Monthly Archives: July 2021

Sunday, July 26th

Due to numerous factors, I have been unable to produce a reflection on the texts for the coming Sunday. Therefore, I offer a reflection from six years ago which seems not to have grown too stale with age.

Peter's Outer Cape Portico

NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

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

John’s account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand differs from that of Matthew, Mark and Luke in several respects. Perhaps the most significant detail we learn from John is that the people Jesus fed in such a remarkable way responded by trying to seize him by force and make him king. And why not? Jesus would likely make a great king, wouldn’t he?

Yes and no. Jesus understood only too well the nature and pitfalls of empire. He was…

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All We Like Sheep…

EIGHTH SUNAY AFTER PETECOST

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm 23

Ephesians 2:11-22

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

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

“As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Mark 6:34.

“Like sheep.” That is hardly a complement. Sheep are dependent creatures, having lived under domestication for millennia. They are so helpless that they cannot even right themselves should they happen to get turned on their backs. If all the world’s sheep were released into the wild today, they would surely be on the endangered species list tomorrow. Moreover, sheep are herd animals. They are bred to follow a leader and lost when they have none. That is not how we self made, independent and free thinking Americans like to think of ourselves.

Yet in spite of our assertions of independence, there are times when we appear incredibly sheep like. The Qanon phenomenon is but the most recent illustration of how even people of considerable intelligence can be led down a rabbit hole into a universe of “alternative facts” having absolutely no relationship to reality. According to a Monmouth University poll, one in three Americans still believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that his victory was stolen by fraud-notwithstanding the certification of that election by all fifty states, sixty court decisions rejecting allegations of fraud and a substantial margin of victory for Joe Biden in both the electoral and popular vote. At a recent Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a large crowed cheered when a prominent “antivaxxer” jeered the Biden administration’s efforts to promote vaccination against Covid-19. How can thinking people be drawn to accept as facts assertions contradicted by the findings of multiple courts, scientific consensus and plain common sense?

People who are frightened, threatened and lack the conceptual tools to figure out why are low hanging fruit for the unscrupulous “shepherds” described by the prophet Jeremiah in Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. These shepherds offer feckless sheep exactly what they want-a strong leader with easy solutions to complex problems and, frequently, offering up someone or something to blame for their unhappiness. They put a face on the sheeps’ fears and a target, albeit the wrong one, on which to vent their rage. Of course, these shepherds have no interest in the wellbeing of the sheep. They don’t care that, once they have gotten what they need, the flock is scattered and left vulnerable to predators-or to infection by Covid-19. For them, the sheep are tools to be courted for their votes, fleeced for donations and abandoned. Such is the pitiful condition in which Jesus finds the crowd in Sunday’s gospel lesson. Jesus embraces this crowd and begins “to teach them many things.”

How does Jesus go about that? How does he ween the sheep off their delusions? I think the problem here goes far deeper than the much discussed phenomenon of “fake news.” Although I believe that, on the whole, “main stream” media tend to get the facts right far more often than the so-called news outlets of “conservative” media, this is not just a matter of getting the facts right. It has to do with which facts matter, who is relating them and the audience to which they are presented. Those of us who consume mainstream news (and yes, news from all sources these days is packaged as entertainment for popular consumption) ought to be asking whether Britany Spears’ personal legal, medical and financial woes deserve more attention than the fate of millions of Afghan women who may soon be living under the oppressive rule of the Taliban. Should the world care about the outer space joyride of two aged billionaires? Should the harangues of a defeated former president be given any air space at all? Who decides what gets into the news and the prominence it is given? Who is telling us what is news? Should we be accepting at face value the decisions made about what we see on the screen of our chosen news source?  

I believe that we are all more sheep like than we care to admit. With the ability to get the news (or what we are told is news) in real time, the ability to get immediate weather forecasts and the capacity to keep a minute by minute watch on financial markets, we have become slaves to the font of all this data, our digital devices. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that we need to be connected 24/7, that we must be available at all times of day or night and that we need to be informed of every breaking development as it transpires. In the process of being on top of everything, we are losing the ability to focus on anything. We have lost the capacity to distinguish between the urgent and the important. We are the people the James the Apostle characterizes as “a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” James 1:6.

