behind everything familiar to pursue the promise of a land, a people and a blessing. God revealed God’s self to Israel through its liberation from slavery in Egypt by the words and acts of Moses. God spoke through the prophets and, in the fullness of time, God revealed God’s self in Jesus, the Word made flesh. This is the dogma, the core of the church’s teaching that must be learned in light of two millennia of the church’s reflection and interpretation. It is helpful, I believe, to think of dogma as the language of faith the Spirit uses to guide each generation of the church “into all the truth.”

Education begins with learning to speak. Those of us who have learned or tried to learn another language understand that it is tedious work in the beginning. Learning the rules of grammar and memorizing vocabulary is mind numbingly boring. But it is absolutely essential if you want to arrive at the point where you can converse with people who speak the language and read the great works of literature produced in that language. If you are not willing to do the hard work of mastering a country’s language, then you will forever be struggling with a few words, rudimentary phrases and inarticulate sign language simply to find a bathroom. You are unlikely ever to feel at home, develop deep friendships or learn to conduct everyday transactions with confidence. So, too, faith without dogma is doomed to remain forever shallow and to fumble along in perpetual immaturity.

For that reason, I don’t much care that people with no faith background walk into our sanctuaries and find what we are doing incomprehensible. I don’t worry that our worship is hard for novices to follow. I think we need to stop apologizing for the fact that our language of faith and its expression is deep, nuanced, complex and difficult to learn. Biologists don’t apologize for the complexity of DNA. Physicists don’t apologize for the complexity of quantum mechanics. So why should we be chagrined because someone who walks in off the street complains that they can’t figure out how to follow the liturgy through which we praise the Triune God? Why should we tie ourselves in knots because somebody says they “can’t relate to all of our God talk?” I can’t relate to Mandarin. If I want to understand it, the burden is on me to learn it. To be sure, that would be a difficult undertaking requiring from me a good deal of time, effort and sacrifice. But that is no fault of the Chinese.

Yes, I understand that our churches are to be welcoming communities. I am not suggesting that we should make worship unnecessarily difficult by forcing worshipers to follow the liturgy through three different books and two separate pamphlets. I also understand that loving our neighbors and working together with them to build a more hopeful future does not require that we indoctrinate or convert them. I am perfectly content for people to be involved in the life and mission of the church at whatever level of commitment and understanding they bring. But I don’t think we are being honest with the people we encounter or faithful to our Lord when we substitute entertainment for worship, offer dumbed down sermons filled with profanity and colloquialisms, third grade level liturgy, musically mediocre and lyrically banal hymns all in the hope of making our faith simple and attractive enough for public consumption. A faith shallow enough to pick up in forty-five minutes probably isn’t not worth having. It takes more than a lifetime for the Spirit to lead one into all truth.

We owe everyone who darkens the door of our sanctuaries a liturgy that evokes imagination, creeds that draw us to the precipice of mystery, sermons that leave us with more questions than answers and prayer that reaches to the depths and complexities of our souls. Church on Sunday morning is no place for the incurious and intellectually lazy. Jesus calls upon us to love God with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Matthew 22:37. Participation in something so profound as worship of the Triune God requires one to learn the language of our faith-dogma. There is no shortcut.

What goes for our faith applies equally to everything else. Our lesson from Proverbs calls us into to a holy curiosity about all aspects of life. The psalmist invites us to reflect on the heavens, the moon, the stars and the place of our own human race in the midst of this marvelous universe. We are challenged to cultivate an inquisitive spirit that pries beneath the surface of everything coming into view. To be sure, we are not all specialists in the various fields of science, mathematics, economics and other areas of learning. Nevertheless, these are realms where wisdom beckons us to apply our understanding, however limited it might be. To dismiss these varied and marvelous opportunities for learning more about ourselves and our world as being beyond the scope of our interest or irrelevant to our lives is to disrespect our Creator and spurn the “call of wisdom.” It is, in short, to be a fool.[2]

Here is a poem by Michael J. Bugeja expressing some divine Trinitarian curiosity. I cited this same poem last year for Trinity Sunday and do so again because I believe it captures the nature of dogma as that foundation from which we exercise our imagination, direct our curiosity and build upon our knowledge.


  1. God

You have distinct dimensions. They are we:
Encyclopedias and alphabets
Of the Big Bang, exobiology,
Inhabitants on multitudes of planets.

Our light cannot escape your gravity.
The soul is linked to yours, a diode
Through which we must return as energy
Until we flare like red suns, and explode:

We try to reconstruct you with an ode
Or explicate your essence line by line.
We canonize commandments like code
Etched within the DNA. If we are divine,

Composing simple poems, making rhymes,
Then what are others in this paradigm?

  1. Son

Then what are others in this paradigm
If not superior? We’re grains of sand.
You have a billion planets to command
With technologies that attained their prime
Before we left the alluvial slime
For land and land for trees and trees for land
Again. These chosen beings went beyond
The boundaries and laws of space and time
To greater meccas. What miracles do
They require? How many stars, their Magi?
Who, their Pilot? When, their Armageddon?
Are we made in God’s image and they too?
Do you save sinners on Alpha Centauri?
All the nebular rosaries of heaven?

III. Spirit

All the nebular rosaries of heaven
Are bound by the lace of your cosmic string.
The unifying force, interwoven
In the clockwork of space-time, is a spring:

One movement we live here and the next, there.
The universe has edges of which
No one will fall. Because you’re everywhere,
Its seam appears the same from every stitch:

The Father sparks the singularity.
We breed like godseed in the firmament.
The Son forgives so that eternity,
Your sole domain, becomes self-evident:

Together you complete the trinity.
You have distinct dimensions: they are we.

