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 Truth about “Ends” and “Means”

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Joshua 24:1-2, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22
Ephesians 6:10-20
John 6:56-69

Prayer of the Day: Holy God, your word feeds your people with life that is eternal. Direct our choices and preserve us in your truth, that, renouncing what is false and evil, we may live in you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12

Of course, the evil one would have us believe that our struggle is against enemies of flesh and blood-such as immigrants, liberals, socialists, fascists, racists, conservatives, Muslims, Jews, people of color, etc. Victory over evil consists in overcoming evil people by banishing them from our neighborhoods and churches, preventing them from coming into our country, driving them from positions of authority in government, silencing their voices in the public forum and, if all else fails, killing them. What is war, after all, but the most extreme strategy for ridding the world of evil? Sure, its ugly, cruel and brutally unjust, especially to non-combatants that happen to be in the way of strategic military strikes. But the ends justify the means, don’t they?

I recently read an angry manifesto from a young woman who left my own Lutheran Church. She said, in part, “I’m done with being patient. I’m done with loving people who treat my people like s#$%. I’m done waiting. I’m done with hoping people are going to change, that the world is going to change. Ain’t no change gonna happen but the change we make any way we can make it!” I understand the anger, the frustration and the hurt. God knows that we who call ourselves church have managed to do a lot of nothing about everything. But I am not ready to accept the proposition that it’s finally up to us to make the change we want to see “any way we can make it.” The ends don’t justify the means but, as Alduous  Huxley reminds us, they frequently determine them. We don’t employ the weapons of violence, force and coercion without being shaped by them. Furthermore, we cannot truly know the “ends” of our deeds. At best, we can only hope they will work out for the best. But how often don’t good intentions lead to unanticipated consequences? If we are honest with ourselves, we have to confess that the ends or consequences of our actions are beyond our ability to control. The only thing we do control are the means-and Jesus tells us the means by which we are to live into the reign of God. Until that kingdom comes in all its fullness, discipleship takes the shape of the cross. That’s a difficult word. Most won’t accept it. But it is, as Peter rightly recognizes in this Sunday’s gospel, “the words of eternal life.”

In fact, no human being is an enemy. All people are created in the image of God. Some, to be sure, have been shaped by violence, hateful ideologies and false values. A few have become so thoroughly corrupted by evil that one can scarcely discern their humanity. Can one become so thoroughly twisted and perverted by evil influences that nothing of the divine image is any longer recognizable in him or her?  Does one ever reach the point where the Creator says of the creature, “I do not know you”? Since Jesus seems to allow for that possibility, we do well take seriously the corrupting power of evil in our own lives. Nevertheless, God alone is capable of making such a call. For our part, we must assume that everyone we encounter, however flagrantly they manifest evil tendencies, retain traces of their dignity as God’s human creatures. We cannot allow our determination to resist evil to degenerate into a campaign against the people held in bondage to its grip. To do so is to fall into the devil’s trap.

The Apostle Paul understands the evil one’s stratagem well. He knows that peace, justice and righteousness can never be achieved by violent acts against God’s creation and its creatures. So, he takes the imagery of imperial military might, the sword, the helmet, the shield and turns it on its head. The only weapons disciples of Jesus wield are truth, peace, integrity, faith and the word of God. This is the whole armor of God. Nothing further is needed nor allowed to the disciples in carrying out their struggle against evil.

“This is a difficult teaching,” Jesus’ disciples remarked. They were right. Internalizing the Spirit of Jesus, leaning wholly on the power of the Word and the strength of the Spirit to defeat the forces of evil manifested around us requires a willingness to lose a few battles, suffer some losses, perhaps endure persecution or death. Moreover, we may die without ever seeing any positive result from these sacrifices. In a culture that rewards only results and insists that the ends justify the means, it is all the more difficult to resist the temptation to seize hold of more “efficient” means than words, acts of mercy and peaceful resistance. Paul’s words and Peter’s witness keep us focused on the long game and the means necessary for winning it.

Here is a poem by Denise Levertov illustrating the power of the word, of imagination and courage that make for peace-not unlike Paul’s admonition to avail ourselves of the weapons of the Spirit.

Making Peace

A voice from the dark called out,
‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Source: Breathing the Water, c. 1987 by Denise Levertov, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corporation). Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister.  Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Putting Away Falsehood and Speaking the Truth

See the source imageTWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:4-8
Psalm 34:1-8
Ephesians 4:25—5:2
John 6:35, 41-51

Prayer of the Day: Gracious God, your blessed Son came down from heaven to be the true bread that gives life to the world. Give us this bread always, that he may live in us and we in him, and that, strengthened by this food, we may live as his body in the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another.” Ephesians 4:25.

When I was a teenager, the Vietnam war was raging. So was the national public conversation over the merits of that war. I heard it over the radio, on TV, in the barber shop and at my table in the high school cafeteria. That conversation was always passionate, frequently heated and sometimes less than civil. But it was everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except in our church. There were reasons for that, of course. We had families whose sons were serving in Vietnam. We had families whose children were actively involved in the resistance to the war. Our church, like all others, was sustained by longstanding relationships of love and mutual respect. The war constituted a threat to that unity in the Body of Christ. It was the third rail we all took care to avoid, talking around it and over it but never about it.

At the time, it seemed like a sensible strategy. After all, there were plenty of venues for talking politics. Why not let the church be that one place where all the political opinions, ideologies and crusades that divide us are left outside? Why not acknowledge that there are, after all, people of good will on both sides of issues like these and simply agree to disagree-at least for an hour on Sunday? Isn’t our unity in Christ bigger than the temporal issues that divide us? Shouldn’t the church be that one place where we can rise above all of the divisiveness that plagues the rest of our society?

As much surface appeal as this argument might have, the apostle is having none of it. His admonition is to put off falsehood and tell the truth-and not just the truth that is comforting and uncontroversial. Disciples of Jesus owe one another the truth-even when it hurts. After all, how can the good news of Jesus Christ heal us if we won’t let it come near to our deepest wounds? How can a community be truly united as long as its divisions remain undiagnosed, untreated and festering under the surface? There can be no genuine unity in Christ as long as painful truths remain unspoken. What unity there may be is but a brittle façade just one unguarded moment away from shattering.

There is no more troubling and painful truth confronting the American church today than that of its own racism. Despite what I believe are genuine and heartfelt expressions of repentance for our participation in and complicity with our country’s sad legacy of slavery, oppression and segregation put forth by our mainline churches, the harsh truth is that Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of any given week. Moreover, whatever our denominational leaders are saying, our rank and file continue, at best, to retain a “blind spot” when it comes to recognizing systemic racism. At worst, we are experiencing in our midst and with increasing frequency a resurgence of the ugliest expressions of racial hatred and intolerance.

As I have said before, the one positive contribution of the Trump administration to date is its exposure of the deep seated fear and suspicion with which white folk regard people of color in general and African Americans in particular. The 2016 campaign has laid bare the pillars of systemic racism that permeates our government, our work places and our educational institutions. We are not, some people proudly proclaimed with the election of Barak Obama in 2008, a “post racial society.” We remain a nation that favors the privileged position of white people, white men in particular at the expense of all others. None have experienced more deeply and destructively the receiving end of all this than black Americans. The consequences of more than two and a half centuries of slavery, segregation and racial terrorism are brutally clear. According to Laura Shin of Forbs Magazine, the average white household possesses 16 times the wealth owned by the average black family. The incarceration rate for black Americans is six times higher than for white people. Access to adequate health care, good schools and affordable housing is too often severely limited in black communities. So too are opportunities for higher education and employment.

