Monthly Archives: September 2020

We’re Not Indispensable


Isaiah 5:1-7
Psalm 80:7-15
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Prayer of the Day: Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” Matthew 21:43.

Long before the days of ATMs and online deposits, I brought a check to my bank for deposit at one of the tellers windows. The teller promptly deposited the check and handed me a deposit receipt. While inspecting it on the way out, I noticed that the amount recorded on the receipt was exactly fifty dollars less than the amount on the check. Needless to say, I returned it to the teller who, after consulting with a bank manager, reissued the receipt in the correct amount with profuse apologies. “Not a problem,” I replied. “Just glad we caught it.” The bank manager was not quite so sanguine. “Don’t forget,” I heard him say to the teller. “You can be replaced.” Though not directed at me, those words and the tone in which they were spoken sent a chill down my spine. Perhaps the chief priests and Pharisees to which Jesus directed his parable felt the same.

I pause here to state what should be obvious, namely, that the passage cited above does not support the heretical supersessionist view that Christianity is God’s “better” replacement for Judaism. In fact, this text comes to us from a time before which either “Judaism” or “Christianity” existed as such. There was in Jesus’ day a people of Israel consisting of faith communities in Judea, Galilee, Samaria and regions scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. The Jesus movement was one of several such communities. The boundaries for inclusion within Israel were disputed, as was the locus of genuine religious authority. Moreover, the parable is not directed against Israel as a whole, but against the chief priests and the Pharisaic leaders in Jerusalem. Consequently, Jesus’ harsh condemnation of the temple establishment and its leaders (similarly delivered by other faith communities within Israel) cannot be interpreted as a rejection of Israel in favor of a new chosen people.

How, then shall we read this text in our present context? As the parable is directed to the “clergy” of Jesus’ day, perhaps that is the place we ought to start. Maybe this text presents a challenge to those of us on the roster who identify as “called” to reflect on the kinds of fruit we produce. That is an especially uncomfortable task for me as I am currently retired from full time ministry. What I have done is done. It isn’t as though reflection on my part is going to benefit the church’s ministry going forward. Still, I am part of a living community of faith and so, along with all the baptized, I stand in need of confession, repentance and absolution.

“Fruit” is important for Jesus’ disciples in Matthew’s gospel. It is the defining characteristic of a true disciple. “You will know them by their fruits,” says Jesus. Matthew 7:16. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’” Matthew 7:21-22. I suppose I might plead, “Was I not baptized and confirmed in your name? Was I not ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in your name?” Yet the possibility remains that my fruits might be such as to make me altogether unrecognizable as disciple of Jesus. Matthew 7:23.

While I am sure there are more shortcomings in my ministry than I am aware of, the one that grieves me most is my failure to appreciate properly the faithfulness and dedication of my lay leaders. In my first parish, I was particularly critical of my treasurer who seemed always to be fretting about the state of our finances when I was trying to get our council to focus on mission opportunities. “Why does it always have to come down to dollars and cents?” I asked at one meeting in a tone of exasperation. Though addressed to the council as a whole, my treasurer felt the brunt of that remark-as I probably intended. I didn’t stop to think that this woman, now in her 60s, was taking on a responsibility nobody else wanted, that she lay awake at night worrying about meeting the church’s expenses-not the least of which was my salary-or that she already had a full time job and an infirm relative to care for. Of course, I stand by my firm belief that a church’s life is guided not by the resources it has on hand, but by the mission to which it is called. But the faith required to sustain such a vision should not fall solely on the individual who must pay the bills and balance the books. What my treasurer needed was an expression of my appreciation for her good work and my assurance that she would be supported no matter what financial difficulties might arise from our decisions.

