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 Hard Work of Vanquishing Enemies

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Luke 6:27-38

Prayer of the Day: O Lord Jesus, make us instruments of your peace, that where there is hatred, we may sow love, where there is injury, pardon, and where there is despair, hope. Grant, O divine master, that we may seek to console, to understand, and to love in your name, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“But I say to you that listen: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Luke 6:27-31.

This is undoubtedly among the sayings most Christians of every persuasion secretly wish Jesus had never uttered. If you define love as broadly as possible, you can perhaps fudge love for enemies by characterizing what appears to be loveless behavior as “tough love.” But Jesus is not content to leave this open to interpretation. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek,” he says, “offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” Anyone daring to suggest that Jesus might actually mean to be taken literally here can expect to be showered with “what abouts.” What about the thug who sticks a gun in the face of your dear old granny? What about Hitler? What about the abused wife? Should I stand by passively as my grandma is murdered? Should the Jews have walked obediently into the gas chambers? Should a wife cheerfully submit to being beaten?

There are some serious concerns lurking under these objections. But their phrasing betrays a host of unexamined assumptions. First, these questions all assume an easy distinction among human beings, namely, a distinction between “good” and “evil.” So much of the violence woven into our American culture is based on our belief that all of life is a titanic battle between what is indisputably good and what is irredeemably evil. American entertainment reinforces this belief with any number of cop shows, westerns, courtroom dramas in which good people are victimized by crazed criminals and saved ultimately by men with guns employing violence to subdue them. Seldom are we given any insight into the motives, experiences and views of the criminals, terrorists and thugs gunned down for the cause of good. Neither do we see much about how the routine employment of violence dehumanizes the gun wielding heroes. Good and evil remain hermetically sealed and separated one from the other. Small wonder, then, that we find our politics, religion and everything else so thoroughly polarized.

As everyone who has ever done real police work or served in combat knows, this isn’t reality. Often it is not evident until the smoke clears who the “good” and “bad” actors were. A bullet can’t discern between the bank robber and a passerby who happens to be in the line of fire. When lethal force is used, there seldom are clear winners and losers. Even the so-called “bad” actor is likely a spouse, parent, sibling and friend whose death rips the fabric of a community. Long after formal hostilities between nations have ceased the scars of combat continue to plague devastated communities, grieving families and traumatized soldiers for generations to come. Abu Graib and My Lai remind us that the line between good and evil does not run neatly between our enemies and ourselves.

Let us be honest. When we assert that lethal force is sometimes a necessity, we are saying in the same breath that there are people whose lives are expendable. We are usurping the right to decide who lives and who dies. I am not convinced that we are capable of making decisions of this kind. For example, if I were a civil authority and learned that an angry mob was seeking to stone an innocent man, I might authorize the use of force necessary to disburse the mob. Certainly, it would be my preference that no one be killed. But in circumstances like this, there are likely to be hostile casualties and perhaps even some “collateral damage.” Let’s say the mission is a success. The stoning victim is rescued with only one hostile fatality. The dead man was not actually involved in the stoning himself, but he was facilitating it by watching the belongings of those doing the dirty deed and cheering them on. As those of you familiar with the Book of Acts know, I just prevented the martyrdom of Saint Stephen by killing Saint Paul. Our judgments about a person’s worth and rightful destiny are woefully short sighted. Just as we cannot know in an instant of time all that brought a person to the point where we have determined that s/he must die, so we cannot know all that will unfold in that life should it be spared. Good and evil, the separation of the wheat from the weeds, must await the end of the age. Only then and only to the final Judge will it become apparent what must be harvested and what must be burned.

Second, these “what about” scenarios all focus on the moment at which the use of force seems unavoidable-as though nothing happened before or after the moment of decision is thrust upon us. It is all so very reminiscent of the adulterous couple who cry remorsefully, “It was bigger than both of us.” At some point, that was probably true. It was not true, however, the first time they found themselves chatting in front of the water cooler for longer than they both knew was natural or appropriate. It was not true when they both found themselves working late on days when there really was no work that could not have kept until tomorrow. It was not even true when they arranged to be sent to the same professional conference in another city and…well, as I said: at some point it really did get out of hand. But it would not be fair or accurate to say that the affair was fated from the beginning. It could have been checked at a thousand points along the way.

In the same way, I think it is a little disingenuous to argue that bombing Germany was necessary to stop the Nazis when they could have been checked at the ballot box by the German people, restrained by a strong, united European/American diplomatic effort or thwarted altogether by a more just and evenhanded peace following the close of the First World War-which also could have been avoided at any number of points. So, too, I think it would be far more productive to focus on creating safe havens for women fearing domestic violence and programs to address pathological behaviors growing out of toxic masculinity among American men than to agonize over what to do when visited by the consequences of our gross neglect of these issues. While there might not be much you can do to keep deranged people from threatening granny, such persons would be a good deal less dangerous without guns in their hands and could therefore more likely be handled without resort to lethal force.

The truth is, the world is generally a peaceful place. The use of lethal force is neither inevitable nor is it as common as we are sometimes led to believe. On any given day, nations resolve their disputes without resort to military action; police officers go about their duties without taking their fire arms out of the holster; domestic abuse, school yard bullying and disputes between neighbors are dealt with peacefully by social workers, counselors and the courts. Resort to violence is the exception, not the rule. It represents not a necessary exercise of power to maintain peace, but a breakdown of peace resulting largely from the neglect of the social institutions that enable it.