In the face of these brutal realities, we are tempted to take comfort in falsehoods. “Slavery has been over for more than a century. Nobody living to day can claim to have been harmed by it and on one living today is responsible for it.” “The civil rights movement ended segregation. So now everyone is playing on a level field.”  “Black people have no one to blame but themselves for the state of their own communities. They need to quit playing the victim and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” “Hey, we elected a black president, didn’t we? That proves the race thing is over.” These expressions are all to common within the churches I have held membership and served over the years. They are not as obviously abrasive as some of the more vulgar assertions of racial hate that have gained currency in our cultural landscape of late. But they are, for that reason, even more insidious. They allow us to avoid the hard and truthful conversations we need to have within the Body of Christ if we are going to become that one, holy, catholic and apostolic church we claim to be.

So where do we go from here? As a white male and beneficiary of systemic racism, I am hardly in a position to proscribe comprehensive solutions to that evil. Nonetheless, we all have to start somewhere. I believe that the best first step white folk like myself can take is to assure our African American neighbors that we believe them. We need to say clearly and unambiguously, “I believe your stories of brutalization at the hands of police. I believe you when you tell me of the regular indignities and slights you experience in going about your daily business at the grocery store, in the restaurant and at work. I believe that your experiences are real.” In other words, we need to put aside all of the old falsehoods and begin to acknowledge and speak the truth.

Of course, before we can do even that we need to learn the truth. In order to do that, we need to be listening to the stories of our non-white neighbors with a compassionate ear and without judgment or defensiveness. That is not easy, because we are bound to learn some truths difficult to hear.  It’s hard to “shut up and listen” when every bone in your body wants to argue, defend and explain. But until we can do at least that, we cannot hope to move in the direction of healing and reconciliation, much less move the world closer to justice.

Here is one hard and truthful story told by poet and author Kwame Dawes.

Dirt

I got one part of it. Sell them watermelons and get me another part. Get Bernice to sell that piano and I’ll have the third part.—August Wilson

We who gave, owned nothing,
learned the value of dirt, how
a man or a woman can stand
among the unruly growth,
look far into its limits,
a place of stone and entanglements,
and suddenly understand
the meaning of a name, a deed,
a currency of personhood.
Here, where we have labored
for another man’s gain, if it is fine
to own dirt and stone, it is
fine to have a plot where
a body may be planted to rot.
We who have built only
that which others have owned
learn the ritual of trees,
the rites of fruit picked
and eaten, the pleasures
of ownership. We who
have fled with sword
at our backs know the things
they have stolen from us, and we
will walk naked and filthy
into the open field knowing
only that this piece of dirt,
this expanse of nothing,
is the earnest of our faith
in the idea of tomorrow.
We will sell our bones
for a piece of dirt,
we will build new tribes
and plant new seeds
and bury our bones in our dirt.

Source: Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems, (C. 2013 by Kwame Dawes, pub. by Copper Canyon Press)

Kwame Dawes was born in Ghana in 1962, but he spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. He subsequently emigrated to Canada and came eventually to the United States. From 1992 to 2012 he taught at the University of South Carolina as a Professor in English, Distinguished Poet in Residence, Director of the South Carolina Poetry Initiative, and Director of the USC Arts Institute. He is currently the editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. He is the author of numerous books and poetry collections. You can sample more poetry by Kwame Dawes at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Grow Up Already!!!

See the source imageELEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

Prayer of the Day: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Grow up!” That’s the message of our lesson from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. The apostle has no patience for immature, simplistic faith that can be boiled down to pious platitudes suitable for bumper stickers and refrigerator magnets. Nor does he tolerate a church that produces biblically illiterate disciples with shallow, incomplete and therefore erroneous understandings of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims. Paul does not envision a church of passive members employing professionals to do the work of ministry. In his view, the work of ministry belongs to the whole church. Proclaiming good news to the poor, the oppressed and the sinful; prophetically speaking truth to power; healing the sick; casting out demons-this is not the sole province of the “clergy.” It is the ministry of all the baptized people of God. The job of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is “to equip the saints [the whole people of God] for building up the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature adulthood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…” Ephesians 4:11-13.

I don’t have to tell anyone deeply involved in the life of the church that most congregations are precisely the inverse of this Pauline vision. Sadly, all the churches I have served fit this perverse description to some degree. Moreover, I must confess that I have too often encouraged passive membership by my own well meaning efforts to be a “good pastor.” For example, my response upon receiving word that a member had been hospitalized was, more often than not, “I’ll be right over to see her.” Of course, that did a lot to convince the messenger that I was a prompt, caring pastor ready to meet the spiritual needs of all my congregants. But quarry, would it not have been more Pauline for me to respond, “Gee, I will make sure to get her on the prayer list. When do you think you can get over to see her?” It was expected in my congregations that, as Pastor, I would be ready with a prayer or blessing whenever the occasion called for it. So, when asked, “Pastor, would you lead us in grace for this meal,” Perhaps I should have responded, “Why don’t you lead us this time.”

I suspect that my suggested responses in both cases would have been perceived as dereliction of duty. After all, pastors get paid for providing these services, don’t they? Actually, they do not. As Paul just pointed out, we are called to equip our people to do the work of ministry though preaching and presiding at the sacraments. If we are doing our job well, our departure should not constitute a crisis. Visitation of the sick, comfort to the bereaved, education of the young, ministry to the poor, hungry and oppressed should continue without missing a beat. Every church member should be comfortable offering prayer. Every baptized believer should know the scriptures and liturgy well enough to lead a devotional study, offer a brief meditation or lead a short worship service. Every believer should be competent, confident and willing to testify to the good news of Jesus Christ and how s/he has witnessed the transformative power of that good news in his or her own experience. There should be no need to call the pastor when such opportunities for ministry arise.

Unfortunately, we have created an ecclesiastical culture based on the model of a voluntary association providing services to its members. It’s all transactional. I attend church more or less regularly and contribute more or less generously (most likely less). In return, I am entitled to have my children baptized, confirmed and married. I am assured of pastoral care and visitation when needed and burial services when my time comes. Heaven, of course, is also an added benefit. Furthermore, because the church is all about me, my needs and my wants, I am free to switch my membership whenever another congregation offers me a better deal. Churches guided by this consumer mentality are not likely ever to “grow up.”

Changing the culture of a congregation from a consumerist outlook into a community of disciples committed to spiritual growth and mission is a daunting task. Yet there is reason for hope and it comes from the last place you would expect. There has been plenty of consternation over the last few decades about the decline of the mainline churches and, more recently, the loss of support among the so-called evangelical congregations. If the present trends continue, the consumerist model of church may simply no longer be sustainable. With ever fewer members contributing ever less in terms of time and money, we may soon be unable to continue supporting the institutional machinery necessary to carry on the professional work of mission and ministry. Circumstances will force us to change. Of course, we can deal with all this by merging smaller congregations together, closing those that are no longer able to support a pastor and reducing denominational staffing accordingly. But the task of downsizing is far more complicated and fraught with difficulties than might appear from graphs, pie charts and statistics. More to the point, it is only a rearguard defensive strategy making room for a somewhat orderly retreat and temporary reprieve. It is rather like applying to grad school after college in order to avoid the anxiety of having to find a job. To put it in Pauline terms, it is a refusal to “grow up.”

