Monthly Archives: July 2020

A Long Shot for Racial Justice-Open Letter to the ELCA Bishops Revisited


1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Prayer of the Day: O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.” Psalm 85:10-13.

This hope of the psalmist is also the hope of prophets, apostles and saints of every generation. It isn’t yet a reality. That is because hope is not self-executing. Unlike a mere wish, hope does not come to fruition on its own. Jesus tells us as much: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23. Allegiance to the reign of God leads to loss of privilege, loss of property and even to dissolution of family ties. Luke 18:29-30. So the question every generation of disciples must confront is this: Is it really worth it?

As those of you who follow me know, I recently wrote an open letter to the bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) proposing a five year reparational tithe to be delivered to black American churches for their mission and ministry. There was, in my view, nothing particularly “radical” or “new” in this proposal which I intentionally dubbed “modest.” To the contrary, it promoted nothing more than what St. Paul called for in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, namely, that “as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality.” II Corinthians 8:14. Those words were spoken in support of the apostle’s own very concrete challenge to his churches to supply aid for the famine stricken church of Judea. Just as the gentile churches had benefited so richly from the spiritual wealth of Israel’s heritage, so they also must share generously of their material wealth with the Judean church. Paul believed that the church was the embodiment of the resurrected Christ and his reconciling power. Or, as farmer, preacher and New Testament scholar Clarance Jordan puts it, the church is a demonstration plot for God’s reign. The ELCA acknowleges in its Declaration of Apology to People of African Descent the benefits it derived from centuries of slavery and economic exploitation of black Americans. Furthermore, like Paul’s gentile churches, the whole church in America has been enriched by the deep spiritual contributions of the black American church’s music, preaching and witness. Returning those benefits in some measure by way of a reparational tithe is simply what St. Paul would call “a matter of equity.” It is the ecclesiastical embodiment of the reconciliation God desires for all creation.

I received a wide range of responses to my proposal. As it was presented as an “open letter,” I heard from a number of folks who thanked me and told me they felt actions of this kind were long overdue. I also received the usual tiresome objections, to wit, “We don’t owe them anything,” “Slavery ended over a century ago,” “None of my ancestors had slaves and, even if they did, I had nothing to do with it,” “We had the civil rights movement and we’ve had an African American president-so racism isn’t an issue anymore,”  “Some of my best friends/coworkers/grandchildren, etc. are black,” “What about the Native Americans? What about the Asians? What about the unborn? What about…(fill in the blank). I can’t say I saw a lot of these responses, but there were enough to convince me that our church has a long way to go in understanding systemic racism and its complicity therein.

As the letter was addressed to the ELCA bishops, I was most interested in their response. A few replied simply to tell me that my proposal was “intriguing.” Others reminded me that the bishops, as a group, do not serve any legislative function and were thus powerless to act on or advocate for my proposal unless or until it found its way through congregational resolution to synodical memorial where the churchwide assembly could then act on it. One of the bishops assured me that my proposal would be discussed among them as a group. I was assured by our presiding bishop that the proposal would be “shared” among the bishops as they continue their study of, among other matters to related to racism, reparations.

I have mixed feelings about these responses from the bishops. I am obviously pleased that they didn’t simply hit the delete button on their computers. I am glad that there is an openness to the proposal-at least among those responding. But I cannot say that I am satisfied. Since I was ordained in 1982-before the ELCA was a twinkle in anyone’s eye-Lutherans have been talking about racism, issuing statements against racism, doing antiracist training, dialoguing about race, advocating on racial issues, participating in protests, candlelight vigils and marches. Yet we remain solidly white and solidly entrenched in white privilege. For that reason, I’m done with resolutions calling upon us to “talk about race.” I’m done with breaking up into little groups at synodical conventions to talk about my feelings on race. I want no part of any statement of repentance that does not bear the fruit of repentance. I am hoping that recent events have convinced enough of us that it is time for something different.

