Monthly Archives: January 2022

Water is Thicker than Blood

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm 71:1-6

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Luke 4:21-30

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Luke 4:25-27.

It is not clear exactly when the crowd at Jesus’ synagogue went sour on Jesus. But somehow, they went from amazement “at the gracious words that came from his mouth” to wanting to stone him to death. Some commentators suggest retranslating “amazement” as “indignation” and “gracious” as “arrogant.” Personally, I think that is a stretch. But be that as it may, it is obvious that the synagogue audience was further inflamed by Jesus’ observation that God’s favor is frequently poured out upon those considered well outside the scope of God’s covenant promises. That goes against our natural human tendency to identify God with “us,” with “our people” and with “our country.”

I learned first hand just how deep this tribalizing, racializing, nationalizing of God runs when I placed the above passage from Leviticus on our church sign. I did that in early 2017, just after the Trump anti-Muslim ban went into effect wreaking havoc to the great satisfaction to his supporters. Within hours after the message went up, I got an anonymous phone call from an irate individual who accused me of betraying Christianity and undermining the president. A couple of my members took me aside to point out that this message was probably offending a lot of people in our community. It did not matter much that the message on my sign came directly from the Bible anymore than it mattered to Jesus’ audience that his examples came directly from the scriptures. Religious hate takes from the Bible only what it thinks it can use and disregards the rest. I should probably be thankful that no one tried to stone me.

God’s love for the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast and the outsider fairly echoes throughout the scriptures. From God’s promise in Genesis to make Abraham’s and Sarah’s descendants a blessing for all nations to John of Patmos’ vision of Gods new creation peopled by persons of every nation, tribe and tongue, the point is made that God shows no favoritism, knows no national boundary and respects no distinction of race, class or gender. Inclusiveness is a biblical fundamental, albeit ever so unpopular among so many who claim the Bible as their ultimate authority. A prophet who declares that the promises of God’s salvation have come is welcome among his own-until he begins to suggest that salvation might extend beyond his own. That is when the stones begin to fly.

Israel struggled throughout the biblical narrative with the temptation to view itself as a people blessed with privilege rather than privileged to bless the nations of the world. So, too, the church has had to fight the temptation to view itself as having for its own possession the privilege of God’s salvation rather than privileged with the task of proclaiming God’s salvation to the world. Nowhere is that struggle more visibly illustrated than in American Christianity. The lurid and bizarre examples of Christian nationalism and evangelical Trumpism that must of us mainline progressives find so troublesome has its roots in a deep seated conflation in our collective consciences of Christian religion and American mythology. In short, we are all more American than we are Christian. What else can explain the covenant between politics advocating punitive measures against refugees fleeing to our land for their lives and Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan? It can only be that the claim of nation, race, blood and soil runs deeper than the baptismal claim transcending all of these distinctions. As the popular saying goes, “blood is thicker than water.”

According to the faith in Jesus we profess, the opposite is true. Water is thicker than blood. Our baptismal covenant calls us to a higher loyalty than the claims of family, tribe, culture race and nation. As Saint Peter reminds us, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Acts 10:34-35. The neighbors Jesus calls us to love and to serve live on both sides of every humanly drawn border and that call takes precedence over every nation’s interests in preserving, protecting and maintaining such borders. That is the truth of the gospel grounded in scripture. For all those who find it offensive to their politics, we can only suggest that they get themselves another politics-or another savior.  

Here is a poem by Tsitsi  Ella Jaji reflecting upon the struggles of the alien in our midst. Is there any question as to how Jesus would have his church respond to these folk trapped in the bureaucratic machinery of our broken immigration system and subject to so much public hostility?       

Document for U.S. Citizens Who Have Never Applied for a Visa and Have Had It Up to Here with Those Loud Aliens Who Go On and On about Some Letter

It is not like going to the bank.

There are no hard candies in a basket made in China,
and no Kleenexes on the counter.
There is no refund if someone forgets to wish you a good day.

There are no chairs for the aged,
no toys for two-year-olds with earaches,
no supervisor to speak to in case of the
Absurd.

