Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Righteous Shall Live by Faith-because it’s the Only Way the Righteous Can Live


Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
Psalm 37:1-9
2 Timothy 1:1-14
Luke 17:5-10

Prayer of the Day: Benevolent, merciful God: When we are empty, fill us. When we are weak in faith, strengthen us. When we are cold in love, warm us, that with fervor we may love our neighbors and serve them for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

This week’s lessons are a hot mess of contradiction. On one hand, the psalmist’s confident assertion that those who “trust in the Lord and do good…will live in the land, and enjoy security.” Psalm 37:3. On the other, the cries of Habakkuk protesting the reign of  senseless violence, cruelty and injustice. In the psalmist’s world, righteousness is rewarded with safety, health, wealth and long life. The wicked “will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.” Psalm 37:2. But the experience of Habakkuk does not comport with this rosy picture. Habakkuk lived and preached during the period of  Babylonian domination over the Southern Kingdom of Judah. He witnessed the selfishness and corruption of Judah’s leaders that finally led to the small kingdom’s loss of its land and its temple. He saw first hand the brutality of the conquering Babylonian army as it systematically destroyed his nation. In response to this ocean of blood letting and cruelty, often visited upon the innocent and that, in any event, seems out of all proportion to any sin anyone might have committed, the prophet has this to say:

Why do you make me see wrongdoing
and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
therefore judgement comes forth perverted. Habakkuk 1:3-4.

So, who are we to believe? Whose words ring true? Those of the prophet or those of the psalmist? Perhaps both of these biblical witnesses speak truthfully. Practicing honesty, integrity and compassion do lead to a better life-at least often enough that we encourage our children to work hard, tell the truth, play fair and be kind. In a society where justice is prized, righteousness is rewarded. But what happens when the institutions of government become instruments of oppression? What happens when commerce is driven by human greed rather than harnessed to meet human need? What happens when partisan lies become the coin of public discourse? What happens when white supremacy, patriarchy and nationalism are systemically imbedded in the foundations of government, education and the workplace? In the words of another psalmist, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Psalm 11:3.

It is hard to teach your children kindness and compassion when you are compelled to send them each day into a school plagued by bullying and violence. It is hard for employers to treat their employees justly when they must choose between terminating an otherwise productive employee or ceasing to provide health insurance for all employees. It is hard for judges to administer justice where law enforcement systematically singles out persons of color for prosecution. Righteousness is not a solo act. In a sense, no individual can be anymore righteous than the community of which s/he is a member. Habakkuk is speaking to a context in which “the foundations are destroyed.” So, the question is, how can the righteous live justly in such an unjust world?

The answer given to the prophet’s question is this: “the righteous live by their faith.” Habakkuk 2:4. That brings us to the gospel lesson where the disciples implore Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Luke 17:5. The lectionary has failed us here by omitting verses 1-4 of Chapter 17 in which Jesus describes the kind of community required for persons to live righteously:

Jesus said to his disciples, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent”, you must forgive.’”

This sounds very much like a twelve-step community in which each member takes on the responsibility of ensuring the sobriety of the other. Under no circumstances must any “stumbling block” be placed in the path of another that might lead to relapse. Moreover, because the possibility of relapse exists for each member, the health of the community requires that forgiveness and acceptance be the rule.

It should be obvious that life in such a community of recovering sinners requires faith. It requires faith in the redemptive presence of God’s Spirit that never gives up on anyone. It requires faith that each member of the community, however recalcitrant, annoying and seemingly disruptive, has been claimed by Christ and is present because s/he is precisely the one God needs to help build the mind of Christ within that community. It requires faith because the community might not recognize, appreciate or even desire the gifts you bring to it, much less reward you for your efforts. You might never see any positive results for the work you do or get the recognition you feel you deserve. But that shouldn’t matter. What matters is that God is at work and you are privileged to share in that work. That’s as much reward as is needed and can be expected.

The church exists to bear witness to a better way of being human, showing the world the kind of community required for people to live righteously. To be sure, the church is not a perfect community made up of better people. It is rather a gathering of people who know they have become intoxicated by the false values of a society whose foundations are cracked. They are gathered to help each other gain and maintain sobriety in a world drunk on selfishness, greed, violence and hateful ideologies. They are gathered to live under the gentle reign of God which, in a violent world, necessarily takes the shape of the cross. The cross is what righteousness looks like in an unrighteous world. The righteous live by faith because, where the foundations are destroyed, there is no other way to live.

It being Rosh-Hashanah, I thought it appropriate to cite this poem by Emma Lazarus who plumbs the depths of this ancient Jewish observance and the strong, stubborn, resilient faith it represents. It speaks, I believe, about the kind of faith for which Jesus calls in our gospel lesson.

The New Year

Rosh-Hashanah, 5643

Not while the snow-shroud round dead earth is rolled,

And naked branches point to frozen skies.—
When orchards burn their lamps of fiery gold,
The grape glows like a jewel, and the corn
A sea of beauty and abundance lies,
Then the new year is born.