Denominational decline is not the worst consequence of failing to grow up. As Paul points out, the spiritually immature are likely to be “tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness and deceitful wiles.” Ephesians 4:14. They are ripe pickings for the likes of Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Robert Jeffress, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson and the like whose weird mix of end times hysteria, sexism, homophobia, American/Christian nationalism and subliminal white supremacy strike a chord resonating with so many folk fearful of a future that looks dark and threatening and who are ready to grasp any straw that promises to make sense of it all. Some of this low hanging fruit has been plucked from the midst of my own congregations. To many men and women we have baptized and confirmed are very much in thrall to these charlatans and they are not happy when we publicly call them to account and dispute their ideologies. In the recent past, I called for an ecumenical Barman like declaration from our bishops and theologians condemning specifically these distortions of our faith and reaffirming with boldness and clarity the good news of Jesus Christ confessed in the ecumenical creeds. While there have been no shortage of ecclesiastical statements condemning one or another of our government’s recent policy decisions, there has been no widely subscribed confessional declaration naming what I can only characterize as the heretical perversions of our faith undergirding the present reign of evil.

I can sympathize with our leaders. It is hard challenging the consumerist mentality of a congregation. People who have for generations believed that the church to which they belong is their church and that the length of their membership and the significance of their contributions entitle them to a degree of influence inevitably feel that something is being taken away from them. Members who have ingrained upon their psyches the assumption that faith and patriotism are two sides of the same coin and that the church exists to shore up a particular notion of American cultural values will have a hard time adjusting to an understanding of church as a counter-cultural community that sometimes must question, criticize and even oppose the dominant culture. I have experienced all of this first hand and have the scars to prove it. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a bishop charged with unifying the church facing the prospect of schism within a denominational body already under stress. There is a real danger that a lot of individuals and congregations will be driven away by a clarion call to repentance, faith and a radical change of ecclesiastical culture. But I must ask our leaders-and all of us-what is the alternative to growing up?

It seems we are coming to a crossroads. We have reached the point at which a faith seamlessly woven into the fabric of white American middle class values that demands nothing from us and promises little more than helpful programming can no longer witness effectively to the world. We have reached the point where a church that ministers globally but is peripheral to the lives of most of its members is no longer sustainable. We cannot pretend that going on with business as usual is a real option. We need to recognize the poverty of our faith, acknowledge our need for conversion and be prepared to embrace the costly grace of discipleship whatever the consequences. In short, we need to grow up.

Here’s an anonymous poem featuring the kind if preaching that just might put us on the path to growing up. It’s obviously directed to non-believers, but as none other than a Lutheran seminary president once remarked to a group of us pastors, “Our biggest problem is that our own people remain unconverted.” Can we find the courage to tell that hard truth to ourselves?

The Street Preacher

Hey there, you!
With the Floresheim shoe!
And your Brooks Brothers suit,
And your wallet full of loot!
You with the skirt half-way up your hips
And the ruby lips
And the long blond hair
With your nose in the air!
You on the grate
With your dingy little plate
Full of quarters and dimes,
Guess you’re seeing hard times!
You with the sack of books on your back
Stopping by for a snack
In the Starbucks shop
Where the Yuppies like to stop!
You all may think that you got no soul,
That you got no need to be made whole.
But whether you wanna believe it or not,
And eternal soul is what you all got.
You can lie to yourself and pretend it ain’t there.
You can tell yourself that I’m full of hot air.
But I don’t care what you say about me.
I got peace with my soul and that makes me free.
You can say I’m crazy and that’s OK.
You can say “Drop dead” or just “Go away.”
I’m speaking today in the name of the Lord
And what you’re hearing is His Holy Word.
He’s here to tell you that you got to get right.
You need to get you some inner spiritual sight.
Cause when you see you got a soul and the shape its in
The truth is gonna make your head spin.
See, your soul was made holy and pure and good,
But you done dragged it all through the mud.
You got a stain on your heart, filthy thoughts in your mind
And evil and sins of about every kind.
Yea, you can scrub your skin till it turns all pink.
You can stand in the shower but your soul’s gonna stink.
If you don’t let Jesus in to clean it out,
Come judgment day the Lord’l throw it right out
Into outer darkness to burn with the trash
And with the wicked forever your teeth you’ll gnash.
God loves ya too much to let you go where you’re going.
That’s why the wind of the Spirit is a blowing.
It’s calling you child, to come back home.
You’ve had enough time now to wander and roam.
Giving your body to men for pleasure,
Piling up money, too much to measure,
Lying and cheating to get on top
You ain’t going nowhere. It’s time to stop.
Let Jesus into your heart today.
He’s calling you brother, don’t turn away!
He’s come to make your filthy soul clean.
He’s come your whole life to redeem.
Go to him! He calls you! You can’t refuse!
Your life’s a wreck! What you got to lose?
You give him your shame, your sin, your strife
And He’ll give you eternal life!
That’ a deal, my man, you can’t pass up.
Come here and die, let him raise you back up!

An Open Letter and Plea to Republicans of Conscience

See the source imageDear Republican Friends:

I am not a member of your party, but I am a fellow citizen of our country. I am talking to you because your country needs you right now. We are in deep trouble. Yours is the governing party and you hold all the cards. If the destructive course set for the nation by Donald Trump is to change, you need to lead the way.

I am not talking to those of you who are still true believers in Donald Trump. That, I have learned, is a lost cause. No, I am speaking to those of you Republicans who know deep down in your heart of hearts that your party is off the rails and not by a little bit. I am talking to those of you who still believe in everything your party used to stand for. I am talking to those of you who still believe that the way to economic prosperity and social progress for all lies in open borders, fee markets, individual freedom and its essential corollary, personal responsibility. I am talking to those of you who believe that fiscal restraint and responsible spending are key to ensuring the future health of our nation; that a strong military sparingly used by an America taking the lead among its democratic allies in addressing global issues is the key to national security. I am talking to those of you who understand that, for every job lost as a result of international trade agreements, more and better jobs are created. I am talking to those of you who still believe that honesty, transparency and integrity are essential to representative government.

I cannot believe for a single minute that you don’t see just how far your party has fallen from the aforementioned principles. Who would ever have thought that a president from the party of Ronald Regan would one day snub, disrespect and insult our closest democratic allies while falling all over himself to ingratiate a Russian autocrat and give legitimacy to an outlaw regime that rules its people through starvation and terror? Who could have predicted that a Republican president would one day be closing borders, stifling trade and manipulating markets with punitive tariffs against our closest allies to preserve inefficient companies and outdated technologies? Who would ever have imagined that a Republican congress egged on by its president would wind up passing legislation that increases the national debt by a cool $2.3 trillion? And who can fathom how the party of “Honest Abe” came to tolerate the tsunami of falsehoods that spew out of the White House nonstop? You have thrown away all of your guiding principles in the service of Donald J. Trump. Admittedly, that got you the White House and more, but I have to ask you, was it worth it? Are you proud of what your party has become? Is your president and his supporters building the kind of America you want to leave to your children?