Having been involved with my church for nearly forty years, I am well aware of its institutional limitations. Lutherans change direction more like aircraft carriers than speed boats. Thus, I had no delusive belief that my open letter would ingite a new reformation. I knew from the beginning that a call for reparations to African American churches from an overwhelmingly white denomination was a long shot. Indeed, getting our bishops’ attention with such a proposal was a long shot, as is persuading them to step up to the plate and call upon the church to take this step toward racial healing. Getting a favorable response from our ELCA and its members to any such appeal by the bishops is a long shot. The hope that the ELCA’s commitment to reparations might push our society as a whole in the same direction is, to be sure, a long shot. But I took that long shot because sometimes the long shot is the only shot you ever get. Take it and you risk missing the hoop, failing and perhaps looking a little silly. Don’t take it and you risk nothing-but you can be sure you will never score. Hope is on the side of the long shot. Those who don’t shoot have no hope, only wishes.

I am hopeful that our bishops will find the courage to be teachers and theologians of the church and call us to a daring step toward racial justice-whether to something like the one I propose or a better one. I am hopeful that the Holy Spirit will overcome the craven fear lying behind racial prejudice and open our eyes to the need for justice that must be met within the church before it can witness faithfully as Jesus’ reconciled community to a segregated nation. I am hopeful that my grandchildren will inherit from us a church that doesn’t embarrass them and that they will not be compelled to issue yet another apology for our inaction at this critical time. I am hopeful that  “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Hope is a powerful force that drives one forward even when it seems there is no place to go. It strives toward a future that looks to all the world like a dead end and keeps one struggling long after the battle appears to have been lost. Here is a poem that touches on the contours of hope.

Perpetual motion
Someday perhaps I’ll understand
Why the ocean’s waves assault the sand,
Why the rocky cliffs above
Stand fast against the tide and will not move,
Why these great powers match their might,
And strive against each other day and night,
One a mighty, relentless force,
The other too strong to move or change its course,
Why they strive in hurricane and gale,
Though each must know that neither can prevail.
Once that riddle is clear to me
Then perhaps I’ll also see
What drives men into battle time and time again
Though war’s a game that nobody can win,
Or why a woman longs so to give birth,
Knowing that the life she gives today
tomorrow must be laid beneath the earth,
Or why when overcome by dark despair,
My stubborn heart keeps beating
And my lungs still gasp for air.

Source: Anonymous


Mustard Seeds, Yeast, Pearls and Representative John Lewis


1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Prayer of the Day: Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is like an invasive species that takes root in a fragile ecosystem, breaks down the existing harmonies, pushes out indigenous growth and transforms the local environment into something altogether different.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is like yeast falling into the dough set aside for the Passover feast, leavening the unleavened, corrupting the holy, raising up an unrighteous loaf from the sanctified mass.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is the value hidden in a barren and unpromising lot that only the keen eye of a speculator can see. It is land sold for three times what the seller thinks it is worth as he snickers to himself over the fine bargain he struck with the witless yokel-who is, in fact, walking away with a fortune.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is like a pearl so fine it smites the heart of a connoisseur who will gladly pay any price to have it-whatever the market might otherwise dictate.

To what shall we compare the reign of God? It is like a net thrown into the sea sweeping into its coils everything in its path for sorting, purifying and cleansing with fire.

Georgia Representative John Lewis, renowned and respected leader of the civil rights movement, died late Friday. Lewis was born in Troy, Alabama in 1940. He was the the son of sharecroppers and grew up in a region where legalized racial segregation permeated every facet of society and reminded him constantly that he was deemed a second-class citizen. Denied entrance to the all white Troy University, he attended and graduated from American Baptist Theological Seminary in 1961. He subsequently received a bachelor’s degree from Fisk University in 1967.

Lewis joined the first group of freedom riders traveling from the East Coast to the South to challenge interstate segregation. He was arrested in Birmingham and beaten at a bus stop in Montgomery. These events did not deter him from continued involvement. Within a mere two years, Lewis rose to become a prominent leader in the civil rights movement, chairing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963. In March of 1965 Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers while on the front lines of the fifty mile march from Selma to Montgomery pushing for voting rights. That event subsequently became known as “Bloody Sunday.”

In 1986 John Lewis was elected to serve as Georgia’s fifth district representative, a position he held until his death. Known as “the conscience of Congress,” Lewis was a fierce advocate for civil rights, an ally of the underprivileged and a man of profound faith. His life and his words gave us a taste of what Jesus’ parables were all about. Here are a few words you might think of as “mustard seeds,” “yeast,” “pearls” and “buried treasure.”