Look where the mother of the months uplifts
In the green clearness of the unsunned West,
Her ivory horn of plenty, dropping gifts,
Cool, harvest-feeding dews, fine-winnowed light;
Tired labor with fruition, joy and rest
Profusely to requite.

Blow, Israel, the sacred cornet! Call
Back to thy courts whatever faint heart throb
With thine ancestral blood, thy need craves all.
The red, dark year is dead, the year just born
Leads on from anguish wrought by priest and mob,
To what undreamed-of morn?

For never yet, since on the holy height,
The Temple’s marble walls of white and green
Carved like the sea-waves, fell, and the world’s light
Went out in darkness,—never was the year
Greater with portent and with promise seen,
Than this eve now and here.

Even as the Prophet promised, so your tent
Hath been enlarged unto earth’s farthest rim.
To snow-capped Sierras from vast steppes ye went,
Through fire and blood and tempest-tossing wave,
For freedom to proclaim and worship Him,
Mighty to slay and save.

High above flood and fire ye held the scroll,
Out of the depths ye published still the Word.
No bodily pang had power to swerve your soul:
Ye, in a cynic age of crumbling faiths,
Lived to bear witness to the living Lord,
Or died a thousand deaths.

In two divided streams the exiles part,
One rolling homeward to its ancient source,
One rushing sunward with fresh will, new heart.
By each the truth is spread, the law unfurled,
Each separate soul contains the nation’s force,
And both embrace the world.

Kindle the silver candle’s seven rays,
Offer the first fruits of the clustered bowers,
The garnered spoil of bees. With prayer and praise
Rejoice that once more tried, once more we prove
How strength of supreme suffering still is ours
For Truth and Law and Love.

Source: Emma Lazarus: Selected Poems and Other Writings, (c. 2002 by Broadview Press) Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) is most famous for the words of her poem, The New Colossus inscribed on the base of the Statute of Liberty.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

She was one of the first successful and publicly recognized Jewish American authors. Lazarus was born in New York City to a wealthy family. She began writing and translating poetry as a teenager and was publishing translations of German poems by the 1860s. Lazarus was moved by the fierce persecution of her people in Russia, a frequent topic of her writings, as well as their struggles to assimilate into American culture. You can sample more of Emma Lazarus’ poetry and read more about her at the Poetry Foundation website.

Dune Grass and the Great Chasm


Amos 6:1a, 4-7
Psalm 146
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

Prayer of the Day: O God, rich in mercy, you look with compassion on this troubled world. Feed us with your grace, and grant us the treasure that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“If we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” I Timothy 6:8.

The plant in the above picture is dune grass. This photo was taken yesterday afternoon at LeCount Hollow beach on Cape Cod. Dune grass is sometimes improperly referred to as “poverty grass.” The misnomer is understandable. Like poverty grass, dune grass grows and thrives in nutrient poor soil where no other land plant can survive. It is commonly found, as here, on bare sand just inches above the tideline. I think it provides a helpful metaphor and lens through which to view this Sunday’s lessons, all of which focus on poverty and its antithesis, wealth. I will come back to that shortly. But first, a few observations about the gospel lesson.

This parable of Jesus is commonly referred to as “Lazarus and Dives.” The title contains yet another misnomer. “Dives” is not a proper name but only the Latin word used in the Vulgate translation of the New Testament for “rich.” In any event, I think a more apt title might be “The Great Chasm,” referring, of course, to the chasm separating Lazarus resting in the bosom of Father Abraham from the rich man burning in the garbage dump of Hades. It is important to recognize that this “great chasm” did not originate in the afterlife nor was it of God’s making. The rich man constructed this great chasm on his own when he first settled into his gated community, a community where he could live a sheltered life, untroubled by the sight of beggars. The chasm grew each time he was driven through the central city to his office in a black limo behind tinted windows with the silk drapes drawn against the wreckage of ruined neighborhoods. It grew each time he met the plaintive gaze of Lazarus lying at his gate, quickened his pace and walked through his door without making eye contact. Now, in the afterlife, that chasm is still there-only the rich man and Lazarus are on opposite sides. The great reversal foretold in Mary’s Magnificat has come to pass:

“[God] has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.” Luke 1:51-53.

You might think the rich man would have gotten the point, but he remains clueless. Even as he sits burning in the in the city garbage dump, he still thinks he is important. He still imagines that he is in a position to fraternize with Father Abraham. He still thinks Lazarus is his “boy” who can be ordered to “fetch” him a drink. Even after Abraham explains the situation to him, the rich man continues pressing for special favors, imploring the patriarch to send Lazarus to his errant brothers with a warning of the fate awaiting them also. This last request, illustrating once again the man’s arrogance and obtuseness, is unnecessary. “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them,” says Abraham. “No, father Abraham,” the fool protests, “but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

Of course, we can’t miss the final irony in the rich man’s last plea. We know that someone has risen from the dead. Tragically, though, Abraham’s words have proven themselves. Two millennia later the chasm we have constructed between rich and poor remains and, if anything, it has gotten wider and more difficult to traverse. Nearly one half of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty — less than $1.25 a day. One billion children worldwide are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, twenty-two thousand children die each day due to poverty. See Global Issues website. These are, of course, only numbers. We don’t see the names and the faces, nor do we hear the stories behind such soulless statistics. They are safely buried under neatly drawn graphs and pie charts, far away on the other side of the chasm.

