Monthly Archives: January 2023

No Justice, No Peace

FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Micah 6:1-8

Psalm 15

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Matthew 5:1-12

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, you confound the world’s wisdom in giving your kingdom to the lowly and the pure in heart. Give us such a hunger and thirst for justice, and perseverance in striving for peace, that in our words and deeds the world may see the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Matthew 5:9.

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
   and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
   and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8.

Jesus calls his disciples to peacemaking. But the peace to which Jesus refers is not the peace so many of us long for. It isn’t the kind of peace we imagine would follow if black folks would just stop harping on slavery and Jim Crow and let bygone be bygones. It isn’t the kind of tense peace that follows after Mom tactfully changes the subject when Uncle Ned makes a crude and sexist remark about a neighbor at Thanksgiving dinner. The peace of Jesus is not the kind of peace those of us in safe, affluent and homogenous communities experience when we crow about how God has blessed us, even as a substantial part of the world experiences want. The peace of Jesus is not ecclesiastical tranquility achieved by a system that permits some of its congregations to discriminate against LGBTQ+ folk and the rest of its churches to identify as “welcoming” to ensure they don’t wind up sitting in the wrong pew.

Peace without justice is no peace at all. Jesus made this painfully clear when he told his disciples that he had not come to make fragile, artificial and superficial peace:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” Matthew 10:34-38.  

There can be no peace as long as systemic injustice creates and maintains relationships of inequality and oppression. Efforts to dismantle these reigning “principalities and powers” often requires us to disturb the false peace of the status quo which is, in reality, a more subtle kind of war against the poor, the outcast and the persecuted. Ironically, Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was crucified for disturbing the peace.

There are many angles from which to think about peace. I would like to focus on the global angle because I believe it determines so much of what goes on locally. I begin with the United Nations, an institution through which numerous conflicts have been prevented or resolved and by which many global humanitarian crises are being effectively addressed. Obviously, the UN is responsible for doing a great deal of good in the world. Many faithful, courageus and dedicated people have and continue to do great humanitarian work through its many agencies. Yet, for all that, I would argue that its chief function is to maintain a ruthlessly unjust status quo. Though made up of six organizational divisions, the National Security Council is by far the dominant center of power, being responsible for recommending the admission of new UN members to the General Assembly. It is also the body holding final authority to approve any changes to the UN Charter. Its powers also include establishing “peacekeeping operations,” enacting international sanctions and authorizing military action. The Security Council is the only UN body with the authority to issue binding resolutions on member states.

Tellingly, the Security Council is made up of the following nation states: China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States. The common denominator here is a military with overwhelming nuclear capability that cannot be matched by anyone outside “the club.” At the same time, it is tacitly admitted that members of “the club” cannot afford to fight an all out war with each other. To do so would amount to mutual annihilation. So they engage each other through carefully managed “proxy wars,” such as the one currently raging in Ukraine. Throughout the years of the Cold War, such conflicts were waged in Africa as well as South and Central America. World wars have thus never been eliminated. They have simply been managed such that their carnage takes place in some distant corner of the world allowing citizens of Security Council members and their close allies to “live in peace.”

Of course, there is more to all of this than military dominance. The Security Council members are also home to the most powerful economies on the planet. The vast disparity in wealth between the northern and southern hemispheres mirrors representation in the UN hierarchy. With their national fates under the military and economic control of Western Europe, North America and China, the countries of Central America, South America, Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, still struggling with the ruinous effects of centuries of colonialism, find themselves still at the mercy of the military strategic and economic interests of the National Security club and its allies.

On the lowest rung of hell are those who have no nation. I speak of refugees whose countries of origin offer nothing but death by starvation or violence. These folks find themselves eking out a miserable hand to mouth existence in refugee camps or traveling long distances over sea and land hoping against hope to find a decent life in one of the many countries that don’t want them. They have absolutely no voice or vote in the global order and no rights of citizenship to invoke. They are, in effect, non persons. These people, so hated and feared that we are prepared to spend billions sealing our border against them, are paying the price for the peace and security we enjoy. World peace in our day, as was the case in Jesus’ day under the Roman Empire, is maintained through organized, systemic brutality for the privileged few at the expense of the many.