You and I both know how you got to this point. It all started with the “southern strategy.” Sure, deny it if you want to. If it makes you feel better, scream self-righteously that you’re not a racist, that I’m playing the race card, some of your best friends are black and that this whole southern strategy thing is a media hoax cooked up by liberal snowflakes like me. Say whatever you like, but it’s an indisputable fact (remember, I’m only talking to those of you who still believe in such things) that, whether strategically engineered or by plain dumb luck, your party inherited the angry white southerners still bitter over losing their fight against segregation, the white evangelicals whose perverse religion has a long history of sanctifying racism and other deeply bigoted white voters that once were the backbone of white supremacy. Their emigration to the GOP is perhaps the biggest factor in your electoral success over the last five decades. Of course, you never took these idiots seriously. You didn’t really believe that abortion should be criminalized, that borders should be closed, that science is an atheistic conspiracy, that Barak Obama was born in Kenya or any of the rest of that conspiracy crap espoused by your witless new base. But you welcomed their votes just the same and you were willing to pay lip service to their nuttiness to get them, at least during the primaries. Then you moderated your rhetoric to pick up the additional votes you needed to be competitive in the general election. You know exactly what I am talking about. It’s what Mitt Romney’s handlers called the “etch a sketch” maneuver back in the election of 2012.

That seemed to work for you-until it didn’t. You probably thought the members of your newly acquired base were too stupid to realize they were being played. You figured you could go on taking their votes for granted as long as you kept throwing out the kind of mindless red meat that warms the cockles of an angry white man’s heart, like “family values” and “traditional marriage.”  You knew that you didn’t have to use the “N word” to win the hearts of bigots if only you expressed such racist sentiments in thinly veiled suggestive memes, such as the Willy Horton narrative and terms like “welfare queens.” You assumed that it was enough to spew anti-abortion and anti-LGBT proposals that you knew very well would never materialize as legislation capable of withstanding judicial review.  You knew you could advance any dead end law the crazies wanted and blame the activist judiciary, the liberal media and the Democratic majority for their failure. I have to admit, you had a pretty good run of it for a lot of years. But now your base of crazies has gotten away from you and the inmates are running that asylum once known as the Grand Old Party.

You were right about one thing. Your base of angry white folk is pretty stupid. Bigots, bullies and abusers usually are. But they are pretty good at recognizing the putrid stench of their own kind. When Donald Trump came along and took their craziness front and center, they knew that he was the real deal. Here was a guy who really would kick all those dark skinned illegals out of the country and build a wall along the entire Mexican border to make sure they don’t come back. Here was a guy who wasn’t afraid to call those femmie nazis, those uppity women who think they can wear pants to a man, pigs, dogs and a good many other things I can’t print. Here was man who cut through all that “political correctness crap” and made it OK to be racist, cool to be KKK, and just good clean fun to ridicule special needs kids. In Donald Trump, your base found an advocate for all the imagined grievances of the poor, forgotten white man who sees his power, privilege and delusions of supremacy slipping away from him. Donald Trump was the one man among the crowded field of Republican presidential candidates in 2016 who promised to make America great (read white) again and really meant it. The rest of the crowd employed the old “etch a sketch” strategy of keeping one foot in crazyville and the other in the real world. Trump, with both feet firmly planted in crazyville, knocked them off balance and sent them reeling every time.

I had hoped that Donald Trump’s primary victories would wake up the old Republican party; that enough of you would have said to yourselves, “My God! What have we done? We need to end this no matter what the backlash, no matter what the effect on this election cycle. We cannot allow ourselves to become the party of Trump.” But that moment never came. I thought that it might have come during the Republican National Convention after Donald Trump defamed and abused a gold star family whose son gave his life in Iraq. I thought the moment might have come when Donald Trump mimicked, mocked and ridiculed a disabled reporter on national television while his adoring audience laughed and clapped while the drool ran down their imbecilic faces. I thought that when the Access Hollywood tape came out, in which Donald Trump boasted of molesting women in terms too vulgar to repeat, this would surely be the end of his campaign. At first, it seemed it was. A lot of Republicans not only denounced Trump’s remarks, but even called for him to drop out of the race-until it became clear that his base-your base-didn’t care. Then these briefly incensed Republicans all came back like whipped pups with their tails between their legs to lick their master’s boots.

Your slavish devotion and/or grudging tolerance of Donald Trump demonstrates a frightening sickness in your souls. Bad enough that you tolerate his ridicule and abuse of women, people of color and those with disabilities.  What is truly pathetic is the way you let him walk all over you. Trump insulted the wife of Senator Ted Cruz and accused his father of engineering the assassination of President Kennedy. Though endorsing Trump at the Republican National Convention was a little too much for even Mr. Cruz to stomach, he eventually came prancing back to Trump, just like the faithful hound that returns to his owner no matter how badly he’s been mistreated. The same with Jeff Sessions who meekly responds to his master’s regular abuse and criticism with nothing but adoration and praise. And who can forget how the much maligned and berated Mitch McConnell meekly followed the Donald like a little lamb on a leash into the Rose Garden to announce the billionaires’ tax break and deficit bomb-the one legislative victory to which your party can point. It appears that you have as little respect for yourselves as you do any constituents outside of your beloved base. Donald Trump once said that his followers were so blindly loyal that he could shoot an innocent bystander on Fifth Avenue and they would still love him. That was perhaps the only true statement he ever made.

Harnessing the energy of racist, xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist paranoia has been a winning strategy for you. It’s gotten you the White House, both houses of congress and a good crack at stacking the Supreme Court. Congratulations! But, oh, my friends, what a price you have had to pay! How much you have had to sacrifice! As each day brings out more sordid details about Mr. Trump’s and his associates’ political, financial and sexual misdeeds; as the most extreme representatives of racial hate become ever more emboldened in his shadow to spew their vile rhetoric and engage in acts of violence, all under your party’s brand; as the strategic alliances that have kept the peace in Europe and defended democracy around the globe for six decades crumble under the weight of Donald Trump’s gigantic ego; as all of this goes on day after day I keep asking myself, how much more of this can your consciences endure? Your leaders have jeopardized the security of our country, thrown their own families under the bus, compromised their careers and sacrificed their integrity on the altar of this pathetic little man baby and his delusions of grandeur. How much of your party’s soul is left to sell? What will it take to tickle your gag reflex? How far will this man go before you finally say “Enough!”

You know all of this to be true whether you are willing to admit it or not. So why do I waste my breath telling you what you already know? Because I still have a faint hope that there are enough Republicans of conscience like you left to bring the GOP back to life. I still hope against hope that you will finally recognize that you own this mess and it’s yours to clean up. I still cling to the possibility that you love your country enough to put its well-being ahead of your party’s unprincipled lust for raw power and that you will find the courage to act on what used to be your convictions. My question to you is this: can your country count on you to be who you always said you were?

Church: It’s Not for the Faint of Heart

See the source imageTENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

2 Kings 4:42-44
Psalm 145:10-18
Ephesians 3:14-21
John 6:1-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious God, you have placed within the hearts of all your children a longing for your word and a hunger for your truth. Grant that we may know your Son to be the true bread of heaven and share this bread with all the world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:18-19.