It is all too tempting to use this text as a platform from which to launch an attack on the proverbial 1%, that is, the very few who control the majority of the world’s wealth. These, after all, are the “rich.” That term surely does not include those of us who slog to work five days a week or more for the better part of our lives just to pay for the roof over our heads, educate our children and scrape together enough savings to see us through the last years of our lives. But in our second lesson, the Apostle Paul expresses a different view of what constitutes excessive wealth. “If we have food and clothing,” he says, “we will be content with these.” I Timothy 6:8. Needless to say that I, along with most of the people to whom I preach, live far above Paul’s baseline. And though the only physical commodity for which Jesus commands us to pray is enough bread for the day, most of us have been raised to pursue the nirvana of “financial security.” How do we defend living well above Paul’s baseline when so many are compelled to live far below it? The sobering truth confronting us in Jesus’ parable, in the words of the prophet Amos and the teaching of the Apostle is that wealth has a powerful death grip on our souls. It is hardening our hearts, making us blind to our poor neighbors and deaf to their cries.

Before we can hope to call the world to repentance and to compassion for what it considers “the least” among us, we need to face up to the truth about our own sordid relationship to wealth. We need to acknowledge that, at the deepest level, we are hoarders. Clinically speaking, hoarders are individuals who experience persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions, leading to clutter that disrupts their ability to use their living or work spaces. On a spiritual plane, our obsession with accumulating wealth disrupts our relationship to our planet and to our neighbors. It is also the biggest obstacle to discipleship that we Christians in America encounter. Hoarding is a peculiarly human behavior. Animals typically do not overeat, accumulate more than they need or hunt other species to extinction. If they have any concept at all of tomorrow, it doesn’t figure into their behavior today.  Animals seem to have a primal instinct leading them to be content when there is food at hand, water nearby and no predators on the horizon. That ought to be enough, and it is enough for the ravens and for the grass of the fields. Luke 12:24-28. Along with godliness, says Paul, such “contentment” is “great gain.” I Timothy 6:6.

That brings me back to the dune grass. This hardy plant thrives where no plant should be able to live. It seems almost to delight in the poverty of its harsh environment, finding just enough of what it needs. Dune grass faces with a gleeful defiance the brutal wind from off the ocean and the briny moisture inflicted upon it. There are people like that too, though few in number. These unique individuals find similar contentment in “baseline” living. Saint Paul was one of them. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have,” says Paul. “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” Philippians 4:11-12. Saint Francis of Assisi was another such person. He also rejoiced in living day-to-day, receiving charity shamelessly and thankfully when in want, but giving cheerfully and generously when blessed with abundance. So, too, there continue to be Anabaptist communities like the Amish, monastic fellowships and other intentional Christian groups that find contentment in living simply and gently on the land, rejecting the American creed of contentment through accumulation and consumption. These witnesses testify to the better life God is able to give us-if only we can empty our hands to receive it.

If there is anyone with whom we ought to identify in Jesus’ parable, it is the brothers of the rich man. Like them, we are still alive. It is not too late for us to escape the heart hardening, soul crushing pursuit of success measured in terms of acquisition and financial security bought at the cost of impoverishing our neighbor. It is not too late for us to look past the veneer of our sheltered existence and see the people our consumptive lifestyle is destroying. It is not too late for us to begin dismantling the chasm our greed has built. Like the brothers, we have the words of Moses and the prophets calling us away from a life of greed and indifference into a life of compassion and generosity. More than that, we have the witness of the one who threw himself into the depths of that dreadful chasm and whom God raised from death. The chasm of callus indifference need not continue to define our relationships to one another, deadening souls on one side and crushing bodies on the other. It doesn’t have to be this way!

Here is a poem by John Reibetanz piercing the chasm of wealth and privilege to give us a glimpse of the human cost of our consumptive way of life.

Daily Bread

We have cried often when we have given them the little victualling we
had to give them; we had to shake them, and they have fallen to sleep
with the victuals in their mouths many a time.
(parent of children working at a textile mill, to an
1832 Parliamentary inquiry into child employment)


They cry for children too tired to cry for themselves,
daughters twelve, eleven, eight—eyes
shutting down as a grate’s banked coals shut down
at midnight, in the rising damp called ‘home.’
Too tired to eat after eighteen hours feeding
looms whose steel teeth grind insatiably,
the girls will be offered up again at dawn.

Yet they are the lucky ones, to work where skylights
hold swatches of the unaffordable blue.
Imagine these girls’ mine-trapped cousins, hauling
black rocks on sledges up tunnels of black air:
half-undressed, belted, harnessed, saturated
with the oil-blackened water they crawl through
pumping ‘the lifeblood of British industry.’

Flogged for talking, Margaret Comeley, aged
nine, can sometimes close her mouth around
a piece of muffin—if she manages
to keep it from the rats, ‘so ravenous
they eat the corks out of our oil-flasks.’
Sarah Gooder fills her mouth with song
‘when I’ve light, but not in the dark; I dare not then.’