“Selma is a place where we injected something very meaningful into our democracy. We opened up the political process and made it possible for hundreds and thousands and millions of people to come in and be participants.”

“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.”

“It was not enough to come and listen to a great sermon or message every Sunday morning and be confined to those four walls and those four corners. You had to get out and do something.”

“There’s nothing wrong with a little agitation for what’s right or what’s fair.”

“You have to tell the whole truth, the good and the bad, maybe some things that are uncomfortable for some people.”

“Sometimes you have to not just dream about what could be – you get out and push and you pull and you preach. And you create a climate and environment to get those in high places, to get men and women of good will in power to act.”

“We must be headlights and not taillights.”

“The kingdom of God comes without our prayers,” says Martin Luther. He is right. God’s reign will come without your lifting a finger. But is that what you want? Do you want to be sitting on the sidelines watching the parade go by? Or do you want to be “in that number when the saints go marching in”? Do you want to be caught up in God’s redemptive design for creation, or throw your life away in a futile effort to resist change, suppress God’s revolutionary movement toward reconciliation and come to your last day only to find that there is nothing worth incorporating into God’s future? Jesus’ parables force us to see the reign of God in stark relief against the backdrop of a dying status quo. The story of Representative John Lewis testifies to a life caught up in God’s redemptive agenda, disrupting the orderly, stirring up resistance to an unjust status quo and pouring out everything in pursuit of God’s gentle reign.

Here is a poem by Angela Jackson honoring Rosa Parks, another mustard seed that got into the garden and fomented an uprising.

Miz Rosa Rides the Bus

That day in December I sat down
by Miss Muffet of Montgomery.
I was myriad-weary. Feets swole
from sewing seams on a filthy fabric;
tired-sore a pedalin’ the rusty Singer;
dingy cotton thread jammed in the eye.
All lifelong I’d slide through century-reams
loathsome with tears. Dreaming my own
It was not like they all say. Miss Liberty Muffet
she didn’t
jump at the sight of me.
Not exactly.
They hauled me
away—a thousand kicking legs pinned down.
The rest of me I tell you—a cloud.
Beautiful trouble on the dead December
horizon. Come to sit in judgment.
How many miles as the Jim Crow flies?
Over oceans and some. I rumbled.
They couldn’t hold me down. Long.
My feets were tired. My eyes were
sore. My heart was raw from hemming
dirty edges of Miss L. Muffet’s garment.
I rode again.
A thousand bloody miles after the Crow flies
that day in December long remembered when I sat down
beside Miss Muffet of Montgomery.
I said—like the joke say—What’s in the bowl, Thief?
I said—That’s your curse.
I said—This my way.
She slipped her frock, disembarked,
settled in the suburbs, deaf, mute, lewd, and blind.
The bowl she left behind. The empty bowl mine.
The spoiled dress.
Jim Crow dies and ravens come with crumbs.
They say—Eat and be satisfied.
I fast and pray and ride.

Source:  And All These Roads Be Luminous (c. 1998 by Angela Jackson; pub. by TriQuarterly Books). Angela Jackson (b. 1951) is an American poet, playwright, and novelist currently residing in Chicago. Though she was born in Greenville, Mississippi, she grew up on the South Side of Chicago where her parents moved with her and her four siblings in 1977. She served as editor of the journal, Nommo and has received numerous literary awards. You can read more about Angela Jackson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Mexico to Take over Construction and Financing for Trump’s Border Wall


Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, announced today that his country now supports Trump’s border wall between the United States and his country. Furthermore, he indicated that Mexico is prepared to finance the project. “The sooner the better,” Obrador told our Ghost reporter. “I mean, when we signed on to this new revised NAFTA deal, we had no idea the U.S. number one export was going to be coronavirus.” The president went on to explain that building the wall was now a matter of national security-for Mexico. “The United States-it’s a backward country, one big polio pit. People are living in squalor and disease and we can’t have them bringing their cooties down here. Hey, we have to guard our borders you know.”

Mr. Obrador expressed frustration at the pace of the wall’s construction. “Three years, and we have just three miles of wall built by a bunch of volunteer amateurs-and it’s falling down into the river!” he said. “At this rate, that wall will still be under construction after the turn of the next century.” He went on to explain that Mexico is proposing not only to pay for the wall but take over its construction. “We want this to be Mexico’s wall made in Mexico by Mexican works. And we want it to work,” he added. “You know, not like all your president’s casinos and his university.” Mr. Obrador said that quality is absolutely a priority. “We need to get this done fast and we need it done right. We can’t entrust our national security to the slip shod workmanship Americans.”

