Monthly Archives: November 2021

The Tender Mercy of the Refiner’s Fire


Malachi 3:1-4

Luke 1:68-79

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“By the tender mercy of our God,
   the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke 1:78-79.

What a remarkable contrast this is to last week’s gospel lesson about savage seas, quaking heavens and deep foreboding over what is coming upon the world. This week Zachariah, father of John the Baptizer, assures us that “the dawn from on high will break upon us…giv[ing] light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” Yet though the contrast is stark, there is no inconsistency here. For all of its dark imagery, last Sunday’s gospel was an announcement of impending redemption. So, too, this week’s gospel, for all of its joy and hopefulness, makes clear that the good news of God’s gentle reign does not come easily. Grace is not cheap. The way of the Lord needs to be “prepared.” That is the role of God’s “messenger.” The prophet Malachi tells us in no uncertain terms what that preparation looks like. It is “a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” Malachi 4:2-3.  

The take away here is that we are not ready for the reign of God. We are not yet the kind of people capable of living gently and peacefully on the land taking only what we need and putting back more than what we take. We are not ready to be a people of many tongues, tribes and nations. We are not prepared to let go of our societal privilege, our sense of entitlement to a lifestyle that is impoverishing others and ruining our planet. We are not yet prepared to let God be God and content ourselves with being God’s faithful creatures. If we are to live under God’s gentle reign in a renewed creation, we must become something altogether other than what we now are. To use an old theological term, we need sanctification. We need to have the mind of Christ formed in us.  While it is true that God loves us just the way we are, it is also true that God loves us too much simply to leave us that way.

The great Fourth Century pastor and teacher, Athanasius of Alexandria, gives us helpful analogy:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likenss is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek and to save that which was lost.” On the Incarnation, Athanasius of Alexandria, Translated by Sister Penelope Lawson (c. 1944 and pub. by Pantianos Classics), p. 30.  

Like his successors in the Orthodox tradition, Athanasius focuses chiefly on the miracle of the Incarnation as central to the gospel proclamation. For him, salvation and sanctification are indistinguishable. Christ’s Incarnation fully restores all of humanity to its full potential for reflecting God’s image in the world. Jesus is the first and only one ever to be fully and completely human. In so doing, he brought the image of God back to a humanity that had lost it. Jesus’ crucifixion was the expected outcome of his Incarnation. In his death, Jesus took upon himself the worst humanity could throw at him and voluntarily embraced the mortal destiny of the human race. Unlike Adam who grasped at godhood and found death; Jesus embraced humanity with all its created limits and was raised from death to eternal life.

In conclusion to his treatise on the Incarnation, Athanasius has this to say: “But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life….[] anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.” Ibid. p. 88. The dichotomy between faith and works, so vexing to the Western Church, was never problematic for the Church of the East. For Athanasius, faith is never divorced from practice. If you would have faith in Christ, then imitate Christ and the saints. If you would do that which is right, believe in the image of God revealed in Jesus Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes much the same argument in his Cost of Discipleship, where he insists that “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press, Ltd.; pub. by Macmillan Company 1963), p. 69.

The work of the church, then, is to be that refining fire forming people capable of recognizing, loving and living into the reign of God to the end that all people learn to become genuinely human reflecting the divine image. John the Baptizer will have more to say about exactly what that entails in next Sunday’s gospel lesson. Suffice to say that being human in an inhumane world challenges much of what we take for granted-such as our right to keep what we legally own; our right to employ violence in our own defense; our rights as citizens and our right to our very lives. Once we recognize the image of God where it is rightly found, namely, in each individual person, it becomes impossible to hate, discriminate, defraud, oppress or kill. That is what it means to be “refined” and “purified.”

Here is a prayer/poem by Michel Quoist about the kind of purification to which our lessons and the season of Advent point.