Here is a working girl so filled with light
she is pure song: her sun-bright bodice shines
in counterpoint with her blue overskirt,
and, from her forehead’s crescent of white linen,
tapering light blazes a white path
down arms and wrists to folds of spread blue cloth,
like moonlight piloting the tide’s refrains.

A Dutch milkmaid, Tanneke Everpoel,
lucky enough to live in the Delft house
where Vermeer’s* eye and brush could catch the spill
of morning light as her brief peacefulness
brimmed over, serves here as a celebrant—
bread heaped up on the altar-like table,
wine transubstantiated into milk

whose brilliance seems the source of the room’s light
she pours forever from the earthenware’s
black core. His pose; yet—all hers—underneath it
(and signalled in her fixed eyes’ unconcern
for the beholder) such complete immersion
in what she does, that she is all she does
and it is she, this offering-up of day.

And he? When he was forty, the Sun King
invaded Holland. No one wanted art.
In debt to his baker for three years’ worth of bread,
Vermeer, according to his widow, falling
‘into a frenzy,’ passed ‘from being healthy’
in ‘a day or a day and a half … to being dead,’
‘the very great burden of his children … so taken to heart.’


Knowing the earth is closer to the sun
in winter won’t revive the street person
sleeping towards cold death in a bus shelter.
Bread in a painting won’t cure stomach ache.
So Margaret dragged her great burden of coal
while Sarah sat terrified in the dark,
and neither knew Vermeer’s poised working girl,

broke bread with her, shared her breaking light.
The painting stood by, helpless to save them
or him, and looking at it now cannot
help anyone. Yet, it can cry for them,
as parents take their children’s grief to heart:
the beads of salt, shimmering on the bread
like diamonds, can be tears the two girls shed

down where no light sang their preciousness.
The cradled pitcher’s brim can be their hearth,
since it (and not the sky’s cold mine of stars)
pours out what cannot shelter us, but feeds
a hunger no daily bread can fill: for light—
light that, like coal, comes from our earth; hunger
that, unlike grief, is inexhaustible.

* Johannes Vermeer  (1632 – 1675) was a painter of the Dutch Baroque period. He specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle class life.  The reference here is to one of his paintings entitled “The Milkmaid.”

Source: Mining for Sun (c. 2000 by John Reibetanz , pub. by Brick Books). John Reibetanz (b. 1944) was born in New York City and grew up in the eastern United States and Canada. He studied at Brooklyn College and Princeton University. He has published essays on Elizabethan drama and modern and contemporary poetry. He also authored a book on King Lear and translations of modern German poetry. Reibetanz has also written several of his own poems that have been published in the above cited work and in numerous other magazines and periodicals. Reibetanz currently lives in Toronto and is a Fellow at Victoria College. You can find out more about John Reibetanz and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.


I’ts Not the Economy, Stupid!


Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Prayer of the Day: God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another. Keep our feet from evil paths. Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“You cannot serve God and wealth.” Luke 16:13.

If you read the very next verse after the end of this Sunday’s gospel reading, you will discover that Jesus’ opponents, who were listening in on a parable directed to his disciples, “were lovers of money…and they ridiculed him.” Luke 16:14. Among those who ridicule Jesus might be former New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie  who took part in a “round table discussion” on ABC’s Good Morning America this Sunday. He made the point, and not for the first time, that however much the American people might dislike Donald Trump, they love the low unemployment rate and they love what the stock market is doing for their retirement accounts. That, says Christie, is what they will take into the voting booth, not, what for them, are distant and abstract issues like immigration or foreign policy. To put it in the words of a slogan dating back to the days of Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

This is all chillingly reminiscent of the attitude expressed by millions of Germans in the 1930s who, however much they might have disliked the vulgar and pretentious little corporal with the audacity to call himself “the Fuhrer,” nevertheless liked the creation of millions of new jobs, the rebuilding of decaying national infrastructure and the rebirth of patriotism under his reign. They, too, were less concerned about abstract issues like the “Jewish Question” and the nation’s drift toward militarism. It seems that, in the Governor’s view, the American people are as morally tone deaf as the crowds that cheered for the Nazis. In the end, says Christie, they will vote their pocket books. After all, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Jesus warns us that our fixation on the economy and reliance on the wealth it produces for us is misplaced. The economy is a notorious traitor. When corporate decides that the sporting goods store you work for could more profitably be closed, liquidated and the proceeds invested in a more promising sector of our booming economy, you learn that a good economy is not necessarily your friend. A healthy economy might promise you a comfortable retirement in your golden years. But if your next physical reveals a lump on your body that turns out to be malignant, there may be no golden years to enjoy. Money can’t do anything about that. Money can buy you a new swimming pool for your dream house, but it provides little consolation the day you find your toddler floating face down in the middle of it. For those who are willing to learn from history, the decades of misery suffered in Germany and throughout Europe during and after the Second World War should demonstrate how foolhardy it is to “vote your pocket book.” A self centered and myopic equation of security with wealth leads to destruction every time. It’s not the economy, stupid.