This global hierarchy of oppression works its way down to everyday life in our neighborhoods. Dying communities throughout the rust belt plagued with crime, addiction and poverty are products of a system valuing the needs of commerce over the needs of community. Toxic wastelands in our midst testify to the priority of corporate profits over the health and safety of our people. The vicious resistance on the part of government and industry to efforts addressing climate change testify to the determination of a few to hang onto an unsustainable way of life with callused disregard both for the many others and for the well being of their own children and grandchildren. True peace, the kind of peace to which Jesus calls us, requires dismantling structures of oppression maintaining the status quo of global inequality. There will be no peace until “justice roll[s] down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos 5:24. Peacemaking is a tall order that some might call impossible. But Jesus never calls us to anything easy.

The temptation here is to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the task and throw up our hands in despair. If peace and justice were solely our own responsibility, that temptation would become overwhelming. But the call to peacemaking is not an onerous obligation God lays upon us. It is God’s work in which we are invited to participate. The kingdom of God, Martin Luther reminds us, comes without our participation. But what fun is that? I think the worst consequence for those at the left hand of the Son of Man on the day of judgment lies not in any future torment, but in realizing the wasted years of their past. God was appealing to them every day of their lives in the eyes of the poor, naked, persecuted and imprisoned. But they never recognized the image of their Maker. They never learned the reason for their being. They never learned to be human. The reign of God slipped in right under their noses-and they never noticed.

Perhaps the first step to peacemaking is shattering the false and superficial peace in which we live. Only then will it be possible to recognize the crucified God dwelling just outside of our redlined neighborhoods, gated communities and secure borders. Here is a poem by Mary Oliver which I believe does just that.

Of The Empire

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Source: Red Bird, by Mary Oliver (c. 2008 by Mary Oliver, pub. by Beacon Press). Mary Oliver (1935-2019) was born in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Kingdom of Fools

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 9:1-4

Psalm 27:1, 4-9

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Matthew 4:12-23

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, your loving kindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Matthew 4:17.

“For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I Corinthians 1:18.

“The kingdom of heaven has come near,” says Jesus. Yet as we will learn as Matthew’s gospel unfolds, that kingdom takes the shape of the cross in a world determined to reject it. The cross, Saint Paul tells us, is “foolishness” to those who are perishing. And, truth be told, it does sound foolish to insist that the earth belongs to the marginalized rather than to the nation states claiming sovereignty over it. It does seem foolish to claim blessedness for the hungry, the poor and the persecuted. More foolish still is the way of love for enemies, forgiveness for wrongs done and the refusal to take up the sword-no matter how just the cause. The reign of God resembles nothing so much as a kingdom of fools.

In the days ahead, we will be graced with gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount, teachings that, if followed, seem destined to ruin us. For that reason, the church has struggled mightily with them. In the early period of imperial Christianity, the Sermon was deemed suitable only for monastic communities set apart from the commercial, social and geopolitical pressures of the world where the rest of us live. Protestant theologians have sought to distinguish the Sermon, which governs only one’s own personal morality, from the duties of public life that require a different ethic. For example, my own Lutheran tradition espouses the “Two Kingdoms Doctrine” under which it is understood that God works in two distinct ways. Under God’s right hand are the preaching and practice of the church through which people are led to faith in Jesus Christ and trained in personal righteousness. God’s left hand works through the institutions of government, education and commerce to maintain a semblance of order in a sinful and broken world. Thus, if my neighbor strikes, defrauds or otherwise harms me, my response is turning the other cheek, refraining from seeking restitution and forgiving the wrongs against me. However, if I happen to be a soldier, police officer or judge, it is my duty to use force and inflict even death on my neighbor to further the cause of justice. Only our anabaptist siblings have taken the extreme and “foolish” view that Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon.

In this instance, I lean toward the anabaptist reading. I do not believe the Sermon on the Mount represents only a personal morality divorced from the rough and tumble realities of the world. Nor do I believe it is an unachievable ideal, the function of which is merely to show us how sinful we are and how much we need forgiveness.[1] The Sermon is not a goal to be achieved, an ideal to which one should aspire or a tool for spiritual introspection. It is rather a blueprint for the life Jesus actually lived, a life which brought him ultimately to the cross and to which he invites his disciples to participate.