Nothing used to frustrate me more than council meetings at which we discussed and re-litigated again and again issues that were resolved in prior meetings, as evidenced by the minutes we approved! “These people have memories like mayflies!” I once vented to a colleague. Then, after resigning my first call, I went to law school and spent the next twenty-one years in practice. Although I remained on the clergy roster and did some supply preaching during that time, I was for all intents and purposes simply another member of the congregation to which I belonged. In this new life, the church and its rhythms were no longer the focus of my day to day existence. There I learned what it is like to work between sixty and seventy hours a week, care for sick family members, carry the weight of anxiety about potential unemployment and deal with the struggles of my children in school-only to be snapped at during a counsel meeting because I could not recall exactly what happened at a meeting that took place the month before. When I took my second full time call, I made a point of trying to exercise more patience, understanding, appreciation and compassion for these people who were giving up an evening at home with their families to support the work of their church. I hope that I did a better job the second time around.

When Jesus warns us that the kingdom might be taken away from us, he cannot be understood to mean that we are lost to the kingdom. The kingdom is God’s generous gift to the whole world God created and loves. It cannot be confiscated by anyone, neither will God rescind it. The kingdom does not belong to us anymore than it belonged to the chief priests and the Pharisees. Like them, we are stewards of the mysteries of God, spokespeople for the kingdom. Like them, we are not indispensable. We can be replaced. The call to be servants to the servants of God is a privilege, not a right. If we fail to produce the fruits of the kingdom, God will find others for this good work. That is good news for the people of God, even though it strikes a little healthy fear into the hearts of us clerics.

I suppose I can take comfort in the fact that, whatever my shortcomings, God has permitted me to remain in the ministry of Word and Sacrament for all these years. Nonetheless, I am sure that “the Day” will disclose much in my ministry that will fail the test of “fire.” I Corinthians 3:10-15. But however much of the work I might have botched, Saint Paul assures me that I myself can yet be saved-albeit by fire. I Corinthians 3:15. We do well, I think, to read Jesus’ parable as a sobering reminder that we are not irreplaceable, that we are fallible vessels for an infinite treasure and that the time we have to be of service is extremely limited. So we are left with the prayer of Moses, the man of God: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands, establish thou it.” Psalm 90:17.

Here is a poem about lost opportunity for fruitfulness that should inspire us to use wisely and well the time and the gifts we have been given in order to be fruitful servants for the kingdom of God.

Autumn Regrets
What’s left of my garden is
bathed in the moon’s white, frosty glow.
Big green tomatoes which will never ripen
into juicy red fruit
hang motionless from vines dried and dead.
The soil I spent so much time turning
over, mulching and raking is now choked
with weeds and littered with fallen leaves.
An early freeze took all but a few hearty geraniums.
Those remaining are but a sad, ruined shadow of
the flowerbed I envisioned beneath the
fig and mirabella trees.
My shovel, rake and hoe resting in the wheelbarrow
nearby accuse me of neglect.
They have been sitting idle, caked with dirt
since early spring.
This garden has too seldom felt the caring
touch of a gardener.
Many a day its parched earth cried out for water.
Weeds choked its tender shoots without mercy.
I saw, but was consumed with more important things.
Now, my heart grieves for this little plot of ground,
this garden which I planted but could not cultivate,
and for all the dreams I have failed to nourish,
the plans for good I have allowed to die.

Source: Anonymous

Time to Bid Farewell to Sunday School and Confirmation?


Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32
Psalm 25:1-9
Philippians 2:1-13
Matthew 21:23-32

Prayer of the Day: God of love, giver of life, you know our frailties and failings. Give us your grace to overcome them, keep us from those things that harm us, and guide us in the way of salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” Philippians 2:5.

One could say that this is the whole point of the church, namely, to be a community animated by the Spirit of Jesus. I didn’t come that understanding in my seminary studies. I learned it in the church of my childhood from a teenager named Gary. Gary helped with our Sunday School and he was the only teenage boy I knew who showed any interest in kids my age. My church friends and I lived for that fifteen minutes between the end of Sunday School and the start of the service during which Gary played kick ball with us. He listened to our stories and laughed at our silly jokes. I don’t remember exactly when I learned Gary was what in those days we called “mentally retarded.” What I do know is that my thinking about Gary was shaped by a community that received him, not as a social problem to be solved, but as a child of God with special gifts to offer. I didn’t need to be “taught” that “disabled” persons were not to be mocked, ridiculed or patronized. The “thou shalt not” was unnecessary because the “shalt” had been so thoroughly modeled for me in a community shaped by the mind of Christ.