That being said, we live in a world where the peace has broken down at many points. How, then, does a follower of Jesus live faithfully in a world where there exist angry people who are perhaps bent on harming us? How do we deal with enemies? By that I do not mean simply people who rub us the wrong way or don’t seem to like us. By enemy I mean what I believe Jesus means: people who might kill us if they could. First and foremost, Jesus commands his disciples to love them. By that he does not mean that we need to feel affection for them or that we should do whatever they wish or give them whatever they want. It does mean, however, that we treat them as we would wish to be treated. That is difficult because it means getting into their skin, trying to see the world as they see it and experiencing life as they do. It is scary, too, because seeing the world through the eyes of my enemy can open my own eyes to a lot about myself I would rather not confront. Yet once I understand my enemy’s animosity toward me and whatever responsibility I might carry for it, a breach is made in the wall between us. There now exists a way out of the vortex of retribution. My enemy is no longer the personification of evil, but a person like myself in need of redemption-a commodity for which we desperately need each other.

Sometimes love requires one to resist one’s enemies. Allowing abusive spouses or parents to continue their pathological behavior does not benefit them and it certainly has no salutary value for the victims! Nor should the church or the world turn a blind eye to genocide, ethnic cleansing or systemic injustice. But that is not to say that love requires the use of violence. There are many ways to resist[1] but, for us disciples of Jesus, violent coercion is not an arrow in our quiver. We know or should know that “all who take the sword perish by the sword.” Adopting the enemy’s methods only transforms us into the image of all that we hate in the enemy. As tempting as it is to rationalize that the ends justify the means, we know that the means are the only reliable way we have of shaping the ends.

Love is hard. Love is costly. Love doesn’t deliver results in any way we can measure. But, as the following poem by Wendell Berry illustrates, it’s the only way there is to vanquish an enemy.

Enemies

If you are not to become a monster,
you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,

how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then

is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go

free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not

think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.

Source: Indivisible: Poems for Social Justice (c. Wendell Berry, 1994; pub. by Norwood House Press, 2013). Wendell Berry (b. 1934) is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. He is an elected member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers, a recipient of The National Humanities Medal and the Jefferson Lecturer for 2012. He is also a 2013 Fellow of The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Berry was named the recipient of the 2013 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. On January 28, 2015, he became the first living writer to be inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. You can read more about Wendell Berry and sample more of his works at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] Walter Wink, professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn Theological Seminary, points out that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount represents not passive submission to evil, but a “third way” of actively opposing injustice and hostility. Evil is to be actively resisted, though not on its own terms. The community of Jesus’ disciples is to be a counter cultural community whose very existence and way of being represents a challenge to imperial oppression. Though some of Professor Wink’s interpretations of particular texts strike me as speculative and fanciful, on the whole, I think his analysis is on target. See Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Press) pp. 98-111.

Of Prophecy and Broken Government

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jeremiah 17:5-10
Psalm 1
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Luke 6:17-26

Prayer of the Day: Living God, in Christ you make all things new. Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, and in the renewal of our lives make known your glory, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength…” Jeremiah 17:5-10.

Jeremiah had good reason to be skeptical about human leadership. The rulers of Judah, descendants of king David, had failed miserably to measure up to their great ancestor’s stature. According to the ancient covenant, kingship in Israel was not a privilege. The king, as God’s anointed one, was charged with judging the people with righteousness and the poor with justice. He was charged with defending the cause of the poor of the people, giving deliverance to the needy and crushing oppression. Psalm 72:12-14. But David’s royal descendants used their power to enrich themselves at the expense of their people, led the people into the worship of idols and pursued selfish and shortsighted foreign policies that brought Judah to the brink of extinction. This, says Jeremiah, is what comes of trusting human leadership.

I expect that the good people of Virginia are feeling much the same way.  Several of their leaders appear to have betrayed the public trust placed in them. First, an obscure news outlet unearthed a medical school yearbook page from 1984 for Virginia’s Governor, Ralph S. Northam, sporting a blatantly racist photo. Then, while the state was still reeling from this scandal, Lt. Governor Justin E. Fairfax was accused by two women of sexual assault. Next Attorney General Mark R. Herring admitted to having appeared in “blackface.” Finally, it was revealed that Thomas K. Norment, Jr., the majority leader in the Virginia Senate played a leading role in editing his college yearbook, which contains several photographs of students in blackface as well as racist slurs. There have been numerous calls from all quarters for the resignation of these individuals from their offices. It remains to be seen whether they will heed those calls.

Any such infractions on my part would have ended my ministerial career-and rightly so. Our faith communities place profound trust in us. When we abuse that trust, we inflict enormous injuries on both the individuals involved and the communities to which we minister. We are held to a higher standard of conduct and the consequences for our failing to live up to it are treated with greater severity. That might seem unfair, but life isn’t meant to be fair. “To whom much is given, much is required,” says Jesus. Luke 12:48. What goes for ministers also goes, in some measure, for elected leaders entrusted with making and enforcing the rule of law. We can hardly trust an individual who mocks and ridicules members of another race or ethnicity to ensure equal protection and justice for all. Nor can we trust people who abuse women and girls to protect their rights. Such conduct on the part of our elected leaders destroys irreparably our confidence in their ability to lead.

Jeremiah goes on to sound a cautionary note, however. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse—who can understand it?” says the prophet. Jeremiah 17:9. However much we might rightfully expect from those we elevate to positions of leadership, we dare not forget that they are no less human than the rest of us. Their hearts are no different from our own. We ought to know that each of us has fault lines in our souls and character flaws that, under enough pressure and in the right circumstances, might well break. Never having run for public office myself, I can’t speak from personal experience. But it seems to me that the challenges of satisfying often conflicting demands of one’s constituents, obtaining financing for one’s campaign, employing the tactics necessary to win an election and navigating the process of governing in a system heavily controlled by powerful interest groups must inflict a severe strain on one’s moral compass. What I do know is that power is intoxicating. You don’t need to have much to make you more than a little tipsy. Being surrounded by people who look to you for help, support and comfort has a way of filling you with the kind of self-important narcissism that blinds you to the results of your selfish actions and their tragic consequences for others. Too many of my colleagues in ministry have drunk too heavily from that cup and lost their way. I know only too well how easily one moral compromise prepares the groundwork for the next and how one seemingly innocent and inconsequential lie steels your conscience for bigger lies to come. For that reason, I believe we need to temper our righteous anger at our fallen leaders with a degree of understanding and even compassion.