For much of our existence in the United States of America, our churches have been prominent institutions. We have seen our role largely as a supportive one. Along with the local school board, the chamber of commerce and the various lodges and civic organizations, we made our contribution to the public good. Sometimes we served as the conscience of the community. Sometimes we lent our support to upholding the community’s public values and mores-which were not always in sync with the priorities of God’s reign. We offered invocations and benedictions at civic events, blessed everything from babies to battleships and gave our tacit support to the nation’s wars with memorial gardens and participation in military funeral rites. I do not mean to suggest that the contributions made by the church in America over the centuries were without value or that congregations were not doing faithful ministry for Christ and the kingdom he proclaims. But I think it is fair to say that we have often confused the life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us with the duties, privileges and loyalties imposed on us as the nation’s dominant, if not official, religion. We have often lived more by the wisdom of the world than the foolishness of the cross. Now that our dominant role is slipping away, we find ourselves wondering who we are and what to do next.

Institutional religion has been in decline throughout my years of ministry. I have been asked many times whether I believe that the church is dying. My response is always the same: Of course the church is dying. How else can it be resurrected? Behind what you might consider a glib response is a truth as old as the church itself. Jesus told his disciples that following him meant taking up the cross and that all who seek to save their lives will lose them. The flip side is that all who lose their lives for Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims will save it. That is true both individually and communally.

Much of what Jesus has to say in the Sermon on the Mount sounds foolish on its face. But perhaps not as foolish as the pervasive belief that free access to fire arms is the only way to keep us safe and free, even as six-year-olds gun down their teachers. Maybe the way of Jesus is not as foolish as the proxy war between two global powers systematically destroying the nation they both claim to be saving. Maybe the way of Jesus is not as foolish as sheepish faith in political strong men promising “make America great again-” whatever that means. Maybe the way of Jesus is not as foolish as the ancient creed of nation, blood and soil that gave us the carnage of two world wars, the greatest genocidal program of the Twentieth Century and promises the same for the Twenty-first. Perhaps, like alcoholics who finally hit rock bottom, we are ready to acknowledge our toxic and symbiotic relationship with a world that is perishing. Maybe once the haze of our intoxication with privilege has worn off, we will be able with new eyes to see the kingdom of heaven which, Jesus tells us, has drawn near.

How much longer will this trend of ecclesiastical decline continue? How much smaller will the American church become? Perhaps we will become so small that our voice will no longer carry any weight in the halls of power and we will have been consigned to the margins of society-only to discover that this is precisely where we should have been all along. Perhaps we will become so small that we can no longer allow our cultural, historical, doctrinal and denominational differences to divide us-because we need each other too much. Perhaps we will become so poor that we have nothing left but the Word of God-which is really all we ever had to begin with. Perhaps we will become so marginalized, so weak and so impoverished that God can finally make good use of us again. Maybe our decline isn’t decline at all, but simply our being “prune[d] to make [us] bear more fruit.”  John 15:2. Maybe we are losing our life only to gain it. Maybe we are dying only to be reborn. Maybe the old is perishing only to make way for the new. Maybe the reign of God has drawn near. Or maybe I am just being foolish.

Here is a poem by Amanda Gorman sounding a hopeful note for dark times. Foolish? Maybe. But perhaps Ms. Gorman is giving us a glimpse of what God’s dawning reign looks like.     

New Day’s Lyric

May this be the day

We come together.

Mourning, we come to mend,

Withered, we come to weather,

Torn, we come to tend,

Battered, we come to better.

Tethered by this year of yearning,

We are learning

That though we weren’t ready for this,

We have been readied by it.

We steadily vow that no matter

How we are weighed down,

We must always pave a way forward.

This hope is our door, our portal.

Even if we never get back to normal,

Someday we can venture beyond it,

To leave the known and take the first steps.

So let us not return to what was normal,

But reach toward what is next.

What was cursed, we will cure.

What was plagued, we will prove pure.

Where we tend to argue, we will try to agree,

Those fortunes we forswore, now the future we foresee,

Where we weren’t aware, we’re now awake;

Those moments we missed

Are now these moments we make,

The moments we meet,

And our hearts, once all together beaten,

Now all together beat.

Come, look up with kindness yet,

For even solace can be sourced from sorrow.

We remember, not just for the sake of yesterday,

But to take on tomorrow.

We heed this old spirit,

In a new day’s lyric,

In our hearts, we hear it:

For auld lang syne, my dear,

For auld lang syne.