Press secretary for president Trump, Kayleigh McEnany, praised the new arrangement and touted it as a victory for the administration. “The president promised that the wall would be built and Mexico would pay for it.” she said. “Another promise to the American people kept.” McEnany went on to criticize the media for depicting Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a failure. “Without the spread of the virus, we wouldn’t have gotten the wall,” she told our reporter. “The president’s strategy of re-opening the country, withdrawing healthcare from millions and preventing large scale testing turned out to be a great success.”

No word yet on when Mexico is to ramp up construction on the border wall, but all indications are that Mr. Obrador is anxious to get the project under way as soon as possible. “The sooner we seal off our country from the unsanitary mess to our north, the safer our people will be.” The Ghost has recieved unconfirmed reports that Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is petitioning the Trump administration for a border wall on his country as well.


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

The Perils of Eradicating Evil


Isaiah 44:6-8
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Prayer of the Day: Faithful God, most merciful judge, you care for your children with firmness and compassion. By your Spirit nurture us who live in your kingdom, that we may be rooted in the way of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest…” Matthew 13:29-30.

One of the individuals whose work has been formative for my faith and ministry was the late Jean Vanier who died a year ago last May. Vanier was a Canadian Catholic philosopher and theologian. He was the founder of L’Arche, an international federation of communities spread over more than thirty countries for people with developmental disabilities and those who assist them. In 1971, he co-founded Faith and Light which also works for people with developmental disabilities, their families, and friends. He continued to live as a member of the original L’Arche community in France until his death.

Vanier’s communities were founded on the conviction that persons commonly labeled “developmentally disabled” are not social problems to be solved, but gifted persons that a society founded on power, control and wealth has neglected to its own detriment. Vanier’s mission was to create communities where the full human potential of these neglected ones could flower. I have always believed that Vanier’s communities reflect what St. Paul meant when he called the church Christ’s Body of gifted members. All of this being the case, you can imagine my dismay upon learning that an internal report published by L’Arche early this year concluded that Vanier sexually abused six women between 1970 and 2005.

This is not the first time I have seen one of my heroes cast down from his pedestal. While in Seminary and throughout the early years of my ministry, I was heavily influenced by the work of John Howard Yoder, the well known Mennonite theologian who taught at the University of Notre Dame. In the early 90s, credible complaints were made that Yoder had abused numerous women, some students and others who worked under him in some capacity. Tragically, these complaints were largely ignored and even covered up while Yoder’s predatory conduct continued. Needless to say, the joy I once got from reading Yoder’s profoundly insightful and provocative books has largely evaporated.

Now I am wondering where all of this leaves me. Obviously, these two men were not the people I thought they were. Still, their work and their teachings inspired me and formed me in no small part. Does it matter that their lives were the very antithesis of their teachings?[1] Is it still appropriate to cite John Howard Yoder when arguing for Christian pacifism and non-violence? Can I still appeal to the writings of Jean Vanier to illustrate the bonds of trust and intimacy required for the Church to function as Christ’s resurrected body? Can I still honor the truths these men have taught me even after learning that they were not embodied in my teachers? One might argue that truth is truth, that two plus two equal four and it matters not whether one learns that from a saint or a scoundrel. But as disciples of Jesus, we proclaim a truth that is incarnate, a truth that is embodied, a truth inseparable from the One who reveals it. Perhaps that is why I experience deep sadness and a degree of emptiness whenever I return to the writings of Vanier and Yoder. It feels as though the soul has leaked out of their books.

That these men, who were sexual predators, also possessed deep insight into God’s gentle reign and its implementation challenges our natural binary disposition. We are tempted either to ignore, deny and make excuses for Yoder and Vanier or to excoriate them along with their work. But Jesus would have us know that neither of these alternatives serve us well. Instead, Jesus urges his disciples to embrace the pain of living in this weed infested field where the beautiful is hopelessly intertwined with the hideous, the noble with the despicable, the compassionate with the cruel, the moral with the immoral. The name of that pain is the cross.