Perhaps the fault lies with us as much as with our leaders. We are not likely to elect a candidate who tells us hard truths we don’t want to hear. We don’t like being told that the problems facing us are complex and that solving them will require time and sacrifice. We long for leaders who give us soundbite answers and guarantee that they can “fix” things without requiring anything from us. We tend to vote for candidates promising to restore us to some golden age of yore or lead us into some utopian future. Winning an election practically requires a candidate to make promises that cannot be kept-that is, to lie. Should it surprise us, then, that we wind up with leaders who cannot be trusted? Are the lies we so desperately want to believe driving us to follow only those willing to indulge our falsehoods? Are we manufacturing for ourselves the leaders we deserve?

One final observation. The prophetic viewpoint is generally from the bottom up. That is to say, prophecy takes its stand among the victims of nationalist idolatry, whether they be the exploited and dispossessed Israelites employed as pawns by the Davidic rulers in their reckless and destructive game of geopolitical domination or the 16.2 million children in the United States struggling with hunger[1] as their government hands out billions to its corporate citizens. Prophecy, like the poem below, struggles to give voice to those who have no voice-like women and young girls sexually assaulted by powerful men and people of color subjected to systemic oppression and racist ridicule. Biblically speaking, the righteousness of a nation is judged by how well or poorly it cares for the most vulnerable under its jurisdiction. There can be no neutrality here. Prophecy is not intended to support the interests of the state or legitimize its every use of power. Prophecy exists to ensure that the cry of the poor against unjust regimes reaches the ears of God.

What the Old Homeless Man Had to Say About the Candidates’ Debate

Calling ‘em whores is an insult,
to the whores, I mean.
As far as I know,
Whoring never hurt anyone
But the whores themselves.
So if all those glad handing,
Back slapping sons of bitches
Ever did was hustle up a dollar
Or two for a pint of gin,
Maybe a snort of crack
Some place to flop for the night,
I might be more disposed to
Pity the lying sacks.
But those blood sucking
Bastards aren’t content
To lie, cheat and steal away
Just what they need to live on.
They gotta take it all.
Every last inch of land,
Every last crumb off the plate,
Every last spoon full of soup
Out of every stinking caldron.
They gotta fill the air with their stink,
Muck up the water so bad
We can’t drink it and then
Bottle up what clean water’s left
And sell it to us-
Just as though anyone could own water!
What the hell gives’ em the right,
I’d like to know?
They didn’t make the rivers and streams.
They don’t make the rain fall.
So how comes it that they got the right
To go collecting it, putting it in bottles
And selling it to us?
Democrats and Republicans,
Know what the difference is between em?
Democrats make big promises and don’t deliver
Republicans promise nothing and do!
Either way it goes, you wind up with nothing.
To hell with em! To hell with the lot of em!

Anonymous

[1] Dupere, Katie, 6 Startling Facts abut Hunger in the U.S.-and How You can Help,” Mashable, July 14, 2016.

Holiness

FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 6:1-13
Psalm 138
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Most holy God, the earth is filled with your glory, and before you angels and saints stand in awe.  Enlarge our vision to see your power at work in the world, and by your grace make us heralds of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ Isaiah 6:5.

“Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Luke 5:8

In our Northern European/American religious context, holiness is framed nearly exclusively in moral terms. To be holy, we are taught, is to adhere strictly to certain moral laws and precepts approved by God. Though holiness surely has a moral dimension, it encompasses far more than mere human behavior. Biblically speaking, holiness is the character of God. It is, in its essence, all that is true, beautiful and good.

Truth, it must be understood, is not to be equated with the modernist notion of that term. It does not consist exclusively of empirically demonstrated facts and rational deductions therefrom. To the contrary, as Soren Kierkegaard observed, “an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for the individual.” Saint Augustine of Hippo asserts that “God is truth.” These seemingly contradictory assertions find reconciliation in the biblical claim that human beings were made in the image of God and in the miracle of the Incarnation wherein God becomes human. One cannot know oneself fully and completely apart from knowing the God in whose image one is made. Yet one can know God only as God reveals God’s self in the humanity of Jesus.  Truth is relational, not transactional. To know Jesus, then, is to know the deepest truth: that God the Father loves God the Son; that this love, the glue that holds the Trinity together, emanates from the Father and the Son to create, redeem and reconcile the whole cosmos; that we become and know our true selves as we are incorporated into that redemptive Trinitarian love.

Beauty, also, must not be confused with any humanly created and shaped aesthetic. To the contrary, beauty is what creates and shapes our humanity. Holy beauty is the kind one experiences standing on the ocean shore or staring into the evening sky and recognizing how frail one is, how inconsequential are the “great historical moments” that amount to less than a blink of the eye in the great expanse of cosmic history. Holy beauty is taking your new born son or daughter into your arms for the first time and realizing the profound responsibility you have assumed for this new life so frail yet so full of potential. It is a terrifying beauty that evokes the response: “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Psalm 8:4. Yet the God behind all of this raw and terrifying beauty is not only mindful of human beings, but

“looks far down
on the heavens and the earth[.]
He raises the poor from the dust,
and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
with the princes of his people.
He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.” Psalm 113:6-9.

This God who “looks far down” is nowhere better observed than in God’s “coming down” to “become flesh” and to “dwell among us.” And this “coming down” is revealed most fully on the cross. There God’s compassion for God’s finite creatures is manifest in all of its infinite, passionate beauty. At the foot of the cross we learn that, whether we like it or not, our little lives matter a great deal.

That brings us to holy goodness. Again, God’s goodness is not to be measured by any human standards of morality. The gospels make clear that God’s goodness consists in that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” Matthew 5:45. God alone decides what is good and God defines goodness relationally, that is, in terms of mercy and compassion. In this respect, Jesus calls upon his disciples to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48. Goodness, like truth and beauty, finally boils down to love. And love is not to be understood in the sense of personal affection or desire, but as the Triune love between Father and Son that breathes its creative, Pentecostal fire into the darkness thundering, “Let there be!” God, who is full and complete in God’s self, nevertheless makes room for the other to be. That is divine love, love that God would infuse into the whole cosmos so that all God’s creatures might find the courage and freedom to allow and assist one another to become all they are intended to be.