The gospel does not tell us specifically the “many things” Jesus taught the people that day. But we know that Jesus taught with an authority grounded in the example of the life he lived, making his the “voice of authority.” We know that Jesus unmasked the hypocrisy of religion that practices piety without pity, judgement without justice and morality without compassion. We know that Jesus called people to share his life shaped by the contours of God’s gentle reign of justice and peace to be lived under the shadow of imperial injustice, violence and cruelty. Everything Jesus ever said flowed from who he was. That is what drew people to him and lent authority to his words. Jesus’ teaching did not consist in the transmission of information, indoctrination or ethical instruction. To be taught by Jesus is to know him, to follow him, to be influenced by friendship with him and shaped by the community of faith in which his Spirit dwells.

Not every significant event is deemed important or newsworthy. Where would CNN and Fox News have been at the dawn of the first century C.E.? I suspect that they might have been in what is now Germany covering Rome’s campaign to expand its empire into northern Europe. Or perhaps they would have been reporting on the massive temple refurbishment project launched by Augustus Caesar in Rome. There was certainly no lack of contentious issues under debate in the imperial senate meriting press scrutiny. But I seriously doubt any news organization would have bothered to report on the birth of a baby to a homeless couple in a Bethlehem barn. Such events are hardly considered newsworthy, but to a mind that has been taught to seek the outbreak of God’s reign in every corner of creation, their true significance becomes visible. What we desperately need and what Jesus offers: “eyes to see” and “ears to hear.” If you want to find the good news, you need to look beyond the headlines.

Here is a poem showcasing a different lens through which we might view the world. It is perhaps similar to the way a mind taught by Jesus might view it.

In Search of Prime Residential Real Estate

I’d like to live in a place
Where you can get a cup of coffee
Without having to specify,
Large, very large, jumbo,
Mocha, Columbian or Java.
Let me make my home
In a place so far from
The nearest metropolis
That you can’t get reception
For network stations
Without a computer
And that with difficulty
As there’s no broadband access.
Let history’s great moments
Make their way to me
Through the lens of local news
And humbly take their place
Beneath those truths
That are timeless,
Real and unchanging.
I want to live on open land
Where nothing obstructs my view
Except the sky.
And let that sky be so wide
And so chuck full of stars at night
That nobody looking up into the heavens
Will ever be able to imagine
That he’s any more important
Than a Spring tulip that’s long gone
Before the end of May.
I want to live among simple folk
Who, like that tulip,
Grow strong and beautiful in their season,
Toil at honest labor till it ends,
Fade with grace when it passes,
And expect nothing in return.

Anonymous

The Art of Making Enemies

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Amos 7:7-15

Psalm 85:8-13

Ephesians 1:3-14

Mark 6:14-29

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

“Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, ‘Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words.’” Amos 7:10.

“And Amaziah said to Amos, ‘O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.’” Amos 7:12-13.

Amaziah’s alarm appears strikingly similar to that of Republican legislatures in roughly half a dozen states that have either adopted or advanced bills purporting to take aim at the teaching of critical race theory, an academic approach that examines how race and racism function in law and society. These lawmakers would do well to heed the wise admonition of Victor Hugo: “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” The notion that theories, ideas and statements of fact can be erased by legislative fiat is as laughable as it is pathetic. But to the terrified psyche of white rage and the party that now embodies it, the truth about racism is a word “the land is not able to bear.”