I Would Like to Rise Very High

I would like to rise very high, Lord;
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.
I would then see the universe, humanity, history, as the Father sees them.
I would see in the prodigious transformation of matter,
In the perpetual seething of life,
Your great Body that is born of the breath of the Spirit.
I would see the beautiful, the eternal thought of your Father’s Love taking form, step by step:
Everything summed up in you, things on earth and things in heaven.
And I would see that today, like yesterday, the most minute details are part of it.
Every man in his place,
Every group
And every object.
I would see a factory, a theatre, a collective-bargaining session and the construction of a fountain.
I would see a crowd of youngsters going to a dance,
A baby being born, and an old man dying.
I would see the tiniest particle of matter and the smallest throbbing of life,
Love and hate,
Sin and grace.
Startled, I would understand that the great adventure of love, which started at the beginning of the world, is unfolding before me,
The divine story which, according to your promise, will be completed only in glory after the resurrection of the flesh,
When you will come before the Father, saying: All is accomplished. I am Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End.
I would understand that everything is linked together,
That all is but a single movement of the whole of humanity and of the whole universe toward the Trinity, in you, by you, Lord.
I would understand that nothing is secular, neither things, nor people, nor events,
But that, on the contrary, everything has been made sacred in its origin by God
And that everything must be consecrated by man, who has himself been made divine.
I would understand that my life, an imperceptible breath in this great whole,
Is an indispensable treasure in the Father’s plan.
Then, falling on my knees, I would admire, Lord, the mystery of this world
Which, in spite of the innumerable and hateful snags of sin,
Is a long throb of love towards Love eternal.

I would like to rise very high, Lord,
Above my city,
Above the world,
Above time.
I would like to purify my glance and borrow your eyes.

Source: Quoist, Michel, Prayers (c. 1963 Sheed & Ward, Inc.) Translated by Agnes M. Forsyth and Anne Marie de Cammaille. Michel Quoist (1921-1997) was ordained a priest in1947. A French Catholic of the working-class, Quoist reveled in presenting Christianity as part of gritty daily reality, rather than in forms of traditional piety. He was for many years pastor to a busy city parish in Le Havre, France serving a working class neighborhood and developing ministries to young people through Catholic Action groups. Prayers, the book from which the above poem was taken, has been translated from the original French into several languages including Hungarian, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Swedish and English.

We’ve Been Here Before


Jeremiah 33:14-16

Psalm 25:1-10

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13

Luke 21:25-36

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:28.

“Signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,” “nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” “powers of the heavens….shaken.” Under these circumstances, I would be inclined to keep my head low. Jesus, however, exhorts his disciples to raise their heads. Despite all indications to the contrary, Jesus assures them that their redemption is near. 

This all has a grimly familiar ring to it. I have not seen any signs in the sun, moon and stars lately. But I have been following the assembly of national leaders in Glasgow “confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves,” expressing a good deal of “fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” and seemingly unable to do much about it. It helps to recall that the words of our gospel lesson come to us from two millennia past, long before climate change was a twinkle in anybody’s eye. The attention of the New Testament Church was focused on the impending collision between the people of Israel and their Roman occupiers-a conflict that ended badly for the former. When Jerusalem was taken by Roman forces in 70 C.E. after a failed rebellion, the temple was utterly destroyed. The Romans slaughtered thousands of people in the city. According to the historian, Josephus, who witnessed the event, most of those slain were peaceful, unarmed citizens. These hapless folk were butchered where they were caught. A pile of corpses tossed into the remains of the temple mounted high in front of the altar. Blood streamed down the temple steps. Of those sparred, thousands were enslaved and sent to toil in the mines of Egypt. Others were dispersed to arenas throughout the Empire to be butchered for the amusement of the public. From this vantage point, it is hard to image how the Jews of Jerusalem-among whom were the disciples of Jesus-could find any ground for hope.

But they did. After all, they had survived a prior conquest of their land and destruction of their temple by the Babylonians centuries before-to say nothing of four hundred years of slavery in Egypt, attempted genocide there and generations later under the Persians. When the heavens seem to be falling and the world is on the brink of coming apart, we, like our ancestors in the faith, need to be reminded that we have been here before. This is not untraveled territory. Generations of matriarchs, patriarchs, prophets, kings and apostles have traveled this road before. They have left in their narratives, prayers and preaching all the resources we need to weather the storms in our day. So, when it seems that there is no way forward and everyone else is running for cover, disciples of Jesus raise their heads. They know that salvation is never closer than when it is needed most and that God is never nearer than when there is no other help in sight. That is the sole ground of hope.