Encountering this holy God will scare the socks off anyone with a modicum of common sense. Being confronted with all of this blinding truth, splendorous beauty and pure goodness is a terrifying experience. One cannot help but recognize in the presence of holiness one’s own unholiness. It is terrifying to be stripped of the comfort afforded by all the lies I tell myself about myself. It is frightening to be confronted with the many ways in which I hurt the ones I love, the many opportunities for love I have squandered and the time I have wasted on envy, spite and self-pity. It is disheartening to discover in the presence of perfect beauty the pettiness, indifference and self-absorption that blinds me to such beauty most of the time. And, of course, it is deeply humbling to be compelled in the light of God’s loving kindness toward me to recognize and to own my meanness, cruelty, greed and bigotry-all the things that I so easily justify or overlook in myself while readily condemning them in the lives of others. I can well understand the fear and anguish expressed by the prophet Isaiah and the apostle Peter as they found themselves in the presence of God’s holiness.

Yet for all the terror and anxiety our encounter with holiness can induce, it is finally a life-giving force turning us from all that we have been toward all that we can be. Isaiah came away from his vision in the temple with lips cleansed and eager to speak God’s words to God’s people. Peter rose up from his supine posture before Jesus to follow his Lord in catching up the lost and forsaken of the world into the vast dragnet of God’s redemptive love. This Triune God we worship is not safe, tame or easy to live with. This God does not promise to make us rich, deliver us from suffering or bring us happiness and inner peace. But the God and Father of Jesus Christ does promise to make us holy-and that’s a damn sight better than any of those things.

Here is a poem by Luci Tapahonso presented to the graduates of the University of Arizona. It speaks eloquently of truth, beauty and goodness, the elements of holiness.

A Blessing

This morning we gather in gratitude for all aspects of sacredness:
the air, the warmth of fire, bodies of water, plants, the land,
and all animals and humankind.
We gather to honor our students who have achieved the extraordinary
accomplishment of earning doctoral or master’s degrees.
We gather to honor their parents, grandparents, children,
family members, and friends who have traveled with them
on their path to success. They have traveled far distances to be here
this morning: we honor their devotion.

May we remember that holiness exists in the ordinary elements of our lives.

We are grateful for a homeland that has always thrived
on a glorious array of people and their diverse cultures, histories,
and beliefs. We acknowledge the generosity of the Tohono O’odham
in granting this land on which we learn, teach, celebrate
accomplishments, and sometimes mourn losses.

May we always cherish our ancestors as we prepare for the days ahead.
May we remember that we exist because of their prayers and their faith.

We are blessed with distinct and melodious tongues.
Our languages are treasures of stories, songs, ceremonies, and memories.
May each of us remember to share our stories with one another,
because it is only through stories that we live full lives.

May the words we speak go forth as bright beads
of comfort, joy, humor, and inspiration.
We have faith that the graduates will inspire others
to explore and follow their interests.

Today we reflect a rainbow of creation:
Some of us came from the east, where bright crystals of creativity reside.
They are the white streaks of early morning light when all is born again.
We understand that, in Tucson, the Rincon Mountains are our inspiration
for beginning each day. The Rincons are everlasting and always present.

Those who came from the south embody the strength of the blue
mountains that encircle us. The Santa Ritas instill in us
the vigorous spirit of youthful learning.

Others came from the west; they are imbued with the quiet, yellow glow of dusk.
They help us achieve our goals. Here in the middle of the valley, the ts’aa’,
the basket of life, the Tucson Mountains teach us to value our families.

The ones from the north bring the deep, restorative powers of night’s darkness;
their presence renews us. The Santa Catalina Mountains teach us that,
though the past may be fraught with sorrow, it was strengthened
by the prayers of our forebearers.
We witnessed the recent fires the mountains suffered,
and in their recovery we see ourselves on our own journeys.
We understand that we are surrounded by mountains, dziił,
and thus that we are made of strength, dziił, nihí níhídziił.
We are strong ourselves. We are surrounded by mountains
that help us negotiate our daily lives.

May we always recognize the multitude of gifts that surround us.
May our homes, schools, and communities be filled with the wisdom
and optimism that reflect a generous spirit.

We are grateful for all blessings, seen and unseen.

May we fulfill the lives envisioned for us at our birth. May we realize
that our actions affect all people and the earth. May we live in the way
of beauty and help others in need. May we always remember that
we were created as people who believe in one another. We are grateful,
Holy Ones, for the graduates, as they will strengthen our future.

All is beautiful again.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.
Hózhǫ́ nááhasdłíí’.

Source: A Radiant Curve (c. 2008 by Luci Tapahonso, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Luci Tapahonso (b. 1953) is a Navajo poet and a lecturer in Native American Studies. She is also the author of three children’s books and six books of poetry. Tapahonso was born on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock, New Mexico and raised in the traditional ways of her tribe along with 11 siblings. English was not spoken in the family home. Consequently, Tapahonso learned it as a second language after her native Navajo. She attended the University of New Mexico with the goal of pursuing a career in journalism. She changed her major to creative writing in her sophomore year, however, and graduated with a degree in that discipline. Thereafter, she earned her masters and held teaching positions at the University of Mexico, University of Kansas and the University of Arizona where she is currently a professor of English Literature and Language. Tapahonso was chosen as the first poet laureate of the Navajo Nation. You can learn more about Luci Tapahonso and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

What it Means to be Pro-Life

See the source image

I am and always have been adamantly and unequivocally pro-life. I am convinced that terminating a pregnancy brings to an end the life of a unique human being. For that reason, every effort should be made to preserve, support and encourage the carrying of every pregnancy to full term. The miracle of the Incarnation is the very core of our Christian understanding of God. We believe that God was born of a homeless woman in a shed. We confess that God is weak, vulnerable and in need of care and protection. The vulnerability of God in the womb of Mary compels the belief that human life is sacred from the time of conception and deserving of our most lavish protection. For a lot of folks who march under the pro-life banner, being pro-life equates with picketing Planned Parenthood and supporting legislation limiting access to abortion. That, however, does not come close to being genuinely pro-life. Here is what it means to be pro-life.