Be bold, sang Time this year,

Be bold, sang Time,

For when you honor yesterday,

Tomorrow ye will find.

Know what we’ve fought

Need not be forgot nor for none.

It defines us, binds us as one,

Come over, join this day just begun.

For wherever we come together,

We will forever overcome.

Source: “Amanda Gorman Releases a Brand New Poem,” Eyewitness News, January 3, 2022. Amanda Gorman (b. 1998) is an American poet and activist. Her work focuses on issues of oppression, feminism, race, and marginalization, as well as the African diaspora. She was born in Los Angeles, California and was raised by her single mother, a 6th-grade English teacher. Her twin sister, Gabrielle, is an activist and filmmaker. Gorman has said she grew up in an environment with limited television access, describing her young self as a “weird” child who enjoyed reading and writing. She was the first person to be named National Youth Poet Laureate. She published the poetry book The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough in 2015. In 2021 she delivered her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. You can read more about Amanda Gorman at the Poetry Foundation website.


[1] Though, of course, it might function that way.

Phucker Sharlitan Joins Staff of Kierkegaard’s Ghost

Kierkegaard’s Ghost

(News that’s fake, but credible)

The Ghost welcomes with pride the newest member of our editorial staff, Phucker Sharlitan. Mr. Sharlitan comes to us from the distinguished news network, Faux News. He is known for his relentless pursuit of stories the “lame stream” media persistently ignores. He was among the first to uncover the insidious plot by Democrats to undermine the white Christian culture of the United States by opening up the borders to millions of liberal, non-white terrorists. He has bravely defended the patriots who fought to save our nation from a stolen election on January 6, 2021. He has ruthlessly pursued the “deep state” with the mercilous light of exposure.

Ghost: Mr. Sharlitan, I am sure I speak for our entire readership when I extend to you our sincerest welcome.

Sharlitan: Thanks. It’s an honor be a part of your fine publication. I’m looking forward to continuing my work of uncovering truths the deep state would rather you didn’t know.

Ghost: Now am I correct in my understanding that your full name is Phucker Sharlitan the Third?

Sharlitan: I don’t like to put numbers at the back of my name. It makes me sound like all those left wing Ivy League snobs who think their hifalutin learning makes them smarter than the blood washed dirt farmers and good ol’ boys with engine grease under their fingernails who are the backbone of what’s left of this great nation. But it is true that I come from a long line of Sharlitans. Incidentally, my first name is also prominent in our family. A lot of my people have been called Phucker over the decades.   

Ghost: Well, I am sure you will continue your fine work with us. Let me ask you a little bit about your investigative work. How do you manage to bring to light what most of the rest of the world overlooks?

Sharlitan: You have heard the old saying, “the truth is out there.” Well, sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. When you can’t find the truth, a good investigative journalist makes the truth. That isn’t always easy because the lying liberal media is always out there confusing the issues with facts. So you have to always be thinking, always on your feet and ready with alternative facts. That’s the only way to keep the radical, liberal press on its heals. When you have a compelling theory, you don’t need facts.

Ghost: Tell us a little bit about what you mean by “alternative facts.”

Sharlitan: Sure. What liberals will never understand is that there is not simply one set of facts that is always true. Truth isn’t some singular absolute. There’s your truth and there’s my truth. The real truth, though, is what is believed. As one great statesman put it, “If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”

Ghost: Uh, wasn’t that Adolph Hitler?

Sharlitan: Whatever. So an alternative fact has as much a potential for becoming the truth as anything some hack reporter digs up. It’s all a matter of what is most credible to your audience. I deal in the coin of credibility. Facts are of little importance.

Ghost: Can you tell us a little bit about your investigative techniques, where you get your leads and and how you make your connections?

Sharlitan: Investigative journalism has changed over the last couple of decades. Used to be, we were always out on the beat. And believe me, we worked hard. Every day we had to trek down to the Walmart check-out line and read the tabloids. We had to read fast, too. If we stood around too long the cashier would insist that we buy them. It’s much easier these days. Now I just sit at my desk and surf the internet. It’s all online.

Ghost: You get your stories from the internet?