Hope must be distinguished from optimism-that blithe assertion that everything comes out right in the end. We know well enough that it does not-at least as far as human observation can take us. As I have often said, I am not a progressive. I do not believe in progress. I believe in Jesus. That is not to say that progress is never made or that the progress we make is insignificant. The Civil Rights Movement and the legislation following in its wake represented a significant step forward for American society. But it does not represent a permanent gain in the ever forward march toward inevitable improvement. As we have seen over the last decade, gains such as legislative protection for access to the polls can be erased with the stroke of a pen. The campaign and presidency of Donald Trump have made painfully clear how deeply imbedded racism is in our nation and how close to the surface it lies. Words and behavior once deemed so reprehensible that they were exhibited only in the darkest corners of locker rooms, sleezy bars and off track chat rooms are now a regular feature of public discourse. Nothing we accomplish for good is safe from reversal. It is far easier to destroy than it is to build. It takes the engineering genius, mechanical skill and hard work of scores of people to produce an automobile. It takes just one drunken fool to wreck it. Years of parental training, medical care and education go into raising a child. It takes just one idiot with a gun to erase it all in a split second. The odds are clearly on the side of violence and destruction.  

Hope does not ignore the odds. Hope recognizes, however, that there are factors other than those we can measure statistically involved in every transaction. Hope affirms that in everything there is a “God factor” at work favoring the fragile fruits of doing justice, peacemaking and pursuing reconciliation. Consequently, events sometimes turn in ways we could never have foreseen. Hope knows that some of God’s best work is done in the darkness, like the darkness reigning over the chaotic waters before there was light. Or during the dark night of the first Passover. Or in the darkness of the tomb. We have seen this darkness before, lived in it before and come through it before. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that our church year begins as we (at least those of us in the norhtern hemisphere) approach the longest night. Jesus’ disciples are tasked with showing the world how to walk in the dark.

The darkness we see around us today might be around for a good long time. It might outlive us. But the darkness will not outlive the one who commands light to shine out of darkness and speaks that light into flesh and blood. As real as the darkness of slavery, so real is the Exodus. As real as the cross, so real is the resurrected Christ. Jesus promises us that, though “heaven and earth will pass away…my words will not pass away.” Luke 21:33. Hope clings to these words, holds its head high and walks boldly through the darkness.

Here is a poem about hope by Emily Dickinson  about hope.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

SourceThe Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, (c. 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; edited by Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.) Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) is indisputably one of America’s greatest and most original poets. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she attended a one-room primary school in that town and went on to Amherst Academy, the school out of which Amherst College grew. In the fall of 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where students were divided into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Emily, along with thirty other classmates, found herself in the latter category. Though often characterized a “recluse,” Dickinson kept up with numerous correspondents, family members and teachers throughout her lifetime. You can find out more about Emily Dickinson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

O Christ, What Can it Mean for Us to Claim You as Our King?


Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Psalm 93

Revelation 1:4b-8

John 18:33-37

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever. Grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“My kingdom is not from this world.” John 18:36.

Referring to Jesus as king is problematic on a number of fronts. For starters, we Americans are not overly fond of kings. We threw our last one out over two centuries ago and made it clear then that we are done with kings-except, of course, for the famous king who lets us “have it our way.” The American Revolution started a global trend that virtually ended monarchy worldwide. Such kings as remain are little more than figureheads. They are called upon to cut ribbons for new highways, christen ships and throw dinners for visiting heads of state. But the role of governing has been taken over by presidents, premiers, parliaments and legislatures elected and answerable to the people. Even ruthless dictators claim that they represent the interests and will of the people and use that excuse for all manner of atrocities. Every leader these days must at least pay lip service to our strongly held conviction that government draws its authority from the consent of the governed.

Not so, kings. A king is not the least bit interested in approval ratings, polls or what the press might have to say. Kings do not rule at the pleasure of the people. They reign by divine right. Understand, however, that kings are not dictators exercising power arbitrarily for their own selfish ends. They are themselves governed by a higher law-or so the scriptures tell us:

“Give the king your justice, O God,
   and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
   and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
   and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
   give deliverance to the needy,
   and crush the oppressor.