The most effective way to prevent the termination of pregnancies is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That requires sex education at the elementary school level. It also requires making gynecological care and access to birth control available to all people of childbearing age, including teens. The argument that availability of birth control and sex education will encourage more teens to become sexually active has not proven to be the case. In reality, neither sex education nor the availability of birth control increases the degree of teen sexual activity, but they do significantly reduce the instances of teen pregnancy. Over all, where women are given access to good gynecological care, including reproductive care and counseling, we find far fewer unintended and unwanted pregnancies; hence, fewer abortions. Support for family planning and sex education is a pro-life position.

Furthermore, the best way to protect the lives of the unborn is to care for their mothers. Food, nutrition counseling, and access to health services are provided to low-income women, infants, and children under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, popularly known as WIC. This program is designed to ensure that women are able to obtain the nutrition necessary to remain healthy throughout their pregnancies and feed their children when they are born. Knowing that there are resources available for women to raise and care for their children creates a strong incentive to continue a pregnancy. Supporting the WIC program and other nutritional support programs for low income persons is therefore a pro-life position.

Health care is a critical factor in preserving the lives of the unborn. Having a child is an expensive proposition when, for whatever reason, one does not have health insurance coverage. This is particularly so for high risk pregnancies, complicated deliveries and post-natal problems. Too often, abortion appears to be the only alternative to bankruptcy or homelessness. Universal health insurance coverage ensures that no baby will ever be “too expensive.” Support for universal health care coverage is therefore a pro-life position.

Finally, there some circumstances under which a pregnancy should be ended. If you believe that a twelve year old girl, a victim of rape or incest, a woman to whom pregnancy and childbirth pose serious medical risks should be compelled by law to carry a pregnancy to term, then your moral compass is oriented to the north pole of a different planet than the earth I inhabit. I doubt we have enough moral common ground to continue this discussion further. But if, like me, you agree that there are circumstances were abortion is a responsible, if tragic, decision; then there is just one question left: Who decides when a pregnancy should be terminated?

Deciding whether to end a pregnancy is difficult and fraught with conflicting interests and priorities. The issues bearing on that decision are never clear and require wisdom, discernment and an intimate knowledge of the persons affected. I am firmly convinced that no one is in a better position to make such a decision than the persons closest to it and most directly affected by it. Women, not the state, not the courts or the medical establishment, are in the best position to determine what, under all of the circumstances, is best for their own well-being and that of their children. Consequently, enabling women to make these difficult decisions by providing access to affordable, medically safe surgical procedures, including abortion, is a pro-life position.

Now let’s boil down to its essentials the phony right wing pro-life position propagated by the likes of Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, evangelist Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and one of President Trump’s most vocal evangelical supporters, Frank Cannon, president of the American Principles Project and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. For these men and their supporters, pro-life means one thing: government control of women’s bodies and reproductive systems. These same people who are so often screaming at the top of their lungs that the government has no business running health care, regulating fire arms or teaching sex education sing an altogether different tune when it comes to women’s health. When it comes to women’s most intimate and personal medical decisions, these so called pro-lifers are saying to women, “Come on, ladies. Don’t trouble your pretty little heads over your health and well-being. Government knows better than you do what you and your families need.” There is nothing biblical about that.

But what about all those pregnancies that continue to be terminated? Shouldn’t we be doing something to stop that? Yes, we should and we are and it’s working. Abortion rates have been declining substantially for the last decade. To be clear, this decline had nothing to do with loudmouth protesters marching around Planned Parenthood centers with idiotic signs, shouting abuse at women seeking all manner of medical services, most having nothing to do with abortion. It had nothing to do with any legislation restricting women’s access to abortion. In fact, this decrease in induced abortions occurred as a result of increasing availability of health care, contraception and sex education.[1]  Improvements in these areas are the only proven method of reducing the frequency of induced abortions. So I won’t hear any pious blather about those poor precious aborted babies out of the hypocritical, self-righteous little pie holes of anyone who is not out campaigning for universal health care, access to contraception and sex education. For all its heated rhetoric, the right wing faux pro-life movement has done nothing for babies, born or unborn.

In short, I trust women to do the right thing without government compulsion or the threats of moralistic, Bible banging bullies.  Yes, it is possible that some women will make poor choices-as do governments, courts and medical professionals. But, on the whole, mothers tend to make the best choices for themselves and their families-especially when given every conceivable opportunity to choose life, including early sex education, access to birth control, nutritional support, gynecological care and adequate health insurance coverage. Nothing can replace a mother’s intuition, wisdom and compassion. That is why God entrusted the life of his Only Begotten Son to the care of a woman. Entrusting the welfare and protection of the unborn to the care of their mothers is, therefore, the true biblical pro-life position.

[1] See “Abortion Worldwide 2017: Uneven Progress and Unequal Access,” produced by the  Guttmacher institute, 2018.

Jesus Gets Political and Things Get Ugly

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

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

“Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,

‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’” Jeremiah 1:9-10.

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus is given a hometown hero’s welcome. He has been preaching, teaching and healing throughout Galilee and that has given him some notoriety thereby placing Nazareth on the map. You may recall from last week that, upon entering the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus was handed the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, opened it up and read the following passage:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Luke 4:18-19.

So far so good. What’s not to like about good news, freedom, healing and liberation? But then Jesus begins to speak about the scope of that good news. Turns out that the reign of God extends beyond the boundaries of the “chosen.” In fact, it crosses borders into hostile territory. It embraces outsiders who don’t seem to belong. Jesus is getting political and his congregation isn’t liking it.