Sharlitan: Sure. That is where all the really interesting stuff is. Without the internet, we wouldn’t know about Clinton’s & Soros’ child trafficking; Hugo Chaves’ colluding with Dominion to steal the 2020 election; the alien DNA being injected into the phony vaccine for the phony Covid-19 pandemic; the plot by radical environmentalists to install cancer causing windmills all over the country; wok educators’ plans to eradicate Christianity by teaching our kids socialism, radical feminism and CRT. You won’t find that on the major networks.

Ghost: Do you ever fact check your internet sources?

Sharlitan: What did I just tell you about facts? They aren’t important enough to waste time checking. Besides, it’s not my job. Look, for too long the burden of proof has unfairly been placed on journalists to prove that their stories are true. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the job of anyone who doubts my word to prove it false.  

Ghost: I see. So tell us about some other matters you plan to investigate.

Sharlitan: I have a long list of lies, subterfuges and schemes I intend to expose. Like all the fake moon landings in the 60s and 70s; the alien bodies held at area 51 in Roswell; the modern school curricula that is responsible for de-masculinizing boys and brainwashing girls into thinking they are as smart as men; and the raid of President Donald Trump’s Mara Logo residence to plant fake classified documents and retrieve Hillary Clinton’s missing e-mails…wow! Don’t get me started. The woks are turning everything true American’s hold dear upside down and backwards. There are so many different angles from which America is under attack that nobody is seeing!

Ghost: Well, once again, welcome the staff of Kierkegaard’s Ghost. We look forward to getting more from your pen. 

**************************************************************

FAKE NEWS ALERT: The above article is satirical. The events it describes didn’t happen.  “There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen.” John Steinbeck

About Being Elected, Chosen and Predestined

corner of this way street and that way street signs in texas small town

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm 40:1-11

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

[The Lord} says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
   to raise up the tribes of Jacob
   and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
   that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”


Thus says the Lord,
   the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
   the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
   princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
   the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Isaiah 49:6-7.

The doctrine of election-or some might say predestination-has always been a tough theological nut. It was the topic of many heated theological debates during my seminary years.[1] On the one hand, Martin Luther seemed to leave no room for free will when it comes to faith in Jesus Christ in his profound work, The Bondage of the Well. Yet Scripture is filled with calls to repentance and acts of faith that seemingly call for a decision. It seems as though we are free agents capable of making decisions that affect our lives. We select our mates. We choose our career paths. We decide what we will order from the menu. Of course, scientists in the fields of psychiatry often challenge our assumptions about how much of our will is actually “free” and how much is neurologically hardwired or environmentally conditioned. If we are honest, we will probably have to admit that we are not as free and independent as we like to believe. But however much or little we are free to decide on our own, when it comes to being a child of God, God is the one and only one who does the choosing. “You did not choose me,” says Jesus. “I chose you.” John 15:16. Luther was right on that point.

That is enormously comforting. God knows that my choices have too often been selfish, misguided and foolish. Moreover, I have made not a few promises I failed to keep. If my status as God’s child were to depend on my own choice and willful determination, it would forever be in doubt. But because adoption as God’s children rests not on our faith, but God’s faithfulness, it is possible to rest confidently in the “love that will not let me go.”[2] As Paul assures us, God’s call is irrevocable-both to Israel and to the Church. Romans 11:29.

But there is a dark side to this theological principal as well. What about people who do not respond in faith to the good news about Jesus? Have they been destined to disbelief even as believers have been predestined to faith in Jesus? It seems to follow that, if one cannot believe without God’s election, one who cannot believe must not be elected. Can you blame someone for not doing the impossible? Moreover, love “that will not let go” can sound a little bit creepy, especially to those of us who have survived controlling parenting or possessive/abusive relationships. If I am powerless to say “no,” in what sense is grace loving?

Part of the problem, I believe, rests with the assumption that being “chosen” or “elected” equates with privilege. Those called by God are selected from among a condemned humanity on a planet destined to destruction, or so the thinking goes. The elect are the few for whom there are a finite number of seats on the lifeboats of a sinking ship. But our lesson from Isaiah makes clear that God is not interested in saving a few souls from a sinking ship. That would be “too light a thing.” God means to save the ship. John the Evangelist does not tell us God so loved Christians or God so loved the Church that God sent God’s only Son. God so loved the world. John 3:16. The eternal life God promises to believers is not only eternal in duration, but in quality. Faith, hope and love, Saint Paul tells us, endure forever. I Corinthians 13:13. Participation in these three is participation in life that is eternal.