I am not here to defend, explain or critique critical race theory. Scholars, teachers and preachers far more knowledgeable than me have already done that. I understand it well enough, however, to know that its Republican critics haven’t the faintest idea what it actually is. Here is what else I know:

  • The United States Constitution, so far from guaranteeing the Declaration’s bold assertion that “all men are created equal,” counted black Americans as “three fifths of a person,” and that only for purposes determining representation of the states in Congress.
  • Ten of the first twelve presidents of the United States were slaveholders.
  • The routine separation of enslaved black families, wives from husbands and children from parents, for sale and re-sale was a common commercial practice from colonial times until the end of the Civil War.
  • Beating, starvation, rape and torture for the discipline and control of Black slaves was either legal or tolerated by state authorities throughout the southern United States prior to the end of the Civil War.
  • Lynching was not an isolated occurrence, but happened routinely and claimed the lives of at least 3,446 African Americans between 1882 and 1968. Federal and state authorities routinely declined to investigate, prevent, specifically outlaw or prosecute these murders.  
  • In June of 1921 mobs of white residents, many of them deputized and given weapons by city officials, attacked Black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma on the ground and from private aircraft and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district—at that time the wealthiest Black community in the United States- leaving 36 dead and hundreds hospitalized with injuries.
  • In 1932 the U.S. Public Health Service knowingly withheld life saving antibiotics to Black victims of syphilis in order to study the advanced effects of the disease.
  • Until 1967, interracial marriage between Black and white persons was illegal in nearly half of the states of the U.S. and punishable by imprisonment.
  • The historic (and still existent) practice of “redlining” and systemic discrimination in housing against persons of color which, incidentally, our former president practiced with regularity and was prosecuted during his years as a real estate baron, prevented generations of black families from purchasing homes, thereby depriving them of the chief means of achieving wealth and financial security.

Furthermore, none of these facts were taught throughout my educational experience from kindergarten to high school nor that of my children. What we got was a “whitewashed” version of American history that neglected or, where neglect was impossible, downplayed the story of African Americans in the building and development of our nation. Those of us who grew up believing this sanitized, nationalistic version of the American saga naturally feel unsettled by these truths. They threaten to destroy our illusions of innocence. They are words we are “not able to bear.” But for the sake of our nation’s healing, to make way for repentance and open the door to a better future, they must be spoken.

The words of a prophet are frequently hard to bear. As we learned from last Sunday’s gospel reading and lesson from Ezekiel, speaking words from God will trigger opposition. Prophecy is a dangerous profession. It got Amos deported. John the Baptist lost his head. What are we prepared to lose for the sake of proclaiming the gentle reign of God in a world of nations, rulers and peoples that are not receptive to it? Are we prepared to make enemies for Jesus’ sake? I am not convinced that we are. Our ELCA website boldly declares that “Liberated by our faith, we embrace you as a whole person–questions, complexities and all.” We are fond of making the blanket assurance that “there is a place for you” in our church. I don’t believe we can fairly make that representation-nor should we. If the likes of Stephen Miller, Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene and their supporters feel comfortable and at home in our church, we are not doing our job. If the MAGA hat wearers find us welcoming, I have to wonder, how prophetic is our preaching? If we are not making any enemies, I have to wonder whether we are making genuine disciples.

Truth is, you can’t follow Jesus without making some enemies along the way. That reality is illustrated in the life and ministry of Clarence Jorden, founder of Koinonia Farm. The Farm was formed as an intentional Christian community established in the State of Georgia back in 1942. Jordan intended for it to be a “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.”  For him, this meant a community of believers sharing life and following the example of the first Christian communities as described in the Acts of the Apostles. In order to bear witness to the church as a family in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, Koinonia was constituted from its inception as a place where African Americans lived side by side with their white sisters and brothers. Not surprisingly, Koinonia Farm was a frequent target of Klan hostility and government initiated opposition in the deeply segregated south. In his book, Unleashing the Scripture, Duke University professor of religion and ethics Stanley Haueraus relates a story about Koinonia Farm and its founder, Clarence Jordan.

Shortly after Koinonia was founded, Georgia’s state attorney general made several attempts to outlaw the community, confiscate its property and evict the residents. Clarence Jordan sought the help of his brother Robert Jordan, a prominent lawyer with political aspirations. Clarence asked Robert to take on the defense of Koinonia Farm. According to a passage from a book written by James McClendon, the following exchange took place:

“Clarence, I can’t [represent you]. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”

We might lose everything too, Bob,” [Clarence replied.]