Jesus’ parable illustrates the point. This story is often given the title “The Dishonest Manager,” but I am not convinced that the manager was actually dishonest or even negligent. We are told only that “charges were brought to [his master] that this man was wasting his goods.” Luke 16:1. Those of us who have spent time in the corporate world know that when mistakes are made that hurt the bottom line, heads must roll. They are not necessarily the heads of those responsible. Lower sales figures might not be anyone’s fault, but there is no better way for a middle manager to show corporate that s/he is in charge and taking matters in hand than by fixing blame and firing people. That shows the people on top that you are holding your subordinates responsible and sends a message to your subordinates that you expect improved results. In any case, whether the manager in Jesus’ parable was dishonest, incompetent or merely a victim of someone else’s scheme to deflect blame, he has clearly learned one of life’s cruelest lessons: Corporate doesn’t care, not about you, your ailing spouse or your child with a serious medical condition. The bottom line is the only line that matters. Everybody else is expendable.

So, our hero, who just moments ago imagined himself firmly established among the proverbial 1%, suddenly finds himself among the other 99% without the skill sets needed to survive there. He responds by reducing the debts of his master’s creditors in the few hours he still has left in the office, hoping to ingratiate himself to them. One can read this cynically as a disgruntled employee’s final attempt to screw his boss on the way out the door. If that were the case, however, you would hardly expect the master to congratulate him on the cleverness of his fraudulent scheme. Can you imagine yourself admiring the skill of the thief who broke into your car? More likely, I think, the manager was writing off only his own commission on his master’s debts. That would have won him a debt of gratitude from the master’s creditors without decreasing the master’s accounts receivable.

Whatever conclusions you might draw about the manager’s actions and motives, the point here is that he has learned an important truth about the security wealth and privilege promise, namely, that such security is illusory. Genuine security comes not from wealth, but from one’s ties to a caring community. In the end, my own security is no better than my trust and confidence in my neighbor. My wellbeing is finally dependent on the wellbeing of my neighbor. The best way to achieve security is to work for the freedom, security and wellbeing of your neighbors. Losing sight of that fact and focusing solely on your own financial well being while your neighbors are being detained, separated from their families and deported is, well, stupid.

Here is one of my favorite poems speaking to our connectedness and our aching need for “Love beyond marital, filial, national, love that casts a widening pool of light…” It was composed by Elizabeth Alexander for Barack Obama’s Inauguration. How hard it is to believe that this day once dawned in the nation we have become.

Praise for the Day

Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other, catching each other’s
eyes or not, about to speak or speaking.

All about us is noise. All about us is
noise and bramble, thorn and din, each
one of our ancestors on our tongues.

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

Someone is trying to make music somewhere,
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum,
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.

A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky.
A teacher says, Take out your pencils. Begin.

We encounter each other in words, words
spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,
words to consider, reconsider.

We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of some one and then others, who said
I need to see what’s on the other side.

I know there’s something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Say it plain: that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,

picked the cotton and the lettuce, built
brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean and work inside of.

Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,
the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm or take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

Source: Praise Song for the Day, (c. 2009 by Elizabeth Alexander, pub. by Graywolf Press). Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem in 1962. She grew up on Washington, D.C., however, where her father, Clifford Alexander, served as United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman. She earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. Alexander is chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a professor of poetry at Yale University. She composed and read the above poem at President Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009. You can find out more about Elizabeth Alexander and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Senator Mitch McConnell Receives Russia’s Highest Honor

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

See the source imageThis week Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell was awarded a Hero of the Russian Federation medal, the highest honor bestowed on Russian citizens. Though the medal is usually awarded to Russians, a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin explained that “We have always regarded Mr. McConnell as one of us.” Mr. Putin himself presented the medal at a special ceremony in Moscow. “We could not have won the 2016 election without your loyal support,” Mr. Putin told a cheering Duma. “You have more than earned the honorary title, ‘Moscow Mitch.’” The Russian leader pointed out that Mr. McConnell’s resistance to the Obama administration’s request to launch bipartisan interference with his country’s generous assistance for America’s 2016 presidential election was instrumental in “giving us the best United States president Russia ever had.”

Upon his return to the U.S., Mr. McConnell was swarmed with reporters questioning the propriety of his acceptance of the medal. Mr. McConnell lashed out at what he termed “the McCarthyism of the left wing media.” Brushing off an inquisitive press and criticism from his colleagues in the Senate, the Senator replied, “This is what we’re up against with the hard left today in America. These people are lying, lying when they dismiss the work that I’ve done to secure our democracy for real Americans against that congressional “squad” of radical socialists who are only fake Americans. They’re lying when they insist I have personally blocked actions to protect American freedom. Those idiots don’t even know what freedom is! I know first hand what it is like to lose your freedoms. My state of Kentucky has been the victim of tyranny under liberals for decades. Since the 1960s, activist liberal judges have been imposing their perverse ideas of racial equality on our people, robbing real Americans of their drinking fountains, their lunch counters and parks. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect America from more injustice like that and support the president in making it great again, like it was before all this nonsense started. We joined with the Russians against the Nazis in World War II and we will join with them again against the Democrats.”