I’m not sure what counts as politics anymore or what it means to be liberal, conservative, progressive or radical. I think we have reached the point at which those words have lost whatever inherent meaning they may once have had. About the only linguistic purpose they continue to serve is that of dividing “us” from “them.” They identify members of my tribe and flag those outside as “the enemy.” So when somebody says to me, “Pastor, you are getting political here,” it usually means I am being perceived as giving aid, comfort or moral support to somebody outside of the tribe. That, it seems, is what nearly got Jesus lynched. After all, what gives Jesus the right to say we ought to squander Israel’s covenant blessings upon widows who aren’t even citizens! Israel first! We need to take care of our own. How dare Jesus suggest that God would bless an enemy of the state! Where is his patriotism?

The word of the Lord is inescapably political as anyone who reads our lesson from Jeremiah cannot fail to recognize. The word stands over and against “nations and kingdoms” to “pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” In Matthew 25 Jesus makes clear that the nations of the world will be judged in terms of how they treat the poor, the naked, the hungry, the prisoner and the sick. So you can’t be neutral when it comes to state action and legislation that affects nutrition, health care, shelter, sustenance and justice for these most vulnerable folks among us-regardless whether they live within our borders or whether they are documented. If that offends your politics, you had better get yourself another politics or find yourself a different savior.

That said, one needs to keep in mind the dual function of God’s word. As we learn from the Lord’s call to Jeremiah, one aspect of preaching is to “break down.” At our baptisms we were called upon to denounce the devil, sin and all the forces that oppose God. That means calling for the undoing of structural racism, patriarchy and privilege that perpetuate poverty, injustice and oppression. But that’s only half the job and not even the better half. Jeremiah is called upon also to “build up and to plant.” So, too, Jesus’ message to his hometown is finally good news-or will be when the people of Nazareth are finally able to see past their tribal insecurities.

I think that the breaking down, destroying and plucking up parts of preaching come naturally to most of us. It’s easy simply to be critical. My own church, the Evangelical Church in America, has produced some fine statements addressing systemic racism and the need to dismantle it. Yet we remain one of the most segregated churches in the United States. Though, on the one hand, our church has denounced gun violence, many of our congregations are considering implementation of armed security forces to protect worshipers against possible shootings. Thus, while we worship the Prince of Peace who taught us to put up the sword, we often seem ready to buy into the NRA mantra that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. At some point, we need to model the prophetic vision of God’s just and gentle reign. Otherwise, God’s kingdom remains an abstraction and our public witness amounts to nothing more than preachy-screechy finger wagging.

What sort of preaching is capable of inspiring us to follow Jesus into the thicket of systemic injustice? What kind of preaching will plant in our imaginations the seeds of alternative ways of living and interacting with one another? What kind of sermons are capable of building up the fledgling work of faith communities intentionally seeking to become a church that transcends the walls that divide us and does the hard work of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation? What words can we use to illuminate the new thing God is planting and building beyond the ruins of the old order? As important as the content of such preaching is the shape of the church from whence it comes. If we are going to preach the kingdom credibly, we must become in some measure what Koinonia Farm founder Clarence Jordan called “a demonstration plot” for that kingdom. We need to begin practicing as well as preaching “the politics of Jesus.”

Here is poem by Muriel Rukeyser arising from the lived experience of faith communities. It is a “song of the way in” to authentic prophecy and preaching.

Akiba
 
THE WAY OUT

The night is covered with signs. The body and face of man,
with signs, and his journeys.
Where the rock is split
and speaks to the water;
the flame speaks to the cloud;
the red splatter, abstraction, on the door
speaks to the angel and the constellations.
The grains of sand on the sea-floor speak at last to the noon.
And the loud hammering of the land behind
speaks ringing up the bones of our thighs, the hoofs,
we hear the hoofs over the seethe of the sea.

All night down the centuries, have heard, music of passage.

Music of one child carried into the desert;
firstborn forbidden by law of the pyramid.
Drawn through the water with the water-drawn people
led by the water-drawn man to the smoke mountain.
The voice of the world speaking, the world covered by signs,
the burning, the loving, the speaking, the opening.
Strong throat of sound from the smoking mountain.
Still flame, the spoken singing of a young child.
The meaning beginning to move, which is the song.

Music of those who have walked out of slavery.

Into that journey where all things speak to all things
refusing to accept the curse, and taking
for signs the signs of all things, the world, the body
which is part of the soul, and speaks to the world,
all creation being created in one image, creation.
This is not the past walking into the future,
the walk is painful, into the present, the dance
not visible as dance until much later.
These dancers are discoverers of God.

We knew we had all crossed over when we heard the song.

Out of a life of building lack on lack:
the slaves refusing slavery, escaping into faith:
an army who came to the ocean: the walkers
who walked through the opposites, from I to opened Thou,
city and cleave of the sea. Those at flaming Nauvoo,
the ice on the great river: the escaping Negroes,
swamp and wild city: the shivering children of Paris
and the glass black hearses; those on the Long March:
all those who together are the frontier, forehead of man.

Where the wilderness enters, the world, the song of the world.

Akiba rescued, secretly, in the clothes of death
by his disciples carried from Jerusalem
in blackness journeying to find his journey
to whatever he was loving with his life.
The wilderness journey through which we move
under the whirlwind truth into the new,
the only accurate. A cluster of lights at night:
faces before the pillar of fire. A child watching
while the sea breaks open. This night. The way in.

Barbarian music, a new song.

Acknowledging opened water, possibility:
open like a woman to this meaning.
In a time of building statues of the stars,
valuing certain partial ferocious skills
while past us the chill and immense wilderness
spreads its one-color wings until we know
rock, water, flame, cloud, or the floor of the sea,
the world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.

Ways to discover. The song of the way in.