Yes, I know that the church doesn’t always get it right. You don’t have to look any further than Saint Paul’s letters to find out that the church was from the beginning and still is rent by false teachings, divided along racial and cultural lines, plagued with ambitious  leaders obsessed with being “first” and consumed with disputes over money. Yet it is within the furnace of such communities that saints are forged. The mind of Christ is formed among people who would never have chosen each other as friends. It takes shape when people who don’t much like each other learn to love one another. Formation of Christ’s mind in our midst depends on a confident belief that Jesus has called everyone in our congregation, even-or rather especially-the one you can hardly stand. The church’s job is to incorporate each person’s gifts into Jesus’ ministry and mission. The ancient church had a name for this process: catechesis.

Sometimes catechesis happens informally and spontaneously as was the case with Gary. But discipleship, as the name suggests, is built on discipline. It is something that must be taught and learned through communal practices. On the whole, I think it is fair to say that mainline protestant churches like my own have, at best, a mixed record when it comes to developing effective catechetical practices. I have been reflecting a lot recently on those practices within my own Lutheran tradition. While I have nothing in the way of new revolutionary approachs to catechesis, I have a few concerns about our old ones and some observations about how catechesis actually happens, often in spite of rather than because of what we do. I leave to greater minds the development of new directions formal catechesis might take in the future.

First, I think it is time to retire Sunday School. Don’t get me wrong. Sunday School once served a noble purpose. Sunday schools were set up in the 18th century to provide education to working children. The American system was begun by Samuel Slater in the 1790s. Classes were held in his textile mills in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. There was no universal compulsory education at that time and no prohibition against child labor. Thus,  Sunday was the only day on which school could be held for working children. The church took a leadership role in this movement with the laudable goal of providing basic education to children that would otherwise have grown up illiterate.

With the passage of laws prohibiting child labor and requiring universal compulsory education, the Sunday School movement’s objective was met. But, like so many institutions that have outlived their usefulness, Sunday School refused to die. Instead, it evolved into a ministry of the church designed to provide “Christian education” to its members’ children. Over the years few, if any, church leaders questioned this method of catechesis. We all assumed that employing the methods of the classroom to catechetical instruction was the best way to pass on our faith to the next generation.

That is still the assumption. In every church I have served, Sunday School was in decline and there was much distress over that fact. I have spent numerous anxious hours with good church people wracking their brains over how to “fix” Sunday School. In all these discussions, there was always an unshakable conviction that Sunday School was the future of our church and that our survival depended on building it back up. But if a healthy Sunday School really does equate with effective catechesis, then I have to wonder, where are all the thousands of kids that went through Sunday School in the church’s heyday? Why are they and their children not in church today? Perhaps Sunday School was not all it cracked up to be.

More important, when did you ever read about Jesus or Saint Paul teaching religion classes? Jesus’ disciples learned to follow Jesus by, well, following him. They got their training on the job. So, too, Saint Paul urges his churches to “imitate” him. That might sound a little arrogant, but if your chief catechetical tool is example, it makes good sense. Perhaps our children should be accompanying our lay leaders on home communion visits, working with them at food distribution centers or learning to write letters to congress as part of the church’s advocacy ministry. Maybe time formerly devoted to Sunday School should be spent training children to assume responsibilities for service on the altar at worship. Education is best received when it is requested via the inevitable questions, i.e., “So why do we do this? Why are we changing the color of the vestments? Why do we stand for the gospel? How come we don’t say alleluia in Lent?” It should be noted that our Small Catechism, the Lutheran Church’s chief teaching document, was designed for heads of families to instruct their children. Where did we get the idea that it was supposed to be used by pastors for teaching confirmation classes?