Many congressional leaders, including a few Republicans, pointed out that Mr. McConnell had not received authorization from the president or his national security staff before attending the presentation ceremony in Moscow. “Nonsense,” replied a spokesperson for Mr. McConnell. “Mitch would never have taken this trip without his president’s approval. Mr. Putin has been supportive of the Senator’s visit from the get go.”


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

Can Prayer Change God’s Mind?


Exodus 32:7-14
Psalm 51:1-10
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10

Prayer of the Day: O God, overflowing with mercy and compassion, you lead back to yourself all those who go astray. Preserve your people in your loving care, that we may reject whatever is contrary to you and may follow all things that sustain our life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Pastor,” said the apprehensive voice on the other end of the line, “please pray for my Dad. He’s had a heart attack and he’s in the hospital.” This from a woman who had told me only a few days before how she believed that “God has a plan for everyone’s life. He decides when you are born and when you die.” That belief, she told me, brought her great comfort and confidence. “Nothing can happen that God has not already planned,” she told me. I wondered, then, why bother to pray? If everything in the life of this woman’s father has been foreordained, then there is no point in praying. If this was to be his time, he would die. If not, he would recover. No amount of prayer could possibly change anything.

Of course, I told my friend that I would both pray for and visit her father in the hospital. Now was not the time to start a discussion probing the theological fault lines in her faith. Still, I wondered how it was possible to hold these two seemingly contradictory beliefs in common: 1) God foreordains everything in a believer’s life; 2) God answers prayer.

Our lesson from Exodus fully supports the second proposition, namely, that God is influenced by prayer. Indeed, God’s mind can be changed by prayer. God seems to have been determined to make an end of Israel once and for all following their idolatrous worship of the golden calf. If the miracle of the Exodus could not inspire faith in God’s promises and demonstrate the futility of trusting idols like the gods of Egypt, what would? What more could God do to win the hearts of God’s people? What was left other than to scrap the whole project and start again from scratch? But then Moses lifts up the covenant God made with Abraham, Sarah and the other matriarchs and patriarchs. Moses appeals to God’s faithfulness, God’s compassion and the importance of God’s completing with Israel what was started so long ago. God then changes God’s mind and changes course. Moses’ prayer was efficacious.

But there is also scriptural support for the first proposition, namely, that God ordains the outcome of all things and that God’s will invariably prevails. Consider these verses from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:

I am God, and there is no one like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My purpose shall stand,
and I will fulfil my intention’,
calling a bird of prey from the east,
the man for my purpose from a far country.
I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass;
I have planned, and I will do it. Isaiah 46:9-11.

Or these words from Psalm 139:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.


In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. Psalm 139: 1-4;16

So, too, Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians states that God “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.” Ephesians 1:4. Thus, the paradox residing in my friend’s faith is actually rooted in the scriptures. How, then, do we make sense out of the seeming contradiction between the omnipotent sovereignty of God and the efficaciousness of prayer?

If there is any resolution, it lies in the Triune nature of God whose essence is love: love between the Father and the Son embodied by the Spirit. Genuine love is necessarily open to the influence of its object. It is hard to imagine how a parent can love a child without being shaped, influenced and, more than occasionally, made to change course by that child’s needs, requests and opinions. In one sense, you could say that God ceased to be almighty the moment God spoke the words, “Let there be.” For once these words were spoken, something else, something that was not God existed. In the words of one of our hymns, the Trinity “in love and hope made room within their dance” for another partner. “Come Join the Dance of Trinity,” by Richard Leach, Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 412. Like a child, the universe must have freedom, within certain protective parameters, to grow and develop into maturity. The creation is not the Creator’s still life painting. It is a complex, living, dynamic organism ever capable of mutating, for better or worse, into a new thing with different needs, unanticipated potential and a wealth of possibilities.

In what sense, then, can it be said (if at all) that God foreordains all things? Again, the answer must be grounded in God’s nature as Trinitarian love. As St. Paul reminds us, “love is patient…love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” and “love never ends.” I Corinthians 13: 4; 7-8. We are accustomed to thinking of power as the ability to control outcomes by way of coercion. Powerful people are those who can “get things done” by means of persuasion, threats or, if necessary, brute force. But in Christ Jesus God manifests a qualitatively different kind of power-the power of infinite patience, the power of infinite perseverance, the power of infinite commitment to recovering all that has been lost and weaving it into the fabric of a new creation.

To be sure, God’s reign can be resisted, frustrated and, in the short run, defeated. But God is not deterred by setbacks and failure. God, who has all eternity to work with, takes whatever the world throws up and works with it. Taking into Godself our accomplishments, failures, acts of compassion, acts of pure meanness and, yes, our prayers, God performs the work of reconciling all things in Christ Jesus. God will continue so doing until our stubborn resistance is finally worn down by God’s never ending Trinitarian love. Our petitions of thanksgiving, intercession and lamentation are important parts of the stuff God makes use of in redeeming creation.