The above cited passage from Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures makes clear that God’s redemptive purpose is for all “the nations” to which Israel is given as a “light.” God’s redemptive acts in and through this non-nation of “slaves” will demonstrate to the nations God’s solidarity with those living at the margins and God’s determination to raise them up. By exalting the people “deeply despised and abhorred by the nations,” God turns the nations’ notion of power, might and glory on its head. When the nations’ finally understand that the power of God is not an outsized version of military, commercial or class might, but noncoercive compassion that wins the day through passionate though patient love, they will be brought to their knees in worship. They will learn that justice, compassion and mercy are the hallmarks of leadership and that God alone is the only true monarch. To be elected by God, then, is to be sent as a “servant” and a “light” to the nations. Thus, election is not from the world, but for the world.  

In sum, God’s election of disciples in Christ Jesus through baptism and the faith that follows does not imply that those outside this baptismal covenant have been rejected or that they are destined to be “lost.” If we take seriously what Jesus tells us in the third chapter of John’s gospel, we have to know that God’s salvation is much bigger than the church. To be chosen or elected is to be sent, as was Jesus, into a world that God loves and is determined to save in order that this world might know God’s deep and enduring love for it. John 20:21.

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him,” says Martin Luther in his Small Catechism. So, does free will play any part in coming to faith in Jesus Christ? Were Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel irresistibly drawn to Jesus? Or did they, at some level, make a conscious choice to follow him? That depends, I suppose, on how you define your terms. No descision is ever entirely free. There are obvious parameters within which our wills must function. We cannot will the earth to stop turning on its axis. Choices we can make are influenced by learned prejudices, mixed motives, fears and hopes of which we might not even be aware. Circumstances sometimes force us to make decisions with which we are not at peace. By contrast, God’s determination to redeem God’s creation stems from God’s very essence, love. As the cross and resurrection of Jesus illustrate, God cannot be deterred from that purpose by any of the evil we throw in God’s direction. Perhaps, then, it is enough to be assured that God works “in, with and under” all the false starts, wrong turns and mistakes we make in our ignorant willfulness to accomplish what God wishes to accomplish in our lives. To that degree, I suppose you could say that we are predestined to be swept up into God’s will in spite of our own. But once it is understood that to be chosen by God is not a mark of favoritism, but a call to particpation in God’s redeemtive work for all creation, the debate over free will versus predestination is rendered more academic than existential.

Here is a poem about calling, election and vocation.

Your Calling

(Father to daughter)

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 the words of caution

and shut out all well meaning advice.

          Silience the timid voice of warning

and listen with your whole heart to the call.  

Source: Anonymous


[1] For an exhaustive discussion of this doctrine and its profound influence on American Christianity, see Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine, Thuesen, Peter J., (c. 2009 by Oxford University Press).

[2] “Oh Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go,” by George Matheson and found in the Service Book and Hymnal, (c. 1958 American Evangelical Lutheran Church; American Lutheran Church; Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church; Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Lutheran Free Church; United Evangelical Lutheran Church; United Lutheran Church in America). Hymn # 402. See full text at Timeless Truths Free Online Library. Sadly, this fine hymn did not make the cut for subsequent Lutheran hymnals.   

Looking for News in All the Wrong Places

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm 29

Acts 10:34-43

Matthew 3:13-17

Prayer of the Day: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be our daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
   my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
   he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
   or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
   and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
   he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
   until he has established justice in the earth;
   and the coastlands wait for his teaching. Isaiah 42:1-4.

There is plenty of crying out these days, not only in the streets, but over the airwaves and throughout the worldwide web. Many of these cries are urgent, warning of imminent destruction to our democracy, our environment and the economy. Others spread outlandish conspiracy theories. Some peddle miracle cures for chronic ailments, fool proof strategies for getting rich quick, instant weight loss programs and just about anything else that will sell. Of course, in every election cycle there is no shortage of promises-along with a good deal of mudslinging-trumpeted by political candidates crying out and vying for our votes. Sadly, there are voices crying out in politics, religion and entertainment that prey upon our basest instincts, appealing to the sickness of racial hate and white resentment so deeply impressed on the American psyche. In all of this crying out and screaming, how is the “teaching” for which the coastlands wait to be heard? Who will even notice the servant of the Lord’s strong but quiet voice?