As tempting as it is to separate the weeds from the wheat, that temptation must be resisted. God knows this world has suffered enough from efforts to “purify the race,” “ethnically cleanse” the land and “purge” enemies of the state. God knows the church and many of its most faithful members have suffered the righteous wrath of those who would purify, reform and perfect it. What horrors we inflict upon each other when we forget that the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart and attempt to redraw it along lines of our own choosing! When destruction of evil becomes the singular focus, the first thing destroyed is ourselves. God alone holds the blade sharp enough to separate the wheat from the weeds. Our own blunt instruments of judgment lack all such surgical precision and are capable only of inflicting wounds.

So while I don’t believe busts of Yoder or Vanier belong in the seminary library, their books most certainly do. Moreover, their stories need to be told in full, not to bring shame on their memories, but to remind us how close we all are to evil, how easily it makes its way into the hearts of these seemingly most devout and how hard it is to unearth it without ruining the good. This word coming to us from Jesus’ parable is hard to digest. It is difficult to accept, albeit true, that the Holy Spirit sometimes works through unholy instruments. It is discomforting to be reminded that holiness and evil live in such close proximity. But if we take the parable to heart, we can guard against the evil that would destroy us while still recognizing holiness in the most unlikely places and, most importantly, find the patience required to allow God in God’s good time to bring God’s good plantings to maturity and harvest.

Here is a poem/song by singer and songwriter Bob Dylan illustrating the madness of imagining that we are God’s instruments for separating the wheat from the weeds.

With God on Our Side

Oh, my name, it ain’t nothin’, my age, it means less
The country I come from is called the Midwest
I’s taught and brought up there, the laws to abide
And that the land that I live in has God on its side

Oh, the history books tell it, they tell it so well
The cavalries charged, the Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side

The Spanish-American War had its day
And the Civil War too was soon laid away
And the names of the heroes I was made to memorize
With guns in their hands and God on their side

The First World War, boys, it came and it went
The reason for fighting I never did get
But I learned to accept it, accept it with pride
For you don’t count the dead when God’s on your side.

The Second World War came to an end
We forgave the Germans and then we were friends
Though they murdered six million, in the ovens they fried
The Germans now too have God on their side

I learned to hate the Russians all through my whole life
If another war comes, it’s them we must fight
To hate them and fear them, to run and to hide
And accept it all bravely with God on my side

But now we got weapons of chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to, then fire them we must
One push of the button and a shot the world wide
You never ask questions when God’s on your side

Through many a dark hour I been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side

So now as I’m leavin’, I’m weary as hell
The confusion I’m feelin’ ain’t no tongue can tell
The words fill my head and they fall to the floor
That if God’s on our side, he’ll stop the next war

Source: The Times they are a Changin’ (c. 1995 by Bob Dylan). Bob Dylan (born Robert Allen Zimmerman, May 24, 1941) is an American singer-songwriter, author, and visual artist who has been a major figure in popular culture for more than half a century. His most celebrated works date from the 1960s and became anthems of the antiwar movement opposing U.S. military operations in Vietnam. But Dylan has also dabbled in country western, contemporary Christian and modern folk music throughout his long career. Dylan published eight books of drawings and paintings. His work has been exhibited in major art galleries. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The Pulitzer Prize Board in 2008 awarded him a special citation for his profound influence on popular music and American culture. In 2016, Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for having created new poetic expressions within the American musical tradition. You can read more about Bob Dylan and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] I understand, of course, that the best of people are flawed, that none of us who profess high ideals live up to them with perfection and that good people are capable of poor judgment, short sightedness and moral weakness. But the kind of predatory behavior practiced by Vanier and Yoder far exceeds any singular moral lapse. It reflects rather a serious lack of empathy and a calculating design to exploit the trust and confidence of vulnerable persons for personal gratification. This, I believe, is the sin against “one of these little ones” Jesus discusses in one of the rare instances he mentions hell.

Planting on Unpromising Ground


Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:1-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” Matthew 13:3-9.

I cannot remember when and where I first heard this parable. It might have been in Sunday School or church. But more likely, I heard it from the Bible story book my mother read to my sister and me every night at bed time when we were still small. Perhaps if I had been more spiritually aware at that point, I would have been contemplating whether I qualified as “good soil.” Instead, I wondered what sort of lame brain farmer would waste good seed on ground where it was unlikely to survive, much less thrive. If good seed has any value at all, it would behoove the farmer to ensure that every kernel finds its way to soil in which it can grow and bear fruit.