“For he delivers the needy when they call,
   the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
   and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
   and precious is their blood in his sight.”  Psalm 72:1-4; 12-14.

The office of monarch is conferred upon one appointed by God to ensure justice, protect the interests of the most vulnerable and punish injustice and oppression. This divine authority conferred upon kings must never be used for selfish and unjust ends-as both David and Ahab learned. See II Samuel 11-12; I Kings 21:1-19. As God’s vicegerent, the king is entrusted with the responsibility of enacting God’s will for justice, peace and the wellbeing of all people. Though not answerable to the public, the king is directly responsible to God in a way that ordinary individuals are not. Thus, the crown is as much a weighty burden as it is a privilege. Few there are who wear it well. The temptations coming with royal power and the difficulties of wielding it wisely are many. Martin Luther is said to have remarked that a good prince is a rare bird. Great literature from antiquity to the present day is filled with stories of mighty kings brought low by their fatal character flaws. The responsibilities of monarchy, it seems, are more than any human person can bear.  

That is true for Jesus no less than for the rest of us. Earlier on in John’s gospel, Jesus thwarted the effort of an adoring crowd to crown him king. John 6:15. According to Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels, Jesus was offered global kingship by none other than the devil. Putting aside the fact that it comes from the devil, that does not seem like a bad proposition on the face of it. What might the world be like today had the vast power of all the world’s kingdoms been placed in the hands of Jesus? Actually, no different at all. No kingdom that is “of this world,” even one ruled by Jesus, is capable of enacting God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.”  That is because God will not rule God’s precious creation by coercive means. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord-but not out of fear and not by compulsion. Jesus will overcome the world, but not by military conquest, political maneuvering or the manipulative power of populist charisma. He will rule through love, winning one heart at a time, changing one mind at a time and transforming one life at a time for as long as it takes to turn us away from our self destructive trajectory and toward God’s gentle reign.

So we are left with the question posed by one of our hymns: “O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?”[1] Jesus gives us a picture of what that looks like:  

“Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.” John 13:1-5.  

It is important to note that, at this point, Judas Iscariot is still among the disciples. Jesus washed his feet also. That is how Jesus’ disciples are to confront their enemies-the same way as they are to deal with one another. There can be no limitations on the love God lavishes upon the world and we are not to concern ourselves with doubts about whether our works of love for anyone are appreciated or make any difference at all. Though the gospels are not altogether consistent concerning the fate of Judas after his betrayal, it seems unlikely that he ever found his way back to the community of disciples. If, as Matthew’s gospel tells us, Judas ended his own life upon learning that Jesus had been condemned to death, then Jesus’ humble act of kindness toward him might well have been the last touch of human compassion he felt. Whether that made a difference we do not know. Neither does it matter.

In this polarized world in which kingdoms vie with each other for dominance, for control over limited resources and for supremacy based on blood, soil, race and national identity, Jesus calls together a community to begin living now in the promised reign of God to come. The church is to be a sign, a sacrament, if you will, of God’s reign. To be clear, the church is not the kingdom of God. It can, at best, bear witness to that reality in its always flawed and never complete efforts to follow in the way of its King. That way takes the form of the cross in a world bound and determined to reject its King. The hand extended in friendship into enemy territory may well find itself nail pierced. After all, Jesus told his disciples that “whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” John 12:26. As it happens, Jesus is among refugees most of America wants to keep out of our country. Jesus dwells in the midst of nations and groups designated enemies by our government. Jesus is among the incarcerated, the homeless and the sick and elderly poor warehoused in substandard facilities. Jesus calls us to join him in crossing borders, breaking down walls and building bridges over rivers of hostility. Claiming Jesus as our king means rejecting the nationalistic, racist and violent ways of this world’s kingdoms. His is a kingdom passionately devoted to loving the world, but does not spring from the same root as the many fleeting kingdoms vying to reign over it.   