There are no meal vouchers if it takes all day,
no list of local hotels with a negotiated rate.
No one wants to know if you are a doctor.

Plastic is not magic. Seals are not signs.
Your cousin-brother’s wedding is not relevant.
Hell, there is no such thing as a cousin-brother.

And it is always your fault: not enough planning,
the wrong color passport, the misplaced stress
in a word.

Source: Beating the Graves, Tsitsi  Ella Jaji (c. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.) Tsitsi Ella Jaji is an associate professor of English at Duke University. Her expertise is in African and African American literary and cultural studies. Tsitsi’s interests include music, poetry, and black feminism. She previously taught at University of Pennsylvania. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities/Schomburg Center, Mellon Foundation, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, and National Humanities Center. Her poems have appeared in Harvard Review, The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, Black Renaissance Noire, Almost Island, Prairie Schooner, Bitter Oleander, and others. You can learn more about Tsitsi Ella Jaji and her many literary contributions at the Duke University website.

The Bible: Handle with Care & Keep out of Reach of Children

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm 19

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Luke 4:14-21

Prayer of the Day: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

“Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen’, lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Nehemiah 8:6-8.

“And [Jesus] rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Luke 4:20-21.  

Last summer I read an article published in the Christian Century by Matthew Schlimm, a professor of Old Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary entitled “Violent Texts.” Schlimm begins his thoughtful reflection by recounting a discussion he had with his young daughter who, upon receiving her first Bible, happened upon Deuteronomy 20 and, more specifically, the following admonition:

“But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 20:16-18.

Why, asked this elementary school age girl, who had been taught from infancy that God is loving and merciful, does the Bible, which is supposed to be God’s word, have God commanding God’s people to kill whole populations of cities, including small children? As I read about Professor Schimm’s struggle to respond to his daughter’s question, it occurred to me for the first time that putting the Bible into the hands of impressionable young children might not be a good idea. Can you imagine the outcry in any community where it became known that the local elementary school was distributing a book to its students promoting genocide, describing gang rape in lurid detail and normalizing polygamy and sexual slavery? Yet our churches routinely hand out Bibles to Sunday School children, give them as gifts to confirmands and include them in the children’s section of their libraries. Nobody bats an eye at that because, after all, it is the Bible. Yet, clearly, there is material in the Bible that is not fit for the eyes of children.

The Bible is a nuanced book as layered and complex as the human condition out of which it arose and to which it addresses itself. It requires interpretation as both the gospel and our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures illustrate. I believe that Martin Luther was greatly mistaken in thinking that placing the Bible in the hands of the public would dispel the abuses of the medieval church and make the truth of the gospel obvious and clear. The Reformation Luther sparked proved to be a mixed blessing. While it gave rise to many faith traditions that have reformed and enriched the church catholic, it also spawned a host of bizarre and dangerous cults appealing to the worst human traits. In our twenty-first century American culture, the Bible has become a source of ammunition in a political culture war for power and dominance having little to do with Jesus and the gentle reign of God he proclaims. The Bible is routinely used as a club to bludgeon, shame and exclude in the name of God. In the hands of the wrong people, the Bible is a dangerous book.

None of this is to say that children should not be taught the biblical narrative or that troublesome texts should be expunged from the Bible. Nevertheless, as with everything else in life, what we share with children should be determined by their levels of development and maturity. When the nation was attacked on September 11, 2001, I told my children what had occurred. I did not, however, show them footage of the people who jumped out of the windows of the Twin Towers to escape the flames or the charred bodies of those who went down with the plane that crashed over Pennsylvania. Nor did I give them lurid details about threats made against Americans by Al Qaeda. I emphasized that while some evil people had done a terrible thing, there are good people all over the world, that we are all looking out for one another and that they should feel safe and secure. That was far from the whole truth, but it wasn’t a lie. It was as much of the truth as my children were able to absorb at the time and as much as they needed to hear.