Which brings me to my second observation. Perhaps it is time to retire confirmation. For the life of me, I could never see the logic in demanding that budding adolescents, who are only beginning to think for themselves, question what they have been taught and form their own opinions, publicly commit to a set of doctrinal propositions they learned in classes they were most likely required to take. Confirmation, as we currently practice it, is inherently coercive. If there is one thing young teens hate, it is being coerced. Small wonder, then, we see so few of them after they are confirmed. I am aware, of course, that theologians, Christian educators and pastors (myself included) have worked from hell to breakfast trying to make confirmation more “relevant” for young people. But it has always seemed to me that we were only taking the edge off what is a fundamentally flawed program-a little like trying to make chicken salad out of chicken poop.

Now I am not suggesting for one moment that the church should give up on discipling teens. The church must work actively to shape in adolescents the mind of Christ no less than it does for all its members. What I do believe is that, once again, catechesis is accomplished more through example and participation in ministry than in formal classroom teaching. Moreover, not every individual travels in the same direction or at the same pace when it comes to spiritual formation. Rather than establishing one hard and fast time and place for all teens to make their formal confession of faith, why not create several opportunities for Affirmation of Baptism throughout the church year? There are also plenty of occasional opportunities where the Affirmation can be employed meaningfully, such as upon taking on a ministry or office in the congregation or during a rite of blessing before leaving for college. There is no reason to require arbitrarily that all persons aged fourteen who have completed a specified religious curriculum submit to this rite under penalty of extreme disapproval.

Catechesis is and always has been critical. If we had done it right from the beginning, we would not have to be explaining to our members why it is important to declare that black lives matter, why we welcome refugees a lot of Americans want to keep out of our country, why we care as much for the poor on the other side of the world as for those in our own neighborhoods or why being pro life does not mean submitting the bodies of women to government regulation. Of course, we have never gotten catechesis completely right. Perhaps we never will. But that is no excuse for striving to do it better.

Here is a poem by Becca J.R. Lachman with a lyric description of what catechesis looks like in her faith community.

New Marriage, A Barnraising

What it all comes down to: unpaid
community labor gathered ’round the first

post and best beam. O impossible ark,
built to be grounded, raised by well-

beloved hands. Attendance mandatory
by risk of shunning. Even children have

tools to fetch and sharpen. Some rough hands
welcome only because they must be

offered bread and chicken after a day
of sweat and sun. Young men in rib-rafters

who once watched from hillsides, now
call out to women for water or a smile. What

grins up, squinting, is certainty they long for:
childhood, companionship, the sturdier step

on ground they know, even a body
not one’s own. Each person acts out the expected.

They assemble despite their previous plans. Walls
go up slow but sturdy, shooing debt. Shading

out loneliness. Secured for storage and ready
for life. A frame-work, in the end, they will not

own, these worn-out masses. And still they show up,
willing. Still they gather when the new couple moves

Or after a fire. Or after a flood. O urgent love,
come back and see this time next year what stands.

Source: Center for Mennonite Writing Journal (Vol. 1, November 15, 2009 c. Becca J.R. Lachman). Becca J.R. Lachman teaches and tutors at Ohio University. She was raised in Kidron, Ohio and now lives in Athens, Ohio, with her husband. Lachman is recent grad of the Bennington Writing Seminars and published her first collection of poems in 2012. Her work has appeared in several publications and in On Being’s blog for American Public Media. You can sample more of her poetry at the CMW website.





Mitch McConnell to Hold Prompt Vote on Confirmation of Trump Supreme Court Nominee-Whoever it is

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnel announced today that he will push for an immediate vote to confirm President Trump’s nominee to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Supreme Court-whoever that might be. “If the President want’s him,” he told reporters, “there’s nothing left to discuss. So let’s get on with the vote.”  McConnel dismissed criticisms from Democrats who pointed out that Republicans blocked former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee on grounds that no such action should be taken by the Senate on the eve of a general election. “This is  not the same thing at all,” McConnel quipped. “This situation is entirely different. Why, it’s as different as black and white.” Mr. McConnell denied assertions that Republicans were out to undue Bader Ginsburg’s legacy of supporting civil rights for women and minorities. “The whole idea that Republicans are out to deprive minorities of their voting rights and take away protections from discrimination against women and limit women’s reproductive rights is just left wing hysteria,” McConnell said. “But even if that were all true,” he added, “would it really be so bad?”