Source: The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, (c. 2006 by Muriel Rukeyser, pub. by the University of Pittsburgh Press).  Muriel Rukeyser (1913–1980) was an American poet and political activist. She attended the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in The Bronx, then Vassar College in Poughkeepsie. From 1930-1932, she attended Columbia University. Rukeyser’s literary career began in 1935 when her book of poetry, Theory of Flight, was published in the Yale Younger Poets Series. Her poems reflect the themes of equality, feminism, social justice and Judaism. Her poem “To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century” (1944) was adopted by the American Reform and Reconstructionist movements for their prayer books. You can learn more about Muriel Rukeyser and sample more of her poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

How to Read the Bible

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.

This Sunday’s lessons all deal in some fashion with the scriptures. Nehemiah brings his people together for reading and instruction in the Torah as they make their new beginning upon return to the promised land following decades of exile in Babylon. The psalmist sings of the Torah’s power to revive the soul. Jesus boldly proclaims the fulfillment of scripture in the synagogue at Nazareth. Though Paul is not discussing scripture or its interpretation in our reading from I Corinthians, he nevertheless offers us an insightful hermeneutic. He points out to the divided and fractured church at Corinth that the church is a body made up of many members. In a healthy body, these members all function together using their unique attributes for the common good of the whole. The absurdity of divisiveness within the church over spiritual gifts is graphically illustrated by Paul’s hilarious imaginary portrayal of a body whose eyes, hands and head all declare their independence from one another. Spiritual gifts belong not to the individual to whom they are given, but to the church they are intended to serve. All God’s people are uniquely gifted, but more important than the gift any individual might posses is the way it is put to use. If one’s gift is employed to serve the needs of the church, it is a blessing. On the other hand, when one’s gift is used to enhance one’s own standing, forward one’s own selfish interests or further one’s own personal or ideological agenda, it is destructive to the health of Christ’s Body.

How, then, does any of this apply to our interpretation of the Scriptures? In the first place, it is essential to understand that the scriptures, like the gifts of the Spirit, belong first and foremost to the church. They are to be used to encourage, admonish and instruct the members of Christ’s body to the end that “the mind of Christ” be formed within his church. Philippians 2:5. The Bible is not a personal self-help manual. It must never be read individually, but always communally. Thus, even when I read the Bible devotionally in the privacy of my home, I never read it alone. I always read the Bible in dialogue with Ignatius of Antioch, John of Damascus, Athanasius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my pastor, every teacher I have ever had and the fellow members of my own faith community. Scriptural interpretation is too important a job to be left in the hands of any one individual.

Second, the Bible does need interpretation. It is not an easy read. The Bible is a complex, layered and nuanced collection of literary pieces consisting of narrative, poetry, drama, law and chronology. It is also a dangerous book. It contains stories, images and commands that are altogether fulsome. In seizing upon particular biblical passages and taking them out of their context, individuals and groups throughout history have cobbled together hate filled ideologies that, sadly, have too often wormed their way into mainstream Christianity.  While one does not need a seminary education to read and understand the scriptures, one does need instruction or, as the ancient church called it, “catechesis.” We need to be taught how to read the Bible. This teaching does not come chiefly through sitting in a class room. It comes through regular participation in the disciplines and practices of faith: baptism, eucharist, recitation of the creeds, regular worship famed by the rhythms of the church year, public witness, tithing and service. It is within this sacred communal context that the Holy Spirit employs the precepts of the Lord to rejoice the heart and enlighten the eyes. Psalm 19:8.

Finally, just as Paul’s “more excellent way” of love must drive the use of our spiritual gifts, so too love must guide our interpretation of the scriptures. God knows there are plenty of preachers using the scriptures in altogether loveless ways. The Bible has been cited in support of slavery, patriarchy, misogyny, racism, antisemitism, homophobia, nationalism and genocide. And let’s be perfectly honest here. You can find biblical passages that, shorn of their context and taken at face value, can be so construed. That is why Jesus tells us that not all biblical texts or teachings are equal. The greatest commandments, Jesus tells us, are to love God with all the heart and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Upon these commands hang the whole of scripture and a faithful Christian interpretation of the Bible is always and only made through this lens.

It is telling that when Jesus was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah, of all the passages in that sixty-six chapter book he could have chosen to address, he selected the following as reflecting his priorities: “good news to the poor” “release to the captives” “recovery of sight” “freedom for the oppressed” and “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor.” Because Jesus is our hermeneutic, disciples of Jesus are able to interpret the scriptures in ways that liberate, enlighten and reconcile. In him, with him and through him the Bible proclaims the Lord’s favor to a world under the curse of sin. That is God’s word, God’s good news, our “great heritage.”

Below is a hymn by Nikolai F.S. Grundtvig celebrating the Holy Scriptures and the role it plays in the life of the church. It is taken from the Lutheran Hymnal, the book of worship that served churches of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in which I grew up. Sadly, this hymn did not make the cut for subsequent hymnals now used in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

God’s Word is Our Great Heritage

God’s Word is our great heritage
And shall be ours forever;
To spread its light from age to age
Shall be our chief endeavor.
Through life it guides our way,
In death it is our stay.
Lord, grant, while worlds endure,
We keep its teachings pure
Throughout all generations. Amen.

Source: The Lutheran Hymnal (c. 1941 by Concordia Publishing House) # 283 Written by Nikolai F.S. Grundvig, Translated from the Danish by Ole G. Belsheim, 1909. Nikolai F.S. Grundtvig (1783-1872) was a Danish pastor, author, poet, philosopher, historian, teacher, politician and contemporary of Hans Christian Andersen and Soren Kierkegaard. He was a prolific writer of hymns that have become staples in the Lutheran Church throughout Europe and the United States. Grundvig’s philosophy gave rise to a new form of nationalism in the last half of the 19th century. In particular, he is credited with shaping Danish national consciousness. You can read more about Nikolai F.S. Gruntvig at The Lectionary, a site containing Lectionary resources for the Episcopal Church.