One might say this fragment from the second lesson for the coming Sunday sums up the reason for the church’s existence. The church is where you go to be filled with the love of Christ. Yes, I know there are plenty of folks who have left the church complaining that they found nothing of the kind there. Instead, they experienced hypocrisy, judgment, self-righteousness, arrogance and a host of hurtful behaviors that look nothing like love. So they left. I get that. I really do. But here’s the thing. Knowing the love of Christ does not come easily. You don’t learn tolerance by living among people who look and think exactly like you. You don’t learn forgiveness by sticking with people who never rub you the wrong way. You will never be led to repentance and a change of heart without people who push your buttons, criticize you and tell you things you don’t want to hear. You will never know love like that of Jesus until you are challenged to love people for whom love does not come naturally. If you are looking for a community that affirms you, accepts you as you are, meets all of your needs and makes you feel good, try a Yoga weekend in the Poconos. If you are looking for a community where you will learn to love as Jesus loves, the church is the place you need to be. It’s called sanctification. It’s what we do. But be warned: it’s a lot more like boot camp than Club Med.

Here is the hard word: the church is not there to meet your needs. It has a mission. The church exists to serve and witness to the reign of God. It is made up of people Jesus calls to be formed for participation in that mission. When you join the Marines, you don’t get to choose the people in your unit. When you join the church, you don’t get to choose your fellow disciples. That’s Jesus’ prerogative. The single biggest complaint about Jesus in the gospels was the company he kept. The religious leaders were offended that Jesus ate with harlots and tax collectors. Simon the Pharisee was offended that Jesus allowed a woman who was a “sinner” to touch him. The disciples were annoyed that Jesus permitted a nameless woman to anoint him. If you are going to follow Jesus, you will have to accept that he hangs with people you probably won’t like. If you want to learn to love as Jesus loves, you must begin by believing that everyone in your church, even-no, especially-the least appealing, least loving, least seemingly Christlike member, has something to teach you that no one else can. Church is living together with people you would never choose as friends, but whom Jesus has called to serve his life giving mission of reconciliation along with you. Church is a process of learning first to tolerate, then to care and finally to love. Not everybody is up for that.

Our Gospel lesson for Sunday sets the stage for a lengthy discourse throughout chapter 6 of John’s gospel between Jesus and the crowd that was initially attracted to him. It is the familiar story about how Jesus feeds five thousand hungry people in the wilderness with a few loaves of bread and some fish. So impressed are the people by this work of power that they are ready to acclaim Jesus as their king. But as Jesus engages them in a discussion about their deeper hunger and the bread of life he offers and that they so desperately need, their enthusiastic support gradually changes to hostility. By the end of chapter 6, the crowd and even most of his followers will have deserted Jesus.  “This teaching is difficult,” they grumble, “who can accept it?” John 6:60. Only the twelve remain faithful. “To whom shall we go?” asks Peter rhetorically. “You have the words of eternal life.” John 6:68. Life is eternal only when “rooted and grounded in love.” Ephesians 3:17.

In contrast to our dying culture that is increasingly divided politically, racially and ideologically, the call of Jesus is for his disciples to thrive as an alternative community whose members work together under the reign of God in the same harmony different parts of a body display as they function to serve the well being of the whole. The church exists to let the world know that the walls we have built to divide ourselves are permeable; that there is a way out of the vortex of mutual enmity and retaliation threatening to swallow us. It takes more than love based on mutual attraction, admiration for the pastor, a liking for the church’s sanctuary, music, liturgy and preaching to form and hold such a community together. Forging the Body of Christ out of willful, selfish, thin-skinned, individualistic people like us is a slow, painful process. But it is the process through which one comes to experience “what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so [as to] be filled with all the fullness of God.” Ephesians 3:18-19. It’s called church and it’s not for the faint of heart.

Here is a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning speaking about the fusion of life into love that, in biblical terms, is deemed “eternal.”

Love

We cannot live, except thus mutually
We alternate, aware or unaware,
The reflex act of life: and when we bear
Our virtue onward most impulsively,
Most full of invocation, and to be
Most instantly compellant, certes, there
We live most life, whoever breathes most air
And counts his dying years by sun and sea.
But when a soul, by choice and conscience, doth
Throw out her full force on another soul,
The conscience and the concentration both
Make mere life, Love. For Life in perfect whole
And aim consummated, is Love in sooth,
As nature’s magnet-heat rounds pole with pole.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was held in high regard throughout her lifetime surpassing nearly all other female poets of the English speaking world eclipsing even the work of her poet husband, Robert Browning. She had a formative influence upon American poet, Emily Dickinson who hung her portrait in her bedroom. Browning was highly skilled in multiple languages reading voraciously the Greek and Latin classics as well as the Hebrew Scriptures. Though the beneficiary of a privileged upbringing, she was a passionate advocate for the oppressed on the issues of slavery, child labor and the exploitation of colonized peoples. You can read more about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

What God Wants for the Poor, Hungry and Oppressed: Solidarity, not Charity

NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Prayer of the Day: O God, powerful and compassionate, you shepherd your people, faithfully feeding and protecting us. Heal each of us, and make us a whole people, that we may embody the justice and peace of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

It is Easter Sunday. Though thoroughly exhausted by the ordinary rigors of Holy Week and the extraordinary rigors of a funeral for a suicide victim and the hospitalization of a young girl tragically rendered comatose by a brain anyrism, I am nonetheless pumped for celebrating the resurrection. This is one of the few Sundays when the church is filled to capacity. The morning is clear, warm and sunny. It is everything you could ask for on Easter. Led by the choir, the congregation breaks into a chorus of Jesus Christ is Risen Today. I look out over the congregation with satisfaction-and suddenly my heart sinks.

Standing at the rear of the church I see him. It’s Neil. Neil is well known to every pastor, priest and rabbi in Bergen County. He is sure to have a problem that only cold hard cash can solve. He always shows up on Sunday morning when he knows very well that you are too busy to give him much attention and that any state or county agency to which you might refer him is closed. He does this because he knows that you know that the easiest way to get rid of him is just to give him a twenty dollar bill and be done with it. I don’t want to deal with Neil this morning. I just want to rest in the light of the resurrection with my people. They deserve this. I deserve this.

I can’t help but suspect that Jesus felt something of the same dismay when, after finally escaping the crowds in a desperate search for solitude following God only knows how many days of ministering to needy people, he is met by yet another crowd of needy people. I would not be surprised if Jesus’ disciples, who had just returned from a healing mission themselves, were hoping that Jesus would direct them to turn the boat away from the shore where the crowds were gathering. But the Good Shepherd will not leave a flock of helpless sheep to wander in the wilderness. Jesus goes ashore to meet this bottomless pit of need head on.

None of this is to say that we should deny ourselves the rest we need to remain healthy and whole. Pastors, of all people, ought to know that we can’t take good care of others unless we take good care of ourselves. Airplane rule: put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to assist others. It appears from the gospel narratives that Jesus did, in fact, take such care for himself and for his disciples. But Jesus will not separate himself from the people he came to redeem. He will not let anything stand between himself and the world for which he ultimately will give his life. Jesus identifies fully with the crowd and its needs. That is the hallmark of his ministry. Jesus does not merely heal broken bodies. He restores broken relationships. Jesus does not merely teach. He befriends his disciples. Jesus does not merely feed the poor and hungry. He invites them to the messianic banquet.