Meanwhile, the White House announced that the flag would be flown at half mast to honor the departed Supreme Court Justice. “Fifteen minutes ought to do it,” said presidential press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany. Asked whether the president had yet settled on a nominee, McEnany declined comment, but added that Mr. Trump’s criteria for selection are simple. “It all boils down to three things: white skin, a penis and loyalty to the president,” she said. McEnany did not deny that white supremacists, Richard Spencer and Stephen Miller were on Trump’s short list. “There has been plenty of controversy over which lives matter in this country,” she said. “The president strongly believes that the highest court should settle the matter once and for all and so it’s critical that we have enough people on the court with a clear understanding of what is really at stake.”


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

Justice isn’t Fair!


Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalm 145:1-8
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and eternal God, you show perpetual lovingkindness to us your servants. Because we cannot rely on our own abilities, grant us your merciful judgment, and train us to embody the generosity of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“…are you envious because I am generous?” Matthew 20:15.

“And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” Jonah 4:11.

Jonah has a problem with God. It is not that God is cruel, vengeful or capricious. Jonah’s problem is that his God is too kind, too generous and not sufficiently vindictive. There is nothing wrong with Jonah’s expression of anger against God or his desire for revenge against Nineveh, the capital of Israel’s arch enemy. The Psalms are filled with such sentiments. But however graphic and terrible the punishments called down upon their enemies, the psalmists always leave for God the responsibility of executing the justice they seek. “’Vengeance is mine,”’ says the Lord,” according to St. Paul. Romans 12:19 citing Deuteronomy 32:35.

The problem for Jonah, and perhaps for us too, is that God’s justice frequently looks different from the way we think justice ought to look. In our limited perspective, justice amounts to fashioning a punishment that fits a particular crime. From that constricted point of view, the mercy shown to Nineveh was clearly unjust. The Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was notoriously brutal in its scorched earth methodology of conquest. Next to Assyria, ISIS looks like a scout troop. How can the God who brought destruction on the holy city of Jerusalem and its temple for Israel’s sins give Nineveh a pass on its centuries of violence just because its king declared a national day of prayer? Can you imagine the outrage if one of our judges were to suspend execution or imprisonment for a serial killer in exchange for a mere expression of remorse, however sincere it might be?

I suspect the same outrage is evoked by Jesus’ Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. It just doesn’t seem right that a group of workers, who have spent the better part of the day unemployed and sitting in the shade, should be paid the same wage as those who have been working from dawn to dusk. We Americans, who believe ourselves to be self made, independent and industrious, put a high premium on rewarding hard work and punishing sloth. Treating the late coming workers the same as those that have been in the field for the duration cannot help but destroy their incentive to work hard and earn their livings. Moreover, what incentive is there for the other workers to continue putting in a full day’s work once they find out they can get the same pay by showing up an hour before quitting time? In short, it just isn’t fair.

But I have to ask, is “fair” what we really want? If that is what justice requires, what is fair punishment for the serial killer? Should the same punishment be inflicted on the parents who abused him since he was a toddler? What about the neighbors who heard him scream with every lash of the belt, but simply turned up the TV and tried to ignore it because, after all, it was none of their business? What about the gym teacher who noticed the welts on the young boy’s body, but didn’t want to risk an ugly confrontation with the family? What about a community that votes consistently to defund school counseling services and other programs designed to identify and intervene on behalf of children with serious behavioral problems? None of this is to suggest that the killer is not responsible for his deeds. He surely is. But the responsibility is not his alone and perhaps not even primarily his. What would justice look like if everyone in that chain of responsibility got what they deserved?

In my reading of Jesus’ parable, I have always identified more with the workers who went into the vineyard early and worked to the end of the day. And why not? I worked hard in school (at least after my second year in high school). I worked hard in every parish I served. I worked my way through law school and practiced law for eighteen years, working my way into partnership at my firm. I was never unemployed a day in my working life. The comfortable retirement I now enjoy is nothing less than what I earned by the sweat of my brow-or so I like to think.