Then again, perhaps I was onto something. Maybe it isn’t about the soil. After all, plants sometimes display an uncanny ability to grow where you wouldn’t think anything could take root-such as on paved thoroughfares. The good soil we know today was built up over centuries of seed falling upon rock, penetrating its crevices with roots, dying, decaying and mixing with weathered stone. I can attest, from having witnessed in that vast untamed wilderness known as my back yard, that seeds brought by birds, runoff and wind from my neighbor’s Eden like paradise somehow manage to bloom and thrive in my tangle of native shrubs and wild grass. I guess it goes to show that you can never tell where you will find “good soil.”

That brings me to our lesson from Isaiah. This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. In order to get the full force of this remarkable word, you need to read the entire section beginning at verse 6. I encourage you, then, to take a minute and read Isaiah 55:6-13 in its entirety. The prophet has made his case to the exiles, pointing out the opportunity for a new start and declaring that God’s hand has opened the way for Israel’s return. Furthermore, he assures the people that God will accompany them throughout their journey back to the land of Canaan with miraculous works of power just as God accompanied their ancestors from Egypt to that same promised land centuries ago.

The prophet’s assertions are bold, given that the return from exile is at this point merely aspirational. The fulfilment of this vision is fraught with numerous obstacles and practical difficulties. Small wonder, then, that the exiled Jews are skeptical. The prophet stubbornly maintains, however, that the word of the Lord which he speaks will come to fruition just as surely as new growth from rich soil nurtured by the rain. Isaiah brings his prophecy to a close with a marvelous promise that the exiles will go forth from Babylonian captivity in peace, that the mountains and hills will break forth into song and that the trees will clap their hands. Vs. 12. Israel’s return to her homeland is not a matter merely of local geopolitical interest. It is a cosmic event in which God is at work bringing about redemption for the whole creation. That being the case, it should not surprise us that the returning exiles are greeted by a natural world hungry for God’s redemptive touch. It is only natural that the thorn withdraw to make room for the shade-giving cypress and myrtle in the midst of the desert. It is only right that this Eden-like pathway of return should stand as a memorial to this new Exodus miracle. Vs. 13.

We cannot leave our reflections here, however. While the return from Babylon to the promised land did indeed occur, it did not transpire in the way Isaiah had foretold. There was no return of the whole people of God. As best we can ascertain, the returning exiles made up but a tiny group of Jews. The greater part of the community remained, constituting what came to be called the “Diaspora.” Moreover, their return was not facilitated by the miraculous highway of well-watered and shaded land about which the prophet sings. The road home was difficult and life in the land of promise turned out to be precarious. It took the urging of subsequent prophets and the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah to inspire the demoralized people to take up the task of rebuilding Jerusalem and their temple.

If asked whether the prophetic words of Isaiah were fulfilled, we must answer both “yes” and “no.” There is no question that the prophet succeeded in inspiring a community to seize the opportunity God had given them for a new beginning. Yet the fulfillment hardly lived up to the promise that Israel’s return would be accompanied by such miraculous splendor that the nations would take note and give praise to her God. In that sense, the prophecy points beyond itself into a future that even Isaiah could not imagine. That should not surprise us. God’s ways are higher than our ways. The word spoken by the prophet is not his own. It is God’s word. As such, there is no telling how far beyond the prophet’s own vision that word might stretch, what it might accomplish or how far into the future it might extend.

That brings us full circle back to Jesus’ parable. It is not for the sower to decide whether or not a patch of ground is worth seeding. God would have us sow God’s gracious words freely, liberally-one might even say wastefully from the standpoint of our own shortsighted perspectives. God’s Word echoes through sanctuaries where none seem to be listening. It finds its way into conversations where it is not welcome. God’s word is frequently drowned out by the loud and angry voices of hatred, prejudice and violence. But even in the midst of such hostile environments the word finds enough soil to sprout and grow. Just when it seems as though the word has been carried away, starved to death and smothered, the day arrives when it bears fruit that topples monuments to white supremacy, shatters border walls and brings tyrants down from their thrones. “It shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:11.