Just as we should not be placing Bibles in the hands of children without a thought to how they will be read and understood, we should not leave the Bible’s interpretation up to any individuals who decide to take it upon themselves. God knows we have seen no shortage of individuals who, wrenching passages of scripture out of context and arranging them to their own liking, have constructed religious justifications for systemic racism, persecution of sexual minorities and all manner of state violence. Evangelical Trumpism proclaimed by the likes of Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee, James Dobson and Scott Lively come to mind. As Saint Peter reminds us, “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” II Peter 1:20. Just as scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit, so it must be interpreted by the Spirit. Our lesson from I Corinthians reminds us that the church of Christ is not a voluntary organization of independent individuals. It is a body of interdependent members, all of which are responsible to one another and subject to Jesus Christ as their head. Thus, I can no more read and interpret the scriptures on my own terms and independent of the church’s input and guidance than a hand severed from the body can shuffle a deck of cards. The Bible is rightly interpreted only within and through communities of faith. Accordingly, even when I read the Bible privately, I never read it alone. I always read the scriptures in dialogue with Athanasius, Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Theresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Martin Luther, Hildegard von Bingen, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., Phyllis Trible, James H. Cone, the pastors, teachers and colleagues whose influence has shaped me.

We need to be clear about what the Bible is and how its message is mediated. While some believers maintain that we as Christians are a “people of the book,” I think it is more accurate-or at least as accurate-to say that the Bible is the book of a particular people. Without the Jewish people and the Church, the Bible would be nothing more than an historical curiosity, such as the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be of interest to archeologists and historians of ancient religion, but of no relevance to anyone else. The Bible is given meaning by the life, witness and ministry of the communities in which it evolved and which it has formed. These communities, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, bear the responsibility of interpreting God’s word in and through the Bible. I would add that we are also responsible for speaking out against the abuse of our scriptures by political leaders and nationalistic pseudo Christian organizations and demagogues advancing hateful ideologies and agendas.

In the final analysis, we read the Bible because we find ourselves in it-cowards denying our Lord; martyrs putting our lives on the line for him; clueless disciples who follow Jesus without quite understanding why; mystics who grasp, however briefly and incompletely, the truth, beauty and goodness that is God; doubters longing to touch mysteries forever beyond their grasp; believers who walk by faith rather than by sight; people driven by violence, lust and greed; people inspired by love, hope and the vision of God’s gentle reign. The biblical narratives, prayers and teachings show us who we are and what we might yet become. They remind us that our stories, twisted, unfinished and painful as they may be, are the material out of which God is fashioning something beautiful, something we name as the reign of God, the new creation, heaven, the new Jerusalem and eternal life-though these terms can only scratch the surface of what it means for God to be “all in all.” I Corinthians 15:28.

Here is a poem by Jeffry Skinner about finding oneself in literature that reflects in some respects the experience of finding oneself in the Biblical narrative.  

The Bookshelf of the God of Infinite Space 

You would expect an uncountable number,
Acres and acres of books in rows
Like wheat or gold bullion. Or that the words just
Appear in the mind, like banner headlines.
In fact there is one shelf
Holding a modest number, ten or twelve volumes.
No dust jackets, because — no dust.
Covers made of gold or skin
Or golden skin, or creosote or rain-
Soaked macadam, or some
Mix of salt & glass. You turn a page
& mountains rise, clouds drawn by children
Bubble in the sky, you are twenty
Again, trying to read a map
Dissolving in your hands. I say You & mean
Me, say God & mean Librarian — who after long research
Offers you a glass of water and an apple — 
You, grateful to discover your name,
A footnote in that book.

Source: Poetry, December 2015. Jeffry Skinner is an American poet, writer, playwright and emeritus professor in the Department of English at the University of Louisville. He is editor of two anthologies of poems, Last Call: Poems of Alcoholism, Addiction, and Deliverance; and Passing the Word: Poets and Their Mentors. Skinner’s poems have been published in The New YorkerThe AtlanticThe NationThe American Poetry ReviewPoetryThe Georgia Review and The Paris Review. These poems, along with his plays and stories, have earned him grants, fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ingram Merrill Foundation, the Howard Foundation and the state arts agencies of Connecticut, Delaware and Kentucky. You can sample more of Jeffry Skinner’s poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

The Truth of Abundance and the Myth of Scarcity

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm 36:5-10

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

John 2:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“You have kept the good wine until now.” John 2:10.