But is my thinking correct? Did I really pull myself up by my own bootstraps? I had the good fortune to be born in the mid fifties when the economy was friendlier to blue collar workers lacking a college education-like my father. Having been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard, Dad was able to secure an entry level job that paid a living wage. Through careful saving, numerous opportunities for on-the-job training that, in turn, led to promotions, he was able to build a small house and secure for his four children the college education he was never able to obtain. Though Dad was a diligent, hard worker, I have no doubt he would have found his course a good deal more difficult had he started out at the same place around the turn of the recent century.

As I said, I worked hard for all my life but, like my father, I had more than a few head starts. For one thing, I am a man. That means that a lot of professional opportunities were open to me that did not exist for my sisters. Even though women have made numerous advances throughout my lifetime, they still experience barriers I never had to overcome. I never had to worry about how to deal with a predatory boss or client, whether my clothing was too provocative, to severe or otherwise inappropriate. I didn’t have to worry about going into a job interview with just the right balance of respect and assertiveness so that I don’t come across as either too weak or too “bitchy.” I did not have to battle daily the presumption that some jobs are not for my sex, that people of my sex are not suited for leadership positions, that my family responsibilities would hinder my job performance or that, because I had a working husband, I could make due with less pay.

For another thing, I was white. That means I never had to think about how job interviewers might react to my skin color, my hair, facial features or my accent. I didn’t have to deal with questions trying to ferret out whether I really earned my law degree or whether I got into school and got special treatment because of some “affirmative action” program. I didn’t graduate from college, seminary or law school with a crushing load of debt. I could add to this that I was not born into abject poverty; that I was not born with physical or mental impariments making it difficult or impossible to find work; that I have not experienced any disabling accidents or injuries throughout my working life. The list could go on forever. Again, I am not saying I didn’t work hard to get where I am today. But I am compelled to admit that, without the aforementioned advantages, I would have been working a lot harder and a lot longer to get to the same place.

So, in reality, I am more like the eleventh hour workers than I like to admit. For that reason, I am reluctant to insist that justice be based solely on fairness. I shudder to think where that might leave me. Perhaps that is the point of Jesus’ parable. Justice-God’s justice-is not a matter of giving everyone their just desserts. It is about giving all of us together what we need to thrive. Why are we so resentful about that? Why, when God has provided so richly for our needs, do we look with a resentful eye at God’s goodness toward someone we deem undeserving? Why are so many religious people outraged at the very thought that God might not punish the wicked in this life or the next as they seemingly deserve? Is it so hard to see that if God were to execute our kind of justice, no one “could stand?” Psalm 130:3. The good news of the gospel is that God does not exercise against us the kind of justice we would exercise if we were God.

Part of our problem is that our thinking about justice is based on our own Anglo European notion of what justice entails. In a typical criminal case, the jury renders a verdict and the judge sentences the defendant. In civil matters, the jury decides between the contending parties and the judge enters an order reflecting the jury’s determination. After that, the judge moves on to the next case. The judge is no longer concerned with what happens to the parties after that. God, however, continues to be concerned about the fate of the parties post judgment. That is because God’s justice does not end in retribution or compensation, but in restoration. Judgment is not the end of, but the means to justice. God desires restoration of relationships. That, of course, includes compensation for injuries inflicted and assumption of responsibility for wrongdoing. Beyond that, however, divine justice means reconciliation and peace. God’s exercise of God’s sole prerogative to punish, forgive or excuse wrongdoing is therefore not tied to any supposed measure of sin’s severity, but to God’s determination to achieve the perfect justice that is “God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” II Corinthians 5:19.

Here is a poem/prayer by Alexander Pope that reflects an attitude of humility and respect for the mystery of God’s just and gentle reign to which Jesus calls us.

Universal Prayer  

Father of all! In every age,
In every clime adored,
By saint, by savage, and by sage,
Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!

Thou Great First Cause, least understood
Who all my sense confined
To know but this, that Thou art good
And that myself am blind.