Here is an anonymous poetic component of a Sabbath rite developed in the Galilean town of Safed in the sixteenth century. It is addressed to the Sabbath angels and was typically sung when the men of the household came in from their work. Though the prayer seeks peace of the household it points beyond itself to the larger harmony of existence under God’s gentle reign. As such, it is an appropriate meditation for the day.  

Peace be Upon You

Peace be upon you—

      ministering angels,

            angels of heaven—

from the King who is king of all kings,

      the Holy One, blessed be He;

      in peace be your coming—

            angels of peace,

                  angels of heaven—

from the King who is king of all kings,

      the Holy One, blessed be He.

Bless me with peace—

      angels of peace,

            angels of heaven—

from the King who is king of all kings,

      the Holy One, blessed be He,

      in peace be your leaving—

            angels of peace,

                  angels of heaven,

from the King who is king of all kings,

      the Holy One, blessed be He.

Source: Poetry, March 2012. This anonymous liturgy is translated by Peter Cole (b. 1957), a MacArthur-winning poet and translator who lives in Jerusalem and New Haven. He was born in Paterson, New Jersey and attended Williams College and Hampshire college.  Cole’s work as both a poet and a translator reflects a sustained engagement with the cultures of Judaism and especially of the Middle East. He currently teaches one semester a year at Yale University. You can find out more about Peter Cole and his work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] “O Christ What Can It Mean for Us,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Hymn # 431 (c. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; pub. by Augsburg Fortress). Text by Delores Dufner, Music by Henry S. Culer

When Bad News is Good


Daniel 12:1-3

Psalm 16

Hebrews 10:11-25

Mark 13:1-8

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, your sovereign purpose brings salvation to birth. Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, trusting that your kingdom comes and your will is done through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” Mark 13:1-2.

It was November of 1976, right around Thanksgiving, that I visited New York City for the first time. My brother was serving as pastor to a congregation in Brooklyn at the time and I was to spend the holiday with him. I was coming into Grand Central Station on Amtrack from Valparaiso, Indiana and he was returning from a meeting in New Jersey. We planned to meet at the World Trade Center stop-a place I had never been and was hoping to high heaven I would be able to find.  My fears on that score were soon allayed. The maps and signage were clear and direct. Within no time I was on the A train speeding south. When I got off at “WTC,” my brother was waiting for me. We took an escalator to street level and passed out of the station into the street. That is when I first saw them-the Twin Towers. Standing directly beneath them, it was impossible to get a full appreciation of their true height. But I knew I was standing next to a marvel of human architecture, the magnitude of which made me feel like an ant. It surely would never have occurred to me then that not a shard from these great monoliths would be standing in just over two decades hence.

I expect the disciples, who grew up along with Jesus in the hinterlands of Galilee, were about as awestruck as me and the rest of the tourists standing under the Twin Towers all those years ago. And that for good reason. The temple erected in Jerusalem under the direction of Herod the Great was an architectural marvel equal to the Mayan pyramids, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and the Roman Amphitheater . Like the Twin Towers, the Jerusalem temple was a hub of commercial activity and, in addition, a powerful symbol of Israel’s identity. Its destruction was probably as hard to imagine as the fall of the Twin Towers used to be. Yet both structures, Temple and Towers, are now only memories.

Jesus’ words serve as a powerful reminder that nothing is safe from the ruinous currents of history. The ground on which we stand is never as firm as we believe. Growing up as I did in the Cold War era, I could not imagine a world without the threat of Soviet nukes facing off with our own ending, best case scenario, in a perpetual stalemate. But Balkan states rejected Soviet rule, the Berlin wall fell as did the Soviet Union itself, all in fairly rapid succession giving birth to a new order with its own set of problems. I grew up believing that the rights and freedoms we Americans hold dear would always be protected by a system of constitutional checks and balances enshrined in the rule law. On January 6th of this year I watched in real time as that bedrock principle was violently attacked and, if not destroyed, mortally wounded. There is, as the old hymn reminds us, “change and decay in all around I see.”