According to our gospel lesson, Jesus produced at least 120 and perhaps as much as 180 gallons of wine. That is a lot of wine for what must have been a modest wedding reception. And it was good wine, too-not the box variety. John the Evangelist tells us that this was Jesus’ first sign that God provides freely and abundantly all that we need, not merely to survive but to thrive. And that is good news for a generation convinced that we are running out of everything and that we do not have enough of anything. We have been convinced that the world is a shrinking pie among a growing number of hungry mouths to be fed. If you are smart, you will grab your slice before it is all gone. That is why we cannot afford to provide health care and housing for our poor at home, sanctuary for people coming to our shores fleeing violence and starvation or relief to needy populations around the world. The world simply cannot afford the poor.

Jesus would have us know that it is quite the other way around. The world can, in fact, provide more than adequately to feed human need. It cannot, however, afford to feed the bottomless pit of human greed. The earth and its ecosystems are not threatened by our basic needs for food and shelter. They are threatened rather by an economic system that survives by exploiting greed for profit, creating ever more markets for luxury goods and services designed to stimulate an insatiable thirst for “more.” This unrestrained pursuit of bigger homes, flashier cars, more exotic vacations and more sophisticated gadgets to feed corporate gain is finally unsustainable. Put simply, the world cannot afford the rich. The prophets of the Hebrew scriptures understood this well as did Mary the Mother of our Lord who sings of the day when God will level the field:

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

The good news for a world convinced it is running out of everything is that it does, in fact, have enough and to spare. This lesson, graphically illustrated during the wedding at Cana, will be repeated at the feeding of the of the five thousand, with the healing of the man born blind, the raising of Lazarus and, most compellingly, in the resurrection of Jesus. When it seems that the tank is empty, the road at a dead end and no way forward exists, God supplies for the need, opens up new possibilities and reveals a way through the impenetrable darkness we could not have foreseen on our own. For our part, we need simply to believe and trust. “We walk by faith and not by sight” as the Apostle Paul reminds us. II Corinthians 5:7.

Faith, however, is not a fatalistic resignation to what is waiting for God to fix it. As the Apostle James reminds us, “faith without works is dead.” James 2:17. It is because we believe that God is capable of providing all we need to live abundantly that we can afford to live generously. It is because we believe that God provides all that we need to live well that we can respond faithfully to the call for reparations to people of color for past and present injustice and inequality. It is because we believe that the earth is the Lord’s that we resist the temptation to guard jealously humanly drawn national borders and welcome the stranger into our midst. It is because we believe that God’s grace is inexhaustible that we dare to hope for a better future when all the indicators are to the contrary. As Martin Luther puts it, “Faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing.”[1]

In this vein, I recall a visit I made to an aged pastor in a Brooklyn nursing home during my internship. He was a delightful gentleman from the Haugean pietist tradition with a deep faith and a quick wit. On parting, he always reminded me, “remember to say your prayers.” “Will do,” I always replied. One day I added on, “and you too.” “Oh, I’ll pray alright,” he replied. “That’s about all that’s left of my ministry.” Then he added, “and the funny thing is, I’ve never felt more productive!” This old child of God understood that, even as he drew near to the frontiers of death and had seemingly so little to offer, the good wine keeps on flowing and God always saves the best wine for last.

This ancient Passover liturgy reflects both the gratitude for and confidence in God’s generosity that should be reflected in our lives.

Dayenu (It Would Have Sufficed)

If He had brought us out from Egypt,and had not carried out judgments against them – It would have sufficed!I

f He had carried out judgments against them,and not against their idols – It would have sufficed!

If He had destroyed their idols,and had not smitten their first-born – It would have sufficed!

If He had smitten their first-born,and had not given us their wealth – It would have sufficed! Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

 If He had given us their wealth,and had not split the sea for us – It would have sufficed!

If He had split the sea for us,and had not taken us through it on dry land – It would have sufficed!

If He had taken us through the sea on dry land,and had not drowned our oppressors in it – It would have sufficed!