Source: Poetry, March 1994, pp. 316-317. Michael J. Bugeja was born in Hackensack, New Jersey and received his B. A. from St. Peter’s College. He earned his M.S. from South Dakota State University and a Ph.D. from Oklahoma State University. He currently teaches magazine writing and ethics at Ohio University at Athens, Ohio. He has published several collections of poetry and was a recipient of the National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship for Fiction. He was also named honorary chancellor of the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. You can learn more about Michael J. Bugeja at this Amazon link and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Obviously, a fictitious name. I haven’t the foggiest recollection of what her real name is and wouldn’t disclose it if I did.

[2] It also goes a long way toward explaining how a twenty-first century democracy could elect as its leader a man so thoroughly ignorant as to believe that vaccines cause autism and windmills cause cancer! In the immortal words of Forrest Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does.”

On Making a Name

Pentecost Bulletin Cover 2SUNDAY OF PENTECOST

Genesis 11:1-9
Psalm 104:24-34, 35
Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-27

Prayer of the Day: God our creator, the resurrection of your Son offers life to all the peoples of earth. By your Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love, empowering our lives for service and our tongues for praise, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:25-27.

The lessons for Pentecost juxtapose two types of naming. In our reading from Genesis, the peoples of the world are determined to make a name for themselves. They are concerned lest they be “scattered abroad upon the face of the earth.” They are frightened by the prospect of losing their national identity, losing their homeland, losing their language and culture. They fear that their nation will become diluted to the point where it is no longer recognizable. So, they decide to build the biggest city and the biggest tower imaginable, a tower with “its top in the heavens.”[1]

The fear of “being scattered abroad on the face of the whole earth,” of being culturally diluted and racially contaminated is very much alive and well these days. It is being everywhere exploited by leaders eager to “make a name for themselves” and their tribes. The United Kingdom’s vote to withdraw from the European Union seems to have been driven in large part by xenophobic fears of immigration and a loss of national identity. Donald Trump rode to victory in 2016 on an electoral tidal wave of racial hate and resentment under the nationalistic howl of “America first.” Last year, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, whose campaign was driven by nationalistic and anti-Islamic rhetoric, won a sweeping victory in national elections. Italy, under Matteo Salvini and his Northern League, has long been moving to ever more extreme nationalistic, anti-migrant policies. Last Sunday, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National rode a wave of nationalist sentiment to win a majority of the vote in France’s election to the European Parliament.

Over against this spirit of self promotion and self preservation behind the people of Babel’s desire to make a name for themselves, our gospel lesson brings us to Jesus on the eve of his crucifixion promising to send a quite different Spirit through the name that God is establishing for him. Judas asks Jesus why he does not show himself to the world as he has revealed himself to his disciples. That is a reasonable question.  If it is for the salvation of the world that Jesus came, shouldn’t Jesus be promoting himself to the world? Shouldn’t he be trying to “make a name for himself?” Jesus’ answer is that God is making a name for him and that God will manifest Jesus to the world. But God will not do so through any show of force. Jesus is revealed in the lives of his disciples who are to receive the Spirit of God that will enable them to practice the new commandment to love one another as they have been loved. As we learn in John 17, the love that binds the Trinity as one will be the glue holding together the community of Jesus. The church is to be a sign and a mediator of God’s love for the cosmos. That is how God makes a name for Jesus.

Our lesson from the Book of Acts puts shoe leather on Jesus’ words. Here the nations represented by their various tongues are brought together by the Spirit of God. This marvelous story puts the lie to fears of cultural dilution and national extinction brought about by cultural diversity. To the contrary, each nation becomes more than what it is, richer than what it was and greater than it could ever be on its own when grafted with all other nations, tribes and peoples into the fabric of God’s new creation under the gentle reign of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit is able to unite us in spite of our diversity and enrich our existence precisely because of it. This bold promise of Pentecost assures a world on the brink of disintegration that the Spirit of oneness holding it together is mightier than the spirits of nationalism, racism and tribalism threatening to pull it apart.

Here is a poem by Bob Kaufman urging us to believe in the signs of hope, beauty and renewal that are the hallmarks of God’s reign over cynical assessments of “conditions on the ground.”

Believe, Believe

Believe in this. Young apple seeds,
In blue skies, radiating young breast,
Not in blue-suited insects,
Infesting society’s garments.
Believe in the swinging sounds of jazz,
Tearing the night into intricate shreds,
Putting it back together again,
In cool logical patterns,
Not in the sick controllers,
Who created only the Bomb.
Let the voices of dead poets
Ring louder in your ears
Than the screechings mouthed
In mildewed editorials.
Listen to the music of centuries,
Rising above the mushroom time.

Source: Cranial Guitar (c. 1996 by Eileen Kaufman, pub. by Coffee House Press).  Bob Kaufman (1925 –1986)  was an American poet, jazz performance artist and satirist.  Born in New Orleans, he was the 10th of 13 children born to an African American mother and Jewish father. He joined the United States Merchant Marine at the age of thirteen, but  left in the early 1940s to  study literature at New York’s  New School for Social Research. There he came under the influence of beat poets,  William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. In 1959, along with Ginsberg  and poets John Kelly, A. D. Winans, and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine where he also worked as an editor. You can read more about Bob Kaufman and sample more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] From primeval times we are warned against people with fixations on building huge cities, towers and walls.