Social media gets the blame for a lot of what ails our public discourse these days. While there is no denying that the internet has been used to promote violent and hateful ideologies, incite mob violence and spread dangerous falsehoods, the same is true for radio, television and old fashioned print media. On the other side of the ledger, there are positive aspects of social media that should be recognized. For one thing, social media gives a voice to many people previously left out of public discourse. Blogging opens up an avenue for ordinary people who believe they have much to contribute, but lack the social contacts, time and resources to “get published” on traditional media gain a public audience. That has contributed to diversity of opinion and new perspectives in the public square. I also note that online discussions level the playing field between extroverts used to controlling the direction and flow of discourse and introverts who find it hard to get a word in edgewise. Discussions online allow for one to pause, reflect and respond in ways more thoughtful than would be possible in the heat of in person conversations. (Though, to be sure, far too few take advantage of this opportunity!). Still, we are left with the question: how in this cacophonous tangle of chatter is the voice of the Lord to be heard?

It may be that the public square, real or virtual, is not the place where one ought to be listening for God’s Word. Perhaps you need to get away from the noise of the public square in order to hear what God is saying. That, in any event, is how the voice of the Lord makes its first appearance in the gospels. John the Baptist appears “in the wilderness.” His voice is not heard in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem or in the Roman senate. Yet his voice pulled people from the orbit of those centers of power to the margins of imperial society where God’s reign was beginning to dawn.

Profound change often begins in small ways and outside the focus of network news. A small congregation in the Midwest was approached by a youth leader with a request to use the sanctuary’s basement to meet with children and teens experiencing bullying at school. Such a request would have been uncontroversial-except that the children were transgender/non gender conforming. The council of this conservative rural congregation was skeptical-until the youth leader began to share some of the stories of individual children and the pain they were enduring. “Hell,” said one member of the council. “No kid should be treated like that! I don’t see a problem with giving them a safe place to be-if that’s all it is.”

At first, the group of young people met on a weekday afternoon where their paths seldom crossed with members of the church. But then one day when some women from the congregation came down to prepare for the annual Christmas fair, they discovered the young people meeting in the basement. They shared some of the cookies they had baked with the children who, in turn, were glad to assist in setting up for the event. The next day, a group of teens from the group showed up to help the trustees set up the church’s Christmas decorations. Through occasions of camaraderie like these, relationships were built, hearts opened and minds changed. Over time, the church became known as an open, welcoming community.   

Public discussion and debate may be essential for a healthy democracy, but they seldom change minds. I never met anyone whose mind was changed by a single speech, sermon or tweet. In fact, I seldom see minds changed at all. That is because it is usually such a slow process. Minds change direction more like aircraft carriers than hydroplanes. A gentle nudge against a great ocean liner might not seem significant at first. But it has the potential to affect a dramatic change in the ship’s trajectory that will only become evident miles out to sea. Small, incremental changes, like ones seen in that little midwestern congregation, are happening all over the place. They just don’t get much coverage by the networks that are crying out and trying to tell us what is news, what matters and to what we should be paying attention. If you allow yourself to be distracted by the headlines you can wind up missing the real news happening out in the wilderness, or among squatters in a stable or in the darkness of a tomb.  

Here is a poem by Mary Oliver that reflects the same wisdom and attentiveness that could have inspired John the Baptist during his wilderness sojourning and given birth to his conviction that the reign of God was dawning.

Morning at Great Pond

It starts like this:

forks of light

slicking up

out of the east,

flying over you,

and what’s left of night-

its black waterfalls,

its craven doubt,

dissolves like gravel

as the sun appears

trailing clouds

of pink and green wool,

igniting the fields,

turning the ponds

to plates of fire.

The creatures there

are dark flickerings

you make out

one by one

as the light lifts-

great blue herrons

wood ducks shaking

their shimmering crests-

and knee deep

in the purple shallows

a deer drinking;

as the turns

the silver water

crushes the silk

shaking the sky,

and you’re healed then

from the night, your heart

wants more, you’re ready

to rise and look!

to hurry anywhere!

to believe in everything.

Source: American Primitive, Oliver, Mary, (c. 1983 by Mary Oliver; pub. by Black Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company) p. 46-47. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.