Yet gave me, in this dark estate,
To see the good from ill;
And, binding Nature fast in fate,
Left free the human will.

What conscience dictates to be done,
Or warns me not to do,
This teach me more than Hell to shun,
That more than Heaven pursue.

What blessings Thy free bounty gives
Let me not cast away;
For God is paid when man receives:
To enjoy is to obey.

Yet not to earth’s contracted span
Thy goodness let me bound.
Or think Thee Lord alone of man,
When thousand worlds are round.

Let not this weak, unknowing hand
Presume Thy bolts to throw,
And teach damnation round the land
On each I judge Thy foe.

If I am right, Thy grace import
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, oh teach my heart
To find that better way!

Save me alike from foolish pride,
Or impious discontent,
At aught Thy wisdom has denied,
Or aught that goodness lent.

Teach me to feel another’s woe,
To right the fault I see;
That mercy I to others show,
That mercy show to me.

Mean though I am, not wholely so,
Since quickened by Thy breath;
Oh, lead me wheresoe’er I go,
Through this day’s life or death.

This day be bread and peace my lot;
All else beneath the sun
Though know’st if best bestowed or not,
And let Thy will be done!

To Thee Whose temple is of space,—
Whose alter earth, sea, skies,—
One chorus let all beings raise!
All Nature’s incense rise.

Source: The Norton Anthology of Poetry (4th Ed.), Edit. Ferguson, Margaret, Salter, Mary Jo and Stallworthy, Jon, (c. 1970 Norton & Company, Inc.) p.574. Alexander Pope (1688 –1744) is regarded as the foremost English poet of the early eighteenth century. He is best known for his satirical and discursive works as well as for his translation of Homer. Pope was born in London. He was taught to read by his aunt and went to Twyford School. From there, he went on to two Roman Catholic schools in London. While illegal, such schools were tolerated in some areas. In 1700, however, Pope’s family moved to Berkshire due to strong anti-Catholic sentiment and a law preventing Catholics from living within ten miles of London or Westminster. Pope made his share of enemies as fellow critics, politicians, and several other prominent figures felt the sting of his satires. So hostile were some of these enemies that Pope feared for his life. Pope was known to carry a pistol on his evening walks for self protection.

Pope suffered numerous health problems from the age of twelve, including tuberculosis. His illnesses deformed his spine and stunted his growth, leaving him with a hunchback. Throughout his life he struggled with respiratory difficulties, high fevers, inflamed eyes and abdominal pain. He grew to a height of just a little over four feet. Although he never married, Pope had many female friends to whom he wrote witty letters. You can learn more about Alexander Pope and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Forgiveness: It’s Never Wasted


Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:1-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, merciful judge, you are the inexhaustible fountain of forgiveness. Replace our hearts of stone with hearts that love and adore you, that we may delight in doing your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Matthew 18:35.

These words, particularly in the context of the foregoing parable of the Unforgiving Servant, are severe by all measures. And that for good reason. Forgiveness is not just another admirable quality in some hierarchy of virtues. For the church, it is constitutive and essential to its ongoing life. It is assumed that members of the church will sin against one another and that they will be sinned against. How could it be otherwise where sinful people are called into a life of holiness? The only way such a community can function is through regular confession, repentance and forgiveness. Though all of this takes place regularly on a corporate level, it must, on occasion, occur on an individual level as well. Last week’s gospel lesson dealt with the procedures applicable to that practice. This week’s gospel focuses more broadly on the nature of forgiveness itself.[1]

Forgiveness is often portrayed as weakness, a form of selflessness that renders its practitioner a kind of doormat. It is anything but. On one level, forgiveness is very practical and self interested. Holding grudges is draining and self defeating. It bends your mind back into a past moment that cannot be changed and away from a future that can still be shaped. Forgiveness is not capitulation to the one who wrongs you. It is an affirmative act of resistance. By forgiving my enemies, I deny them power over me. My daughter Emily, also a pastor, regularly admonishes me to “evict the troublesome tenants in my head.” She goes further, inviting us to imagine serving a notice of eviction to the one most deeply imbedded under our skin. She even encourages us to imagine the sheriff forcefully removing the tenant from the premises.

