All posts by revolsen

About revolsen

I am a retired Lutheran Pastor currently residing in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. I am married .and have three grown children.

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   

Not the Christmas I Expected

SECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Psalm 144:12-20

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:1-18

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14.

Christmas for Sesle and me did not go as we expected. Our plan was to host the holiday festivities at our house in Wellfleet with my son, his wife and our two grandchildren. Though she suffered a severe spinal cord injury in May of this year that left her nearly completely paralyzed, Sesle was making a remarkable recovery. She was walking again and had regained the full use of her hands. We were looking forward to a joyous and celebratory observance of the Nativity.  But on the evening of December 1st, after an active day of cooking, worship and visiting with  friends, Sesle began to experience severe chills, high temperatures and slipped finally into unconsciousness. She was rushed to the hospital by ambulance where she spent a week in the ICU fighting for her life against septic shock. She was discharged from the hospital two weeks later to an acute care facility-otherwise known as a nursing home-where she is now undergoing physical therapy to reclaim the progress she fought so hard to achieve since her accident in May. So we spent Christmas together in a double occupancy room opening our gifts, listening to our church’s online service and chatting with our children by telephone.

I have been reflecting a great deal on the Word made flesh this season during which I experienced two very different manifestations of flesh. One version came to me through our roommate’s television set. She was watching a station showing non-stop, back to back Hallmark Christmas movies. The flesh on the screen was nearly perfect. Petite women, immaculately groomed and airbrushed to perfection shared the screen with equally well endowed, dressed and made up men acting out tales of romance, family drama and the magical effects of Christmas that seem somehow to make everything come out right. This was flesh seemingly immune to aging, deformity and imperfection. These were people who inhabited an enchanted universe of Christmas trees, ugly sweaters and skin as white as the snow falling in nearly every scene.

The flesh on our side of the screen looks a lot different. On our side of the screen flesh is frequently paper thin with age and ravaged by disease and bed sores. The flesh surrounding us is wracked with pain and often inhabited by confused and terrified minds crying out for attention from a medical system too strained to be attentive. The flesh we meet on a regular basis is worn by nurses, CNAs, therapists and other nursing home staff overworked, underpaid and often treated abominably by their corporate overlords. The flesh I have seen this Christmas resembles more the wounded body of the crucified Jesus than the fresh and tender flesh of the newborn Christ child.

I take comfort in knowing, however, that God is incarnate on my side of the screen and that I have indeed seen his glory. I see it in the devotion of frazzled nurses and aids who, exhausted as they often are, still find time to go the extra mile in caring for their patients. I see it in the face of a woman who seems not to recognize even members of her family, but still wears a tender and welcoming smile for them and for all who come into her orbit of attention. All around me I am witnessing “glory as of the father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Just as the wounds of Jesus become in his resurrected body the beautiful symbols of God’s love for the world, so the suffering flesh in our nursing home community is aglow with redemptive moments through which the gentle reign of God shines through. The Word has indeed become flesh, remains flesh and will redeem all flesh. Joy to the world. The Lord has come.

This Christmas was not the Christmas I planned. It is not the Christmas I would wish on anyone else. But it was the Christmas I needed and perhaps the most wonderful I will ever know.

Here is a poem by Jane Kenyon about a Christmas disrupted by illness.

Christmas Away From Home

Her sickness brought me to Connecticut.
Mornings I walk the dog: that part of life
is intact. Who’s painted, who’s insulated
or put siding on, who’s burned the lawn
with lime—that’s the news on Ardmore Street.

The leaves of the neighbor’s respectable
rhododendrons curl under in the cold.
He has backed the car
through the white nimbus of its exhaust
and disappeared for the day.

In the hiatus between mayors
the city has left leaves in the gutters,
and passing cars lift them in maelstroms.

We pass the house two doors down, the one
with the wildest lights in the neighborhood,
an establishment without irony.
All summer their putto empties a water jar,
their St. Francis feeds the birds.
Now it’s angels, festoons, waist-high
candles, and swans pulling sleighs.

Two hundred miles north I’d let the dog
run among birches and the black shade of pines.
I miss the hills, the woods and stony
streams, where the swish of jacket sleeves
against my sides seems loud, and a crow
caws sleepily at dawn.

By now the streams must run under a skin
of ice, white air-bubbles passing erratically,
like blood cells through a vein. Soon the mail,
forwarded, will begin to reach me here.

Source Collected Poems by Jane Kenyon (c. 2005 by the Estate of Jane Kenyon; pub. by Graywolf Press). Jane Kenyon (1947-1995) was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Of Roots, Fruits and Repentance

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

Prayer of the Day: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the preaching of John, that, rejoicing in your salvation, we may bring forth the fruits of repentance; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Luke 3:8.