None of this should be surprising. Jesus warns us that “wars and rumors of wars” will characterize life for the indefinite future. Empires will rise, shake the earth and fade away. New ideologies, religions and movements will take root and grow. Old ones will endure or lose credibility or die out altogether-and perhaps re-emerge in some other form. Culture, morals and priorities will change from generation to generation. And a lot of us don’t like any of this. It pisses us off. Witness the rage of angry white men who see their privilege melting away and scream about “taking the country back again.” Witness the anger of individuals and congregations that have departed their churches in response to the long overdue welcome extended to LGBTQA+ folk. Witness the craven, paranoid mindset that gives credence to ridiculous conspiracy theories such as “replacement theory.” For many of us, change means loss. It means somebody is taking something away from us.

Jesus, however, doesn’t see it that way. While the tumult, uncertainty and change might look like and might, in fact, be the death throws of the world as we know it, Jesus would have us know that they are the “birth pangs” of something new. Furthermore, that something new is the just, peaceful and gentle reign of God. And whether that is good news or bad depends on where your loyalties lie. For those of us heavily invested in our existing privilege, for those of us who are comfortable with the status quo, for those of us who believe our best days are behind us and that our salvation lies in making America, the church or (you fill in the blank) great again, change is bad news. What we are desperately trying to save, God is taking away from us. We are not going to win that tug-of-war. But for those formerly marginalized, excluded and vilified who now experience welcome and inclusion, the dissolution of the old is good news, the news proclaimed by the Mother of Our Lord:

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

As a brother in a prayer group in which I participate reminded me last week, the darkness we experience is not, for those who have eyes to see, the darkness of the tomb. It is the darkness of the womb, or, as Jesus would say, “birth pangs.”

So, if like me, you are troubled by Sunday’s gospel, perhaps we need to re-examine our loyalties and priorities. Maybe we should question our assumption that God is on our side and ask ourselves whether we are on God’s side. Maybe we need to hear these troubling words of Jesus as bad news before we can hear them as good news. Perhaps we need to start letting go of everything we are afraid of losing so that our hands will be free to receive all that God would give us.

Here is a poem by Mark McCloskey illustrating the destructive effects of hanging on to a vanishing past and freedom to embrace a better future that comes with letting go.

A Change for the Better

What do chairs and tables mean in tombs?

Weren’t the lovers buried there

Stingy when they made their wills?

And when the time came for them to quit their bed

Didn’t they forget a certain narrowness?

Darling, what do you think of this?

We’re moving to another house,

And disarranging all our hands were fond of

Makes us lose our tempers with all the doors

So that we slam them between each other

And hobble round on canes of silence.

What happened to the gipsy-looks we had,

Seeing no good luck in settling down,

In things that didn’t breathe or move?

Look at the furniture we’ve gathered:

How come we went so far we got to love it,

As if bones don’t darken with their tombs?

Well, it’s enough death for us:

It’s better that we live on wind

And keep no dust or stillness anymore between us.

Source: Poetry, January 1965. I know nothing of this poet, other than that he is definitely not the Mark McCloskey who, with along with his wife, threatened unarmed Black Lives Matter protesters marching past his suburban home in St. Louis, Missouri, was arrested, pleaded guilty to harassment and is now running for U.S. Senate.

Comprehending the Incomprehensible


Isaiah 25:6-9

Psalm 24

Revelation 21:1-6a

John 11:32-44

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And [the Lord] will destroy on this mountain
   the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
   the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death for ever.” Isaiah 25:7-8

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting…” Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed

I listened this week to a “panel of experts” on NPR discussing the corrosive effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on children and young people. That, at least, is where the discussion began. However, it soon evolved into a more general discussion about the struggle of people generally against despair in the face of many existential threats, not the least of which is human induced climate change. The existence of that reality, now recognized by everyone outside of the right wing lunatic fringe, and the alarming warnings from the scientific community regarding its extent are beginning to sink into the public psyche in a significant way.

I must confess that I was only listening with half an ear to all of this. After all, they weren’t telling me anything I did not already know. Moreover, while I am sure the anxiety and isolation occasioned by the pandemic and the ensuing quarantine was stressful for children, I am not sure it was any more stressful than growing up, as I did, knowing that the world could end with the push of a button and contemplating that reality while cowering under a desk at school. But then the panelists were asked how they, as parents and teachers, model hope for their children in the face of what the future may well hold for us. At that point, both my ears perked up.