If He had drowned our oppressors in it,and had not supplied our needs in the desert for forty years – It would have sufficed! Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had supplied our needs in the desert for forty years,and had not fed us the manna – It would have sufficed!

If He had fed us the manna,and had not given us the Shabbat – It would have sufficed!

If He had given us the Shabbat,and had not brought us before Mount Sinai – It would have sufficed!

If He had brought us before Mount Sinai,and had not given us the Torah – It would have sufficed! Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

If He had given us the Torah,and had not brought us into the land of Israel – It would have sufficed!

If He had brought us into the land of Israel,and not built for us the Holy Temple – It would have sufficed! Dayenu, it would have sufficed!

Source: Hebrew Children’s Songs; Translation source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dayenu


[1] I understand that there is some doubt as to whether Martin Luther actually said this. I am not overly concerned with that. I am reminded of the day I came home for Thanksgiving during my freshman year of college, filled with all the heady arrogance that goes with youth and a little bit of knowledge. At that time, I informed my mother in an erudite show of collegiate pride, that her favorite quote of Winston Churchill was not actually spoken by him. Without missing a beat, Mom replied, “Well, if he didn’t say that he should have.”

More than Happiness

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm 29

Acts 8:14-17

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:22.

One ought to hear in these divine words an echo of those spoken by the same God centuries before to Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Genesis 22:2. God is offering up God’s only Son as a sacrifice, not to satisfy some divine metaphysical necessity for the punishment of sin, but to fulfill God’s intent from the dawn of creation to “become flesh” and to “dwell among us.” John 1:14. If the Incarnation reveals God’s passionate desire to draw us to God’s self, the Passion Narrative illustrates God’s determination to see that incarnational intent through to the end-no matter what the cost.

I have frequently used the story of God’s command for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in baptismal sermons. That might strike you as unduly macabre, but it helps cut through the excessive, suffocating “cuteness” that always threatens to swallow what is supposed to be a life and death matter. After all, what else are we doing in baptism than offering up a human sacrifice? We are essentially tying the destiny of the baptized to the destiny of a man who got himself crucified. And for those of us who baptize infants, they have no more say in the matter than did poor Isaac! Believe it or not, I once turned to the baptismal family during the sermon, all of whom were sitting in the first front pews, and nearly shouted, “Are you all really OK with this?”

I could have retired years earlier if I had a dollar for every time I have heard people say of their children, “I just want them to be happy.” I don’t believe I have ever said that to or about my children because that is not all or even chiefly what I want for them. I want for my children to be kind, just, honest, merciful, forgiving, generous, courageous and faithful. I want my children to be passionate for justice, ready to put themselves between the most vulnerable among us and the jaws of oppression that would exploit them. In short, I pray that my children will fulfill the baptismal vows I made on their behalf to “learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.”  

Naturally, I do not wish unhappiness for my children. But I know that living faithfully into the gentle reign of God will likely bring them into conflict with a culture that measures success in dollars, an economy that runs on greed and politics driven by hateful ideologies. Honesty, integrity, courage and compassion can get you fired, imprisoned or even killed. Discipleship can rob us of all the hallmarks of happiness. There is a reason why Jesus told his disciples that following him meant taking up the cross. It was not an empty metaphor. So, yes, I would prefer that my children be happy. But if unhappiness is the price they must pay for following Jesus, so be it. There is more, much more to the life God would give us than mere happiness.

Here is a poem that captures the baptismal hope I have for my children and all the people I have baptized over the years.

Your Calling

Let no one tell you, girl,

that the mountain is too high,

the evil too deeply entrenched

the valley too steep

or that it’s too far to the sky.

Let no one say, my child,

that your dreams are too big,

that you are too small,

that what your heart knows is right

can never be and so ignore its call.

Let no man convince you to be practical

or chide you for lacking common sense.

For it just may be that God’s been waiting

endless ages for someone

blind to conventional wisdom,

someone bold enough to be good

rather than merely successful,

someone brave enough to be compassionate

instead of simply strong,

someone who would rather die

for a good cause than live for none at all.

So ignore all words of caution

and shut out all well meaning advice.

Silence the timid voice of warning

and listen with your whole heart to the call.

Anonymous