Signs of Glory in Inglorious Places

See the source imageSECOND 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.

According to our gospel lesson, Jesus produced at least 120 and perhaps as much as 180 gallons of wine-a ridiculously huge volume for what must have been a modest wedding reception. Moreover, this was not box quality. We are talking Richebourg here, the kind of liquor you dole out sparingly with the hors ’doeuvres. It’s not the cheap stuff you save for after-dinner dancing when everyone is so thoroughly trashed they don’t know or care much what they are drinking. This, the gospel tells us, was Jesus’ first sign.

In a sated culture like ours where there exists a milti-billion dollar industry selling diets, drugs, exercise, twelve step programs and surgery to help us stop eating and drinking ourselves to death, Jesus’ contribution to the wedding feast might appear excessive. But to a community in which all but the wealthiest of individuals lived just one famine away from starvation, the significance of this sign would have been hard to miss. For a people whose life was just one day after another of back breaking work and scarcity, a wedding celebration provided the one single occasion on which they could forget their difficult existence and eat and drink like royalty. Wine, a precious and rationed luxury, was an integral part of these festive celebrations. As New Testament scholar, Lindsey Trozzo, points out:

“Jewish prophetic literature uses the marriage metaphor for God’s covenant with Israel (Hosea 2:14-23), and the abundance of wine figures as an eschatological image of restoration, particularly for Israel (Joel 3:13, 18; Amos 9:11-15). The abundance of wine and saving the good wine for last draws upon this imagery of eschatological hope that is often coupled with messianic expectations.” See Commentary, Workingpreacher.org.

Indeed, our lesson from Isaiah echoes this theme by characterizing the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to their homeland as a “marriage.” Isaiah 62:4-5. The meaning of Jesus’ sign was crystal clear. God’s gentle reign of abundance for all had begun.

Yet there is something a little strange about this sign. Jesus’ act of miraculous generosity went largely unrecognized-at least by those who seem to matter. The steward of the feast knows only that more wine, very good wine, has come in the nick of time from somewhere and that an embarrassing social faux pas has been averted. He has no idea where the wine came from and the only explanation he can find for its excellence is that somebody screwed up and served the poorer quality wine first. The bride and groom appear to have been oblivious both to the depletion of wine and Jesus’ remedy. For all we can tell, the wedding reception went on as though nothing unusual had happened. How can something be a “sign” when nobody sees it?

Actually, some people did see it. Jesus’ mother, for one. In contrast to Matthew, Mark and Luke, who identify Jesus’ mother as Mary, the mother of Jesus remains nameless in John’s gospel. Yet she is the one who recognizes the debacle with the wine and calls it to Jesus’ attention. More than that, she prods him into doing something about it. This is one of those rare occasions, such as Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman seeking exorcism for her daughter, when Jesus needs a poke to get him to do the right thing. (See Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28)

The servants are also privy to the miracle. These are the folks in the hotel uniform you see at wedding receptions. They bring in the main courses, clear the table and pour the coffee for desert. But they have no stake in the wedding festivities. They don’t sit at any table in the reception hall, share in the food and libations or dance with the wedding guests. There would be hell to pay for them if they did. They are outsiders. Servants have one and only one function: make sure the bridal couple, their attendants and the guests receive the best hospitality the facility has to offer. Yet in our gospel story, the servants, not the bridal party or the guests, are privy to Jesus’ very first sign.

Finally, the disciples witness the miracle-and believe. Or do they? Undoubtedly, the disciples recognized the miracle-but did they see the sign? If they had really seen this sign, would they have been in such consternation over how to feed five thousand people with a few loaves and fish? Would they have seen in a blind man, not merely a theological riddle, but an opportunity for the revelation of God’s healing power? If the disciples had really seen this sign, you would think they would have been more receptive to Mary Magdalene on that Easter morning when she burst into the room where they were cowering in fear with the remarkable good news: “The Lord has risen!” Whatever “belief” this sign might have generated in the disciples, it is clear that it has a long way to go before it matures into genuine faith.

Turns out this first of Jesus’ signs involves more than the remarkable transformation of water into wine. This is a sign telling us that God’s glory is manifested to nameless women, minimum wage servers who are not even a part of the main event, and to a church that is too often blind to signs happening in front of its face. Our gospel lesson invites us to “search for signs,” to take a closer look around us. It challenges us to take notice of the people and events occurring in the back ground that we might otherwise lose in the glare of the “main attraction.” There are signs to be seen of God’s compassion, generosity and redemption. What will it take to make us recognize them and believe what they are telling us? That is the question explored in the following poem by Alan Brilliant.

Searching for Signs
 
I am searching for signs and wonders
which, when younger, I might have had
for nothing, nothing at all, but which,
when older, I threw, despised, in the street-
things of little value, spurned by the stupid.
What where these things? The works that
embody and in their time transform
all poets destined for great singing
when, in their maturity, they pick up the pearl
lodged and nourished in the treasure of their heart.
But, for me, cursed with sloth
there will be no art
no enameled bird, no cup, no forge.
When, in my youth, I heard the clamour
of the mob and was afraid, I turned and ran
and since that time am unmanned.
Oh, I did not betray a gift, and artifact
but only what was me and mine.
Instead of winding the golden thread
up in a ball and following
until the tall trees and blood-red fruit
screamed Paradise I examined and searched
pretending I needed more: “I need more time,”
I said. And, stooping, bowed the head
to look in mud and in that mud
lies the pearl but it is long gone.

Source: Poetry, September 1969 (c. Alan Brilliant). Alan Brilliant (b. 1936) is founder of Unicorn Press in Santa Barbara, California and served as its Director. He is married to Teo Savory.  Both wrote for and assisted in the editing operations of Unicorn Press. Brilliant was a friend and correspondent of Thomas Merton, the prolific Trappist monk who authored the autobiographical The Seven Story Mountain and several other contemplative and devotional works. You can read more poetry by Brilliant at The Sun website.