John the Baptizer does not mince words. “Think you’re special because you are a descendant of Abraham? A baptized Lutheran? A charter member of the congregation with deep roots in the community? God doesn’t give a flying fruitcake for your roots. In fact, the ax is about to fall on the roots of all fruitless trees, however deep, noble and well established those roots. It’s fruits, not roots that God cares about.”

Small wonder John’s audience is shaken to the core. “What shall we do?” they cry out in despair. John’s answer is almost too simple and direct. He does not direct them to a set of spiritual exercises, call them to a life of strict asceticism or the performance of some difficult heroic act. This isn’t rocket science. Share your food and clothing. Stop using your position of power for exploitation and personal gain. This sounds like simple common place morality.

But it is in the common place that one most frequently feels the pinch. The pastor of the congregation in which I grew up used to tell the story of a young man eager to join the communist party. The party leaders asked him a series of questions. “What would you do if you owned two houses,” they asked. Without hesitation, the young man answered,

“I would live in one and donate the other to the party.”

“And what if you inherited one million dollars?” they asked.

Again, without hesitation, the young man answered, “I would keep only what I needed to live on and give the rest to the party.”

“And what if you had two pairs of shoes?” they asked. Now the young man was at a loss for words. Obviously, he had two or perhaps more pairs of shoes and was not eager to part with any of them. If there is a moral to this tale, I suppose it is that we find it much easier to make great hypothetical sacrifices than real ones, however small they might be. Those, however, are the ones John is calling for: the extra coats in our closets, the food stuffed in our pantries, the income we frequently refer to as “discretionary,” the extra bedrooms in our homes, the excess real estate, endowments and funds held by our churches and whatever else we can unburden ourselves in order to fill the valleys of poverty, level the mountains of excess wealth, dismantle injustice and smooth the way to equity and wellbeing for all people. See Luke 3:5-6. That is what repentance looks like.

Repentance bears fruit. If it doesn’t, it isn’t repentance. It isn’t enough simply to confess one’s sins and feel sincere regret-though that is often a starting point. God knows that we white American Christians have good reason to regret our historic complicity with our nation’s legacy of slavery and the continuing curse of systemic racism left in its wake. We have good reason to lament the disparity in wealth, employment opportunity, access to health care and educational access between ourselves and the increasing number of impoverished people among us. But that is only the beginning. As author Marlena Proper Deida Graves points out in her reflections on this gospel lesson, … “producing fruit in keeping with repentance, as John compels us to do, means making amends. With the Holy Spirit’s help it means refusing to continue down destructive, death-filled, and toxic paths. It means choosing life in all its vulnerability, fragility, and glory-life in Christ. Such a life is a full life (John 10:10). Repentance in all its forms brings us life, healing, shalom. When we confess our sins to one another and pray for one another, we will be healed (James 5:16).” Christian Century, December 1, 2021, p. 20.

We and our churches have a tremendous capacity for producing fruit. There is, I know, a lot of hand wringing and consternation in mainline churches over the drop in regular congregational giving, loss of membership and increasing costs of maintaining our institutions. But these problems are more apparent than real when you recall that the original church could fit itself into a single room and that the only material stuff the church needs is a Bible, a loaf of bread, a bottle of wine and access to water. The rest is just frosting on the cake. Looked at from that perspective, my own Lutheran Church is filthy rich. Our concern should not be that we will run out of money, lose our sanctuaries or be forced to dismantle our institutions. Our concern should be that Jesus will return and catch us with money still sitting in the bank-along with that extra coat in the closet and all those cans of expired food in the pantry.   

So what shape might repentance take among us? What would John the Baptizer say if we had the temerity to ask him, “and we, what should we do?” We might try to explain to John that simply divesting ourselves is not a simple and easy task, that there are substantial legal, financial and operational obstacles to carrying out his radically simple demands. I suspect John would reply, “Who said anything about simple and easy? Since when has God ever called us to do what is simple and easy?”  

Here is a poem by Langston Hughes that speaks of freedom and liberation with the same passionate impatience we hear in the voice of John the Baptizer.

Freedom

Freedom will not come
Today, this year
            Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
            To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
            Freedom
            Is a strong seed
            Planted
            In a great need.
            I live here, too.
            I want my freedom
            Just as you.   

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

The Tender Mercy of the Refiner’s Fire

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

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

FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT

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?

SUNDAY OF CHRIST THE 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

TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

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

ALL SAINTS SUNDAY

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.