Very often I think that the church prefers to “help” those in need rather than befriend and incorporate them. That is understandable. The needs of people we confront often defy simple solutions. Clearly, Neil needed a lot more than a twenty dollar bill that Easter morning when he graced my church with his presence. But I am quite sure that Neil would not have been receptive to the kind of help I thought he needed. There was no way I could possibly have “fixed” Neil and that is why I just wanted him gone. He obviously needed help from someone with greater expertise than me. So why bother? Why not simply contribute generously to food pantries, homeless shelters and social service agencies who might actually be able to help Neil with his problems? The trouble with such “generosity” is that it can too easily absolve me from making eye contact with the guy on the street corner holding up his cardboard sigh, conversing the woman who notices my clerical collar and begins babbling incoherently about God and space aliens or, for that matter, taking time for Neil on Easter Sunday. Better to leave these tough cases to the “experts.” Often I think that our “hands off” attitude toward those in dire need is reflected in the prayer of this anonymous poet:

A Rich Man’s Prayer

God bless the beggar.
Fill his dirty cup with change.
God bless the lunatics
Whose ravings are so strange.
God bless the runaways
Lurking in the subway.
God bless the sad eyed girl
Who sells herself for money.
God bless the drunkard
Who can hardly even stand.
God bless the junky
With the trembling, shaky hand.
God bless the prisoner.
May he one fine day be free.
God bless all suffering souls
and keep them far from me.

In short, writing a check is much easier than forging a relationship. But relationship is what Jesus’ mission is all about. The gospel is about solidarity, not charity. Disciples of Jesus are not called upon to “fix” people anymore than they are called to save the world. God has both of those jobs covered. What we are called to do is invite folks like Neil into our community, recognize them as gifts to our fellowship, learn to love them and come to understand what Jesus would teach us through them. That’s a tall order. I know because I have served churches that are home to people nobody else would have. I cannot say that we have always been able to change their bad habits, alter their unappealing behavior or put them on a trajectory for substantial improvement. But we have learned through them to see ourselves more clearly and honestly. People like Neil remind us what Jesus looks like and what it really means to love him, serve him and follow him. The they teach us that their need is but a pale reflection of our own desperate need for a new heart, an open mind and an accepting spirit. They teach us to pray that God might “make of the eyes of others [our] own eyes.” Here is a poem by Phillip B. Williams that touches on that very point:

From Interruptive

What can I do but make of the eyes of others
my own eyes, but make of the world a ghazal
whose radif is a haunting of me, me, me?

Somewhere there are fingers still whole
to tell the story of the empire that devours fingers.
Somewhere there is a city where even larvae

cannot clean the wounds of the living
and cannot eat on the countless dead
who are made to die tomorrow and tomorrow.

Carrion beetles and boot bottoms grind corpses
powder-soft to feed the small-mouthed gods
of gardens and wind. Roses made to toss their silk

to earth like immolated gowns, hills
spewing ribbons of charred air from cities
occupied by artillery and pilfered grain, limbs

blown from their bodies and made into an alphabet
that builds this fool song, even now, presented
before you as false curative, as vacant kiss — even

what is lost in the fabrication of strangers needs naught
from strangers. Even somewhere stings with stillness,
stings with a home not surrendered but a given.

But I have not been with my feet on the earth
there where bullets make use of skin like flags
make use of the land. My thinking is as skeletal

as the bombed-out schools and houses
untelevised. What do I know of occupation
but my own colonized thinking to shake

free from. While my days themselves tremble
from time and shake off place to feel falsely
placeless, a hollow empathy as if its soft chisel

could make of this wall — my ignorance mighty
before me upon which drawn figures alight
against the stone — my own; what is mine is

the wall my votes and non-votes, my purchases
wrapped in unthought have built and stretched,
undead gray. There are no secrets in debris.

I have a home I hate, its steel and lights
red and blue upon me. Home itself a mist
through which I pass and barely notice.

Home, to assume you are home is to assume
I am welcome in you — to what degree let the wounds
say so — and can come and go as I please.

The television tells me Over there, and one must point
with a fully extended arm to show how far from,
how unlike here there really is. Over there

where they blow each other up over land and God.
And it feels good to stretch as if from waking —
this silence could be called a kind of sleep — and think

beyond, where I am not and where those who are
are not — wall upon which drawings of fists
strike skyward and faces of activists stare into me

from my Google search. Turnstiles separate
home from home. Barbed wire catches clouds
in its coil saws. What do I know of injustice

but having a home throughout which bullets,
ballots, and brutality trifecta against
people who were here before here was here

and people were brought here to change
the landscape of humanity? That word has rolling hills
and towering walls. To hammer against it not to get

to the other side — believe nothing is there —
but to make obsolete side — know there is nothing.
I know this: my metaphors have small arms,

my wallet has made monstrous my reflection,
I have done terrible things by being alive.
I have built a wonder of terror with my life.

Phillip B. Williams was born in Chicago, Illinois and earned his Master’s degree  from Washington University.  He is the author of several books of poetry and a winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award. Williams is currently the poetry editor of the online journal Vinyl Poetry and teaches at Bennington College. You can sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Keep speaking truth to power as long as your head remains on your shoulders

See the source image

EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Last week Jesus met with rejection in his hometown of Nazareth and warned his disciples that they could expect the same. This week’s gospel lesson raises the stakes even higher. John the Baptist pays the ultimate price for speaking truth to power. This grizzly tale of palace intrigue, injustice and violence is a grim reminder that truth is often the first casualty of power politics and that silencing the messenger is frequently the preferred method of killing the message.

This story might resonate more with me if John had lost his head for rebuking Herod over his numerous acts of cruelty, violence and injustice. Instead, John takes Herod to task for what appears on its face to be simply a matter of personal morality. Herod divorced his first wife,  Phasaelis, the daughter of King Artreas IV of Nabatea, in favor or Herodias who had been married to his brother Philip. “So what?” I am tempted to ask. What bearing does that have on his competence as a ruler? There are numerous examples of successful leaders whose family lives left much to be desired. With so much at stake for the coming reign of God, it seems almost silly for John to throw his life away by sticking his nose into the middle of a domestic dispute.

Then again, I suppose we should ask ourselves whether morality is ever strictly personal. As everyone who has ever been married can attest, marriage transforms every other relationship an individual has. It brings together and forges ties between families that were formerly strangers. Marriage opens up the potential for new persons coming into the world who will have a large stake in the health and stability of that relationship and all the others connected to it. Neither entering into nor terminating a marriage is a matter of public indifference. In both cases, life changing ripples are sent out effecting numerous other parties. As it turns out, Herod’s divorce and illicit marriage played a huge role in escalating a conflict with his father-in-law Artreas that blew up into a military confrontation ending badly for Herod and his people.

Character matters. We worship the God of the covenant who keeps promises even when the cost of doing so is the life of God’s only begotten Son. Unlike God, we are frequently unable to keep the promises we make. For that there is forgiveness. But forgiveness does not absolve us of our covenant obligation to love our neighbors, even when we cannot fulfill the promises made to them in good faith.  When a marriage dissolves, both parties are responsible for minimizing the damage to their children, to their respective families and the friendships with others they share.  We are called to be as faithful in divorce as we are in marriage. It appears that Herod exercised no such care. He treated his family with the same contempt as he treated his subjects. The lethal consequences of his immorality were visited upon far more than himself and his immediate family.