“It’s different for you.”

“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior.’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”

“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”

“Could that point by any chance be—the cross?”

“That’s right, [Clarence]. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

“Then, [Bob], I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer and not a disciple.”

“Well now, [Robert replied] if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church, would we?”

“The question is” Clarence said, ‘Do you have a church?’”

That’s a good question for us at this juncture. Do we have a church that is the Body of Christ placing itself between the jaws of injustice and its victims? Or are we a community of admirers of Jesus willing to follow him “up to a point” short of the cross? Is peace and harmony within the ecclesiastical household more precious than the peace of Christ that breaks down the hostility between members of the human family? Are we so fearful of dividing the church over the gospel of Jesus Christ that we are willing to settle for unity grounded in something less? What does faithfulness to Jesus look like in the face of concerted efforts to defend white supremacy by undermining voting rights and manipulating public education curricula?

Maybe it’s because I am getting old and losing my filters. Or perhaps I am just too damn tired of being part of a “community of moral deliberation” that never evolves into concrete teaching or action. Or maybe being retired and professionally bullet proof has made me reckless and irresponsible. Attribute whatever motives you like. But what I am now going to say will probably not go down well in some quarters. Though I commend our ELCA leaders for condemning racism and publicly apologizing to our African American siblings for our complicity in their oppression, I wonder why they cannot go the extra mile to challenge us to practice within the Body of Christ the “equity” St. Paul calls for in his second letter to the Corinthian church by making concrete financial reparations to black churches? Not only have we benefited from their oppression, but we have also been enriched by their hymnody, preaching and prophetic witness (See II Corinthians 8:8-15). Is it too much to ask that we now employ our vast financial resources in supporting these churches in their struggle to rebuild their communities?

I have been told by some of our leaders that we need more dialogue, education and anti-racist training before embarking on such a bold initiative. I don’t have anything against any of those things-except that we have been doing all of that from as far back as the 1970s when I started seminary and the needle hasn’t budged. I understand that, given our polity, ELCA bishops cannot mandate, legislate or compel the church to do anything. But as pastors, teachers and theologians they can and should be telling us what we ought to be doing. The same goes for us pastors of congregations.

Will such bold preaching and admonition trigger a backlash? Will it result in more congregations leaving the ELCA? Will it put the position of pastors in danger? Will we wind up making enemies both within and outside of our church? Perhaps. But as long as our heads remain on our shoulders, we shouldn’t be heard to complain. It goes with the territory.

Here is a poem by Charles Mackay on the virtue of having enemies.

You Have no Enemies?

YOU have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Charles MacKay (1814-1899) was a Scottish poet, journalist, author, anthologist, novelist, and songwriter. He was born in Perth, Scotland. His father was a bombardier in the Royal Artillery. His mother died shortly after his birth. In 1830 he began writing in French in the Courrier Belge and sent English poems to a local newspaper called The Telegraph. In May 1832 he moved to London where he found employment in teaching Italian to the future opera manager, Benjamin Lumley. Mackay engaged in journalism throughout his time in London. In 1834 he was an occasional contributor to The Sun. From the spring of 1835 till 1844 Mackay was assistant sub-editor of The Morning Chronicle .In the autumn of 1844, he moved to Scotland, and became editor of the Glasgow Argus, but resigned in 1847. He returned to London and worked for The Illustrated London News in 1848 and became editor in 1852. Mackay visited North America in the 1850s, publishing his observations as Life and Liberty in America: or Sketches of a Tour of the United States and Canada in 1857–58 (1859). During the Civil War he was a correspondent for The Times. Mackay was twice married—first, during his Glasgow editorship to Rosa Henrietta Vale by whom he had three sons and a daughter. His second marriage was to Mary Elizabeth Mills, likely a previous servant in the household.