The question seemed to have caught all the panelists off guard. Each one admitted that, at times, they needed to take a break from the dark global realities and focus on what makes their lives meaningful and worth living. “Acting locally,” said one panelist, “makes me feel less helpless and despondent about what is happening globally. I feel like I am not just resigned to the inevitable.” The rest expressed similar sentiments. I share this view for the most part. I may not be able single handedly to save the Cape from the perils of rising seas, beach erosion and the ecological damage caused by warming seas. But I still bring a bag along when I walk on the beach for any deflated balloons, plastic straws and bottles I encounter along the way. Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.

That said, it seems to me, as witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, we have got more to say than NPR’s panel of experts. The church may not be an authority on matters of epidemiology or climatology. But when it comes to existential threats, that’s our wheelhouse. Existential threats is what we do. When the last medical intervention fails, the lines go flat and the medical experts all exit the room, we stick around. We remain because we are convinced that the story is not over. “Truly, Truly I say to you,” says Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” John 12:24. “For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable,” says Saint Paul. I Corinthians 15:52.

What is true for individuals is just as true for planets. John of Patmos tells us in Sunday’s lesson from Revelation, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…” Revelation 21:1. I want to say emphatically that I am far from despondent over the state of the world. Though there is plenty of reason for concern about the future of our planet and good reason to doubt that world leaders possess the political will to take bold actions and make sacrifices necessary to address the dangers confronting us, I know that in all events, great and small, there is a God factor involved. I have seen too many seemingly hopeless situations take startling and inexplicable positive turns, too many tragic events turned to redemptive purposes and too many irresolvable conflicts resolved to believe that the ecological ruin of our planet in the near future is inevitable. So I remain hopeful that there are enough courageous, wise and resolute souls the Spirit of God might yet employ to turn us away from the path of self destruction.

That said, our best science assures us that our planet will one day meet its demise. A resolute and effective global effort to reduce carbon emissions can postpone the existential threat hanging over the earth, but not eliminate it. Our planet, like each one of our lives, had a beginning and will have an end. But the scriptures tell us that its beginning is rooted in God’s spoken Word, its redemption is rooted in God’s Incarnate Word and its end is God’s triumphant declaration “Behold, I make all things new.” Knowing that does not make the prospect of death pleasant, but it does take the “sting” out of it.

I think we American protestants are reluctant to preach the resurrection in such bold, cosmic terms because, frankly, it embarrasses us. For the last century at least, much of our theology has been aimed at accommodating modernism. We have largely accepted uncritically the 19th Century’s equation of “empirically demonstrable facts” with the sum total of all truth and “reason” as the final arbiter of what is “real.” Numerical values and what they can measure is the sum total of what is. As for what we perceive through experiencing music, viewing graphic art, dance and poetry, that is nothing more than the product of chemical reactions in the brain triggering pleasurable or unpleasurable responses. Of course, the same goes for religion.

Finding themselves in this shrink wraped cosmos with no room for religion, theologians struggle to find a place for God. We try to push God beyond the big bang setting off the universe where we imagine God will be safe from the prying inquiries of science. We look for explanations of biblical miracles that place them firmly within the parameters of what can be explained and understood-or we reject them out of hand. Two examples come to mind, namely, the recently deceased Marcus Borg and Bishop John Shelby Spong. Both of these prominent teachers contend that much of the scriptures are premised on a primitive understanding of the universe as a “three story” structure with heaven above, hell below and the earth in the middle. Given our contemporary scientific view of the origin of the universe, the formation of our planet, the evolution of life generally and human evolution in particular, the claim that Jesus rose from death, ascended into heaven and sits at God’s right hand is unsustainable. So too are the virgin birth and the gospel miracles. These assertions are more fully (and perhaps more fairly) expressed in the writings of these two theologians. See Why Christianity Must Change or Die, Spong, John Shelby, (c. 1999; pub. by HarperOne) and  Speaking Christian, Borg, Marcus, (HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., c. 2011).