Ordinarily, we think of prophecy as a very public act. Sometimes it is. But as Jesus taught us last week, the most difficult (and perhaps the most important) prophecy is exercised at home among the people with whom we live and work. It takes unusual courage to speak up for immigrants and refugees when we hear them vilified at the Fourth of July family picnic. Does what a few old white guys say around the BBQ pit really matter? Is it worth making a scene and spoiling a family event? I believe that in a culture that elected a president who mocks the disabled, ridicules women who have been sexually abused (some by himself), denigrates people of color and employs the power of the executive branch to separate children from their parents, “making a scene” might be the most important thing we are capable of doing. Prophets are called to unmask sin and expose it for what it is in the light of God’s reign. The prophet is God’s voice telling us the good news that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” That might make for some uncomfortable moments. It might cost you a friend or two. You might even put your social standing or your job at risk. But keep speaking, keep prophesying and keep telling the truth for as long as your head remains on your shoulders.

What Shall We Tell Our Children?

See the source imageSEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of the covenant, in our baptism you call us to proclaim the coming of your kingdom. Give us the courage you gave the apostles, that we may faithfully witness to your love and peace in every circumstance of life, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” Ezekiel 2:5

“If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Mark 6:11

Prophets have to reckon with the possibility that they will not be heard. God warns Ezekiel that his admonitions to the people of Judah might well be rejected. Jesus meets rejection head on in his own home town of Nazareth and, as he sends out his disciples to proclaim the reign of God, he warns them that they can expect the same fate. It’s hard to keep talking when nobody is listening. Harder still when your audience is shouting you down. When your opposition is bound and determined to silence you, the truthful speech we call prophecy is not merely hard. It is dangerous.

So why prophesy? Why keep telling the truth? Why put your reputation, your friendships, your job or even your very life on the line? It won’t make any difference. People hear what they want to hear and believe what they want to believe. You can’t make anything better for the world by speaking out. You only make things worse for yourself. So, mind your own business. Tend to your own garden. Go along to get along.

For disciples of Jesus, silence is not an option. We believe that the Word of God is God’s very self. Like the prophet Jeremiah, we cannot hold that word in once it penetrates our hearts. We must speak the truth-even when the truth is unpopular, even when the truth is ugly and painful, even when the truth evokes violent opposition. God’s word will accomplish God’s purpose, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us. But it falls to each of us to speak that word.

We may not see in our lifetimes God’s purpose accomplished in our words. Few prophets do. Jeremiah endured a lifetime of neglect, abuse and persecution without ever witnessing the change of heart he sought from his people. Judah rejected Isaiah’s bold call to put her trust in the Lord rather than political alliances. Ezekiel’s message of judgment and hope likewise fell on deaf ears throughout his lifetime. Yet when Judah found herself defeated, landless and in exile, she did not turn to the comforting patriotic, nationalistic jingoism of the prophet Hannaniah, but to the difficult, painful yet truthful words of Jeremiah. These words that had proven their worth now helped the people make sense of the terrible things that had happened to them. So, too, the rejected words of the prophet Isaiah in the eight century became the prism through which the people of Judah were able to recognize a new saving act of God in the sixth century. The hard words spoken by the prophet Ezekiel and gathered together by faithful scribes more than a generation hence brought healing and hope to a wounded and grieving people. Prophets do not speak only for their own generation. They speak to keep alive the stories of God’s judgment and faithfulness for the children of the next and their children’s children.

The older I get, the more urgently I ask myself the question forming the refrain of Margaret Burroughs’ poem featured this week: “What shall we tell our children?” How will we explain to our daughters why we elected a man who thinks it his sovereign right to feel their genitals whenever he wishes-and the church remained largely silent? How will we explain to our children of African American descent how their president called their ancestoral lands a crude word for dung while praising as “fine people” those who would see them lynched-and the congress continued to support him, thirty percent of the populace continued to praise him, but the church remained largely silent? How will we explain to our LGBTQ children how we allowed their hard fought rights to dignity and equality to be eroded by an increasingly hostile and violent mob of haters pulling the puppet strings on one of America’s two major political parties, while the church remained largely silent? What will we say to the children whose earliest memories are of being torn from the arms of their families for the crime of fleeing to the nation which boldly (and, as it turns out, hypocritically) declares: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free? And all of this while the church remains largely silent. Perhaps most pressing of all, what will we say to those children who have known no other Jesus than vicious and mean spirited moralist proclaimed in the pornographic religion propagated by the likes of Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, James Dobson and Tony Perkins? If we remain silent today, we will have nothing left to say to our children tomorrow.

Here is the poem by Margaret Burroughs referred to above.

What shall we tell our Children? An addenda, 1973.

What shall we tell our children who are black?
What shall we tell our children who are white?
What shall we tell children of every race and hue?
For all children are the children of all of us
And all of us bear responsibility for all children
What shall we tell them?
How can we show them the conditions of their lives
So they will see how they can change them?
Those who are poverty stricken in the midst of plenty
Who must live in rat-infested slums
While decent homes stand empty
Who go to bed hungry
While grocery shelves are heavy
Who huddle in tattered rags
While racks in stores are sagging
Who yearn for a good education
But languish in programmed illiteracy
Whose intellectual growth is stunted
And whose ignorance is compounded
While the Academies produce more drones for the labor colony
What shall we tell them?
How can we show them the conditions of their lives
So they will see how they can change them?
What shall we tell our children
The men and women of the future?
We shall tell them the truth
It is our bounden duty to tell them the truth
It may be painful. We must tell them the truth
We may be criticized. We must tell them the truth
We may be castigated. We must tell them the truth
The truth it shall be, shall show them the conditions of their lives
Of a glorified way of life, the greatest in the world

Which is not concerned with people, but with profits
Not with the well-being of many, but with the interests of a few
Not with the welfare and future of the people
But only with the profit-making present
We shall tell them the truth about a way of life
The greatest in the world
Where freedom and equality is granted to every man, woman, and child
Where everyone, providing he is willing to do what is necessary
Can become rich and wealthy by doing others before they do you
Where everyone, including you
Can acquire life’s most important goodies
Like split-level houses, with wall-to-wall carpeting completely furnished
And two cars and two color T.V.’s
And the latest style clothes and minks
And schminks and everything!
We shall tell them the truth
About a way of life
The greatest in the world
Which rejects the wisdom of its seers and sages
And whose culture is dictated and delineated by
Violent, vicious, destructive
Murderous, unfeeling, crude
And quick on the draw supermen
Who deem the men and women of the future
As expendable and shunt them off to
Purposeless death in the name of patria and patriotism
Who slaughter the innocents who protest or speak for Peace
We shall tell them the truth
​We shall tell them the truth
About a way of life, the greatest in the world
Whose primal motivation is material acquisition
Wherein the majority of the people derive happiness
From having things which others do not have
Whose all high, omnipotent
All powerful Jehovah, Jesus, Lord
God, Allah and all Supreme
Is the adulated, sought after, live for,
Steal for, murder for, Almighty D-O-L-L-A-R dollar!
​We shall tell them the truth
About a way of life, the greatest in the world
Which manipulates and expends young lives
So that parasites may live and survive
Whose aim is but to acquire and kill
And kill and acquire again and again
At home and abroad and everywhere
​We shall tell them the truth
We shall urge them to examine their way of life,
The greatest in the world
Which deliberately depresses the conditions of life
Which offers no bright future
But instead keeps people in fear
Insecurity and in constant turmoil
Which decimates their ranks
With endless predatory wars
​We shall tell them the truth
About what life could be made to be
And how they themselves can help to make it
Bright, happy and secure.
We shall show them that life
Is ever in motion, constantly going through
Processes of change, shall strengthen them in the belief
That it is possible for men and women,
For they themselves, for all of us
To live in harmony with our environment
And the Universe
Shall teach them that our knowledge increases
The more we gain control over our envirnment
And exploit it not for private gain but for our own happiness
We shall tell them the truth
We shall encourage them to expand their knowledge
Of the known and the unknown
To destroy the cobwebs of superstition
To find that there are no mysteries
Either in life or in nature
And that above all there is nothing to fear but fear itself.
​We shall tell them the truth
Shall suggest this way of life
Can truly be made to be among the
Greatest in the world
That through their own efforts
They can forge a new way
A superior way, a good way of life
Which is in harmony with the true purpose of life
Wherein the people themselves control the conditions of their labor
Wherein the people have the total benefits of their labor
And where men, women, and children
Live lives free from exploitation.
We shall tell them that a way of life is possible
Wherein the people may own the means and tools of production
And use them solely for the abundance of the whole people
And not for the aggrandizement of a few
As in the old way.
​We shall tell them the truth
We shall arm them with the knowledge of how to survive
In an atmosphere fraught with danger and hostility
We shall urge them to heed
​The wisdom bequeathed to us by the elders
And to have faith. To have faith.
In people, in themselves and their fellow human beings
And to have respect and love for all of humankind.
​We shall tell them
​To keep the belief that the purpose of life
Is to continue to grow and create
And to contribute to growth and create
And to contribute to growth and
Creativity toward a better life
For people now and for generations to come
What shall we tell our children?
​We shall tell them the truth
We shall imbue them with the vision of the new tomorrow
Seemingly far, but yet so near
We shall tell them that they hold the power in their own hands
To make this new way
A reality in our own life time