Forgiveness is therefore liberating, both for the one forgiving and the one forgiven. For the former, it frees up band width for relevant data and operations that matter. For the latter, it opens up the possibility for renewed relationship free from the constraint of past hostility. The operative word here is “possibility.” One can always hope that expressing forgiveness to an offender will inspire thankfulness and a determination to make a new start. As Jesus’ parable illustrates, however, that hope does not always materialize. For that reason, it is important to understand that forgiveness is not contingent on repentance. As Jesus points out, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45. Disciples of Jesus are called to practice the same perfect forgiveness whether it meets with acceptance and repentance or not. Matthew 5:48.

Forgiveness is not permission for the offender to continue aggressive, abusive or violent behavior. Jesus’ life and ministry are nothing if not a frontal assault on evil, oppression and injustice. Thus, his admonition to “turn the other cheek” when stricken does not mean that aggression is not to be resisted at all. It does mean that aggression is not to be resisted with counter-aggression. Violence is not an arrow in the disciple’s quiver. But there are numerous means by which aggression can and should be resisted that do not involve violence or equate with vengeance. The insistence that violence is sometimes unavoidable is grounded more in a lack of imaginative faith than in “realism.”

Forgiveness does not mean that wrongful acts have no consequences. The harms done to others live on, regardless whether they have been forgiven. They will continue to have ramifications into the future. Forgiveness, however, opens up the possibility for redemption. Sin can be that which needs constant justification, excuses and rationalizations, all of which keep one bound to the past. Or, thanks to forgiveness, it can be a turning point, an opportunity to abandon destructive courses of conduct and pursue “a more perfect way.” It is precisely because one has been forgiven that one has opportunity for change and reconciliation.

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, tells the tale of a meeting between an aged seaman and a young guest on the way to a wedding celebration. The Mariner stops the young man and relates to him his near death experience on the sea. While sailing in the Antarctic Ocean the mariner’s ship is caught in a storm and driven into icy waters. Lost and directionless, the ship meets with an albatross, a large sea bird, that leads the pilot safely through the ice into open water. For no reason in particular, the Mariner shoots the albatross with his cross-bow. Thereafter, things go badly for the ship as it sails into the doldrums, drifting aimlessly over the sea with no wind to propel it. The rest of the crew succumbs to thirst, leaving only the mariner alone and near death on a ship full of corpses. Through numerous dangers and surreal adventures, the ship is brought safely to the mariner’s homeland. During his long ordeal, the mariner comes to recognize the gravity of his cruel and thoughtless killing of the albatross. He comes to understand his frailty and vulnerability, his inescapable dependence on all living things, the natural elements and his fellow human beings. Most importantly, he comes to know the mercy of a God who spares his life though he was the least deserving among the crew. Forgiveness has not been wasted on this mariner and his redemption did not come cheap. The poem is the antithesis to Jesus’ parable of the Unforgiving Servant. I offer here the parting words of the ancient mariner to the wedding guest. I encourage you to read the entire poem at the Poetry Foundation Website.

O Wedding-Guest! this soul hath been
Alone on a wide wide sea:
So lonely ’twas, that God himself
Scarce seemèd there to be.

O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
‘Tis sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company!—

To walk together to the kirk,
And all together pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.

He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772- 1834) was an English poet, literary critic, philosopher and theologian who, with his friend William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement in England. He also had a major influence on American poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was known by his contemporaries as a meticulous craftsman and perfectionist who was rigorous in the careful reworking of his writings. Throughout his adult life Coleridge had crippling bouts of anxiety and depression.  He was physically unhealthy, suffering the ill effects from a childhood bout of rheumatic fever. He was treated for these conditions with drugs that helped foster a lifelong addiction to opiates. Despite these impediments, Coleridge was enormously prolific as a writer and critic. You can read more about Samuel Taylor Coleridge and sample more of his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Thus, the lectionary’s coupling of Jesus’ interchange with Peter and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant is potentially misleading.