Here is a poem by Robert Finch reflecting on the nature of words, their powers and their seed like quality. This brief verse can be for us an invitation to contemplate how God’s word is sown into the fabric of our lives and how it might take root, grow and produce.


There are words that can only be said on paper.
It is fortunate they are few. And others shrink
On paper to the thinness of dried ink
And fade at the mind into forgotten vapour.

There are words that can only be said once
And have been said before that fact is plain.
In a sense no word can ever be said again.
And none can be said again in the same sense.

There are words that have to be said or written,
Answers and questions, times to be observed,
But most words die in a cause they have not served
Or bite forever what never should be bitten.

And then there are the words that are left unsaid
And the undetectable words used in their stead.

Source: Poetry, April 1941, p. 19. Robert Finch (1900-1995) was a Canadian poet and academic. He twice won Canada’s top literary honor, the Governor General’s Award, for his poetry. Finch was educated at the University of Toronto and taught French there for four decades. He was considered an expert on French poetry. Finch began writing his own poetry in the early 1920s, but due largely to the scarcity of opportunity for publication during the depression, he did not see any of his poetry in print until 1936. His first book of poems was published in 1946. You can sample more of Finch’s poetry in the above issue of Poetry.

Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe

“The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) apologizes to people of African descent for its historical complicity in slavery and its enduring legacy of racism in the United States and globally. We lament the white church’s failure to work for the abolition of slavery and the perpetuation of racism in this church. We confess, repent and repudiate the times when this church has been silent in the face of racial injustice.” Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” John the Baptist, Luke 3:8.

Dear Bishop Eaton and Synodical Bishops:

By way of this open letter, I am asking you to call upon the ELCA to implement a reparational tithe. This would involve allocating 10% of all income from unrestricted sources received by the ELCA and each of its synods to the aid and support of black churches in the United States for their congregations, ministries, mission and work for their communities. It would further involve an appeal to congregations for an increase in their mission giving by 10% for this purpose and an appeal for individuals to increase their offerings by 10% to that end as well. Duration would be for no less than five years.

It is understood that you are not in a position to implement this proposal by fiat. I am fully aware that such action must be taken through established procedures ensuring representation by the whole church. Nonetheless, the ELCA presiding bishop is to “be a teacher of the faith of this church and shall provide leadership for the life and witness of this church.” So says the ELCA constitution at chapter 13, subsection 21. According to the model synodical constitution, bishops are to “[i]nterpret and advocate the mission and theology of the whole church.” Model Synodical Constitution, chapter 8, section 12, subsection g1. Thus, as I see it, the chief responsibility for calling this church to bear the fruits of our repentance for complicity in our nation’s history of slavery and racism, so eloquently articulated in the above cited Declaration of Apology, falls to you.

Let me be clear. This reparational tithe is not for the purpose of developing new ELCA programs, whether for anti-racism education or multicultural ministries. Its purpose is to support the mission and ministry of black American churches to their communities. As a church which has benefited from white privilege, we would simply be returning these benefits in some measure. By implementing the reparational tithe, we would be imaging within the Body of Christ and bearing witness to the reconciliation and mutuality God desires for the whole world. You can think of it as “becoming the change you want to see.”

I understand that there may be numerous legal, procedural and political hurdles to overcome approving and implementing this proposal. But nothing worth doing is ever easy. Some will argue that such a substantial investment on our part will deplete resources required to support our existing ministries, that congregations are already under financial stress from years of decline, now magnified by economic fallout from the ongoing pandemic. The same argument could have been made for withholding the loaves and fishes from the One desiring to feed the hungry crowd. Others might argue that a tithe is insufficient compensation for centuries of enslavement and oppression. I agree. There is a reason I call this proposal “modest.” I would love to see us follow the example of Zacchaeus and make a fourfold restoration. Still, we have to start somewhere. So let us think of the reparational tithe as a floor rather than a ceiling.

I am fully aware that this proposal represents a “long shot.” Still, I believe that this moment in history is exactly the right time to swing for the fences by challenging our church to confront racism with more than words and symbolic actions. We have an opportunity to do something big. Don’t let this moment pass!

With deepest respect and profound thankfulness for your leadership,

Christ’s Servant and yours,

Rev. Peter A. Olsen (retired)