Source: What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?  (c. 1968, 1992 by Margaret Burroughs, pub. by M.A.A.H. Press). Margaret Burroughs (1905-2010) was an American visual artist, writer, poet, educator, and arts organizer. She co-founded the Ebony Museum of Chicago, now the DuSable Museum of African American History. She also helped to establish the South Side Community Art Center, whose opening on May 1, 1941, was dedicated by the First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt. Burroughs was a prolific author of children’s books and poetry. As in her visual art, Burroughs’ prose and poetry explore the themes of family, community and the fraught relations between the races. This particular poem is a 1973 revision to an earlier 1968 work entitled What Shall I Tell My Children Who Are Black?” In explaining her expansion of this poem, Burroughs remarked that “The liberation of black people in the United States is tightly linked with the liberation of black people in the far flung diaspora. Further, and more important, the liberation of black and oppressed people all over the world, is linked with the struggles of the workers of the world of every nationality and color against the common oppressors, overlords, and exploiters of their labor” You can read more of Margaret Burroughs’ poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Prayers for People who have Nothing but Prayer

See the source imageSIXTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of the covenant, in our baptism you call us to proclaim the coming of your kingdom. Give us the courage you gave the apostles, that we may faithfully witness to your love and peace in every circumstance of life, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

You may have noticed that my blog has a new look and that its name has been abbreviated. The latter was necessitated by my retirement from the full-time ministry of Word and Sacrament at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bogota effective June 30th. My last Sunday will be June 24th, after which Sesle and I will be taking up residence at our new home in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Accordingly, as I am no longer affiliated with Trinity, I can no longer properly use its name in the title of my blog.

That left me wondering what name I should use going forward. It occurred to me that I might go with “Pete’s Portico” or “Wellfleet Pete.” Trouble is, I hate alliteration and nobody has ever called me “Pete.” I have always been Peter. So the first option is out. The second option suffers from the same denominational infirmity and has the added problem of being just a tad dishonest. “Wellfleet Pete” suggests that I am a fixture in this place, that I have some deep affinity for Wellfleet and a strong connection here. I hope that will one day be the case. But for now, I am a newcomer just learning my way around. I don’t yet know the aspects of this town that can only be known by listening to the stories of long time residents, getting lost on the side streets and eating breakfast in the local restaurants. So, after mulling the matter over for several weeks, I elected simply to stick with “The Portico” dropping only the name of the church. This name still captures the “front porch” atmosphere I want to create-insofar as that can be done in cyberspace. What’s more, I now actually have a “portico” or front porch at my now home with a couple of rocking chairs and a little table for a pitcher of lemonade or ice tea. So the name, albeit short on novelty and creativity, captures something of who I am and how I now live.

Names are important. Over time, they infuse the people to whom they are given. I find it nearly impossible to separate my children from the names they were given at birth. When I hear their names spoken, their faces immediately come to mind-and vise versa. When someone I have met only a time or two calls me by my name, it tells me they made an effort keep me in their memory. It tells me that I matter. This Sunday’s psalm speaks on behalf of a people largely forgotten, nameless and marginalized. Yet the psalmist is convinced that s/he addresses a God who remembers his/her name and the names of his/her people. The psalmist appeals to God because, frankly, there is no one else upon whom to call. The psalmist’s people have been treated with “contempt.” They are people suffering the scorn of the “proud” and those who “are at ease” in the land. Whether this is a prayer of all Israel at a low point in her history or the prayer of an oppressed class of people within Israel, it reflects the desperation of a people living at the margins.

It is hard not to draw the parallel between these desperate petitioners and the largely nameless families of refugees now being torn apart at our southern border. No one lives further out on the margins than the refugee driven out of his or her own country and unwelcome in all others. No one knows desperation better than the person with no country to call home, no safe haven and no community of support. It is hard to find a group that has been treated with as much contempt, such scorn and such self-righteous spite  by so many Americans than these folks who have the audacity to enter into “our country.” This psalm is particularly fitting for them and it should give us pause when we reflect that it will be chanted this Sunday by millions of us whose position in this country is secure, who have homes in which to live and communities where we are recognized and respected. Are we acting in good faith when we sing the songs of the marginalized as though they were our own? Can we call ourselves followers of the messiah whose family fled persecution as refugees even as we identify with the nation that persecutes refugees? Does it not bother us in the least to identify as disciples of Jesus?

If these questions do not come to the fore as we pray this Sunday’s psalm, then I fear we have become deaf to the Spirit’s call to us through the scriptures. I fear that we may have become like the “a nation of rebels” to whom Ezekiel was sent, a people incapable of hearing the voice of our Lord appealing to us through the cries of “the least” among us. I worry that the voice of prophecy might be incapable of penetrating our hardened hearts, that the voices of nationalism, xenophobia and the subtler undertones of white supremacism are drowning out the voices represented by the psalmist. Perhaps there is no more pressing hermeneutical imperative this Sunday than to ensure that the psalmist is heard.

Here is the voice of another psalmist speaking for the nameless that ends with prayer. He is the poet, Ray Gonzalez.

One El Paso, Two El Paso

Awake in the desert to the sound of calling.
Must be the mountain, I thought.

The violent border, I assumed, though the boundary
line between the living and the dead was erased years ago.

Awake in the sand, I feared, old shoes decorated with
razor wire, a heaven of light on the peaks.

Must be time to get up, I assumed. Parked outside,
Border Patrol vehicles, I had to choose.

Awake to follow immigration shadows vanishing inside
American walls, river drownings counted as they cross,

Maria Salinas’ body dragged out, her mud costume
pasted with plastic bottles and crushed beer cans,

black water flowing to bless her in her sleep.
Must be the roar of illegal death, I decided,

a way out of the current, though satellite maps never
show the brown veins of the concrete channel.

Awake in the arroyo of a mushroom cloud, I choke,
1945