I think Martin Luther said it best in our Small Catechism: “The Kingdom of God comes without our prayer, but we pray that it may come among us.” God does not need our prayers or anything else from us to establish God’s reign. But God loves us too much to allow us to be passive observers. God invites us to be active participants in God’s gracious reign so that it becomes not a distant hope, but a present reality in the midst of a troubled world. Prayer takes us into the heart of God’s struggle to overcome the world’s hostility through Christ’s ministry of seeking the lost. While prayer cannot be used to manipulate God into giving us the results we want, it clearly influences God’s faithful and redemptive work in our lives and in our world.

Prayer has a transformative power, particularly when employed on behalf of the marginalized, the persecuted, the forgotten and the lost. Our gospel lesson comes from a chapter in Luke heavily focusing on the lost: lost coins, lost sheep, lost sons, lost sinners who many people feel aren’t worth looking for and righteous people too blind to realize they are lost. Below is a poem by Scott Cairns purporting to be God’s answer to our prayers. It points out how self-centered and how limited in scope our prayers often are. Yet it challenges us to deepen our prayer life and harmonize it with God’s own zeal for recovering “the lost.”

Possible Answers to Prayer

Your petitions—though they continue to bear
just the one signature—have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties—despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value—nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance—all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment—is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you—

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passions.

Source: Philokalia: New and Selected Poems. (c. 2002 by Scott Cairns, pub. by Zoo Press). Scott Cairns (b. 1954) is an American poet and essayist. He is the author of nine collections of poetry, one collection of translations of Christian mystics, one spiritual memoir, a book-length essay on suffering and was co-author of an anthology of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Cairns has served on the faculties of Kansas State University, Westminster College, University of North Texas where he was editor of the American Literary Review and Old Dominion University. He was the founding director of Writing Workshops in Greece, an annual four week workshop on the island of Thasos. He is currently on the poetry faculty of Seattle Pacific University. You can find out more about Scott Cairns and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Actors, ICE Agents and Excommunication


Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1-21
Luke 14:25-33

Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring  us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:27.

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” Deuteronomy 30:19.

Imagine that a life-long member of a mainline protestant church, like my own Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA), comes to worship on Sunday morning. The pastor meets him at the door with an ultimatum. “I understand that you continue to be employed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), is that true?”

“Yes, what of it,” the individual replies.

“Your employment and affiliation with an agency committing acts of violence against families, children and persons seeking asylum from persecution is contrary to your baptismal promise to renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God and the ways of sin that draw you away from God. Accordingly, I must insist that you resign from your employment with ICE. Should you refuse to do so, we will have no choice but to bar you from the Lord’s Table until such time as you repent of your sin and demonstrate a willingness to renew your baptismal commitments.”

I cannot imagine such a thing happening in any of the churches I have been involved with. Excommunication has long since been cleansed from our ecclesiastical DNA. It was very much alive, however, in the church of the New Testament and throughout the third century. Please note that I am not holding this era of our ecclesiastical history up as a “golden age” when everything was done as it should be. The early church was hardly perfect, but it understood that it was called to an existence radically different from the surrounding culture. It understood that Jesus was offering it a better life than the dominant society could provide. The earliest post New Testament document we have, a baptismal training tract called the Didoche, has as it’s opening chapter, “The Two Ways.” “There are two ways,” says the author of the tract, “one of life and one of death; but there is a great difference between the two ways.” These words echo those of our Psalm and the admonition of Moses in our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures admonishing the people of Israel to “choose life.” The Didoche then spells out what a life of discipleship looks like, expounding on the “great” commandments to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself.

The church that produced this teaching document understood that the new life to which Jesus called it inevitably took the shape of the cross in a world dominated by greed, injustice and violence. Moral choices had to be made on a daily basis and those choices were a matter of life or death. They were often costly. Joseph H. Hellerman tells the story of a small congregation in Northern Africa during the third century facing just such a costly life or death decision. (Full article published in Called to Community, edited by Charles F. Moore and published by Plough Publishing House, c. 2016) pp. 26-30. A young actor expressed a desire to be baptized and join the church. Acting in the third century was not the craft of pure entertainment we know today. It was employed exclusively for the celebration of pagan festivals featuring plays depicting overt violence and explicit sexual immorality. Accordingly, the young man was required to renounce his profession and he did so. Subsequently, after his baptism, the young man started his own school to train actors for the very profession he had given up. When confronted by his pastor, he pointed out that he needed still to make a living to support himself and that, because he was no longer involved with the actual plays, he didn’t feel that he was violating his baptismal vow to follow Jesus.

At a loss for how to handle this unique situation, the pastor sought advice from his bishop, Cyprian of Carthage. Cyprian’s response was clear and uncompromising. Participation in pagan religious productions, whether as an actor or as an acting instructor, is inconsistent with the church’s faith and witness. The young acting instructor must again be called upon to abandon his profession. That might sound harsh and it is, though hardly more so than Jesus’ call to abandon even one’s blood relations and sacrifice all that one has for the sake of God’s reign. Still, the young actor was being called upon to abandon his only means of supporting himself. Continuing to follow Jesus would be a costly proposition.