While I have profound respect for both of the above teachers, I think they are wrong. First, I believe there is more than a hint of colonial hubris in blindly assuming the Enlightenment/modernist values and assumptions developing out of northern European culture represent the peak of human understanding and that all prior perceptions of the cosmos (and, by extension, non-western views) are irrational and antiquated. For one thing, I don’t believe the ancients were at all as simplistic in their understanding of the universe as Borg and Spong imply. Long before Christopher Columbus sailed to what later became known as “the Americas,” nearly everyone understood that the world was round and that the stars occupied orbits in outer space. Moreover, fear of digging into hell never stopped the ancients from mining precious metals. The “three story universe” was never understood by learned people of ancient times, Christian or pagan, to represent literally (or even figuratively) the structure of the cosmos. While their assumptions about the nature of the cosmos often turned out to be mistaken, our ancestors’ formed those assumptions based on observations of cause and effect in the realm of nature. They were not derived from craven superstition.

I would also add that, long before western science coined the term “ecology,” the indigenous Americans well understood the symbiotic relationship between their communities, the land on which they dwelt and the animals with whom they shared that land. Had the “enlightened” settlers on our shores taken the time to learn the wisdom of these prior inhabitants, they might have figured out centuries earlier that the earth is not a lifeless blob of resources to be exploited, that the extinction of one species upsets the whole biosphere and that our own wellbeing depends on the health of our forests, grasslands, rivers and wetlands. Perhaps we would be living in a much different country. It turns out that truths learned and passed down through story, song and dance are no less “real” than those discerned in the laboratory.

That brings me to my second point. There are other ways of “knowing” than through empirical observation. Albert Einstein is credited with saying that imagination is more important than knowledge. I have not been able to verify that. But whether said by Einstein or someone else, it is true. Human imagination has the capacity, not merely to ascertain what is, but to dream of what might be. It opens us up to the realm of mystery, that which is real but beyond our understanding. The imaginative mind knows that every question answered spawns hundreds more. I doubt we will ever have a “theory of everything.” I for one am glad for that. I would not want to live in a world so small that there are no more questions to be answered, no more equations to work out, no more marvels to be discovered, no more paradoxes to puzzle over. Borg and Spong might complain that miracles, resurrection, eternal life and the communion of saints are incomprehensible to the modern mind. They would be correct. But I would respond that any religion comprehensible within the straight jacket of modernism is not a faith worth having.  

Here is a highly imaginative hymn written by John Mason Neale celebrating the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. It comes to us from The Lutheran Hymnal of 1940. Unfortunately (in my opinion) it did not make the cut for subsequent Lutheran hymnals.

Jerusalem the Golden

1 Jerusalem the golden,
with milk and honey blest,
beneath your contemplation
sink heart and voice oppressed.
I know not, O I know not,
what joys await us there;
what radiancy of glory,
what bliss beyond compare.

2 They stand, those halls of Zion,
all jubilant with song,
and bright with many an angel,
and all the martyr throng.
The Prince is ever in them,
the daylight is serene;
the pastures of the blessed
are decked in glorious sheen.

3 There is the throne of David;
and there, from care released,
the song of them that triumph,
the shout of them that feast;
and they who with their Leader
have conquered in the fight,
forever and forever
are clad in robes of white.

4 O sweet and blessed country,
the home of God’s elect!
O sweet and blessed country
that eager hearts expect!
Jesus, in mercy bring us
to that dear land of rest;
who are, with God the Father
and Spirit, ever blest.

Source: This hymn is in the public domain. John Mason Neale (1818 –1866) was an English Anglican priest, scholar and hymnwriter. He was born in London. He was educated at Sherborne School in Dorset and Trinity College in Cambridge. Neale was the principal founder of the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches Union in 1864. This organization, in turn, produced the volume, Hymns of the Eastern Church, edited by John Mason Neale and published in 1865. Neale translated a wide range of holy Christian texts, including obscure medieval hymns, both Western and Eastern. His hymns have been received in Anglicanism, Orthodoxy and many protestant communions. The above hymn was inspired by a poem authored by Bernard of Morlas, a French Cluniac monk who lived in the twelfth century. You can read more about John Mason Neale and sample more of his hymns at the Hymnology Archive website.