But there is more to this story. Cyprian went on to say that the congregation should provide support and sustenance for the young man for as long as he needed it to make his transition to another trade. Furthermore, Cyprian offered the support of his own church in the event this responsibility proved too great for the little congregation. Thus, Cyprian was not a puritanical judge determined to cleanse the church of sinners. Rather, he was the caring pastor of a church community whose members were dedicated to helping one another turn from sin to the better life Jesus offers. This is a classic example of what Saint Paul calls “bearing one another’s burdens and so fulfill[ing] the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2.

In my own Lutheran tradition, we tend to identify a person’s calling or vocation with his or her profession, trade or job. We call this the “priesthood of all believers.” After all, the work that we do in society for the sake of our neighbors is no less holy than the work of ministry within the church. That sounds good, and it works well enough when your employment meets your needs for sustenance, fits your temperament and contributes to the well-being of society. But more and more I am finding young people employed by companies demanding more time, more energy and more tangible results while offering less security and compensation. Through the cellphone and the internet, the office seems to be worming its way into evenings at home and family vacations demanding availability 24/7. Unskilled heads of families find it necessary to hold down two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet leaving little time for family, church and community. Attorneys find that, so far from advancing the rule of law and justice, their hours are consumed with assisting insurers in denying the claims of sick and injured people. Doctors find their care of patients increasingly frustrated and compromised by the cost cutting measures and complex billing procedures of insurers and HMOs. Many folks I know have deeply ambivalent feelings about their jobs-such as a young woman who works for a manufacturer of automatic fire arms sold to civilians. Work that exploits, overreaches, enslaves and compromises is anything but holy. It is hard to view it as a calling to serve God. I think that many folks caught up in these dehumanizing roles would welcome an opportunity to free themselves from this way of death and embrace Jesus’ life-giving alternative. But that is a lot to expect from an individual.

Perhaps this is where the church comes in. Maybe we need to become once again a community that does more than call upon individuals to choose life and bear the consequences alone. We need to be the kind of community that helps people choose life by supporting them every step of the way-as did Cyprian. We are similar in this respect to a twelve step community of addicts trying to help one another achieve and maintain sobriety. We are all struggling to break away from ways of death that threaten to destroy us and embrace Jesus’ way that leads to life. So, for example, what if our churches found the courage to tell our members employed by ICE that their jobs are inconsistent with their baptismal vows-and offered to assist them in changing careers? Would that not be both a powerful witness to the world and a liberating act of pastoral care and discipline for our people?[1]

To be sure, Christians are not better people, but we are people who believe in a better way of being human. We are sinful people, but people who are nevertheless capable of making good, faithful and life-giving choices-especially when we support, strengthen and encourage one another. We are a people in which the Holy Spirit is at work forming the mind of Christ. When that happens, the Body follows suit.

Here is a poem by Blas Manuel De Luna that incarnates for me the urgency of the moment.

Bent to the Earth

They had hit Ruben
with the high beams, had blinded
him so that the van
he was driving, full of Mexicans
going to pick tomatoes,
would have to stop. Ruben spun

the van into an irrigation ditch,
spun the five-year-old me awake
to immigration officers,
their batons already out,
already looking for the soft spots on the body,
to my mother being handcuffed
and dragged to a van, to my father
trying to show them our green cards.

They let us go. But Alvaro
was going back.
So was his brother Fernando.
So was their sister Sonia. Their mother
did not escape,
and so was going back. Their father
was somewhere in the field,
and was free. There were no great truths

revealed to me then. No wisdom
given to me by anyone. I was a child
who had seen what a piece of polished wood
could do to a face, who had seen his father
about to lose the one he loved, who had lost
some friends who would never return,
who, later that morning, bent
to the earth and went to work.

Source:  Bent to the Earth, (c. 2006 by Blas Manuel De Luna, pub. by Carnegie Mellon University Press) Blas Manuel De Luna (b. 1969) grew up working alongside his parents and siblings in California’s agricultural fields in Madera, California. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from California State University-Fresno and has written prolifically in poetry and fiction. His writings frequently dwell on his and his family’s experience as immigrant laborers. You can find out more about Blas Manuel De Luna and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] I understand that ultimatums like this run the risk of making us into self-righteous, legalistic hypocrites. I understand that the guilt for what is happening at our borders cannot all be placed upon the backs of people working for ICE. I also know that many would argue against excommunication on grounds that it is better for people of conscience to remain within ICE and so work to turn it from its destructive course. Of course, ICE does provide some necessary services for all the misery it is currently inflicting. Some will point out that there are many levels of complexity here that I am glossing over. There is much to be said for that argument. But I fear that those of us in the mainline churches often use nuance as a defense against having to take action. Is it appropriate to continue being “a community of moral deliberation” while the Nazis are marching millions into death camps? No, we have not yet reached that point, but how close do you want to get? How much further do we need to go before we simply can’t afford to keep on deliberating? How many more families need to be split up? How many more children must die on our border? How many more of our neighbors must be deported before we finally decide, enough is enough. When will the need to act decisively overcome our fear of acting imperfectly? I have the same pressing question my children had whenever we took a long road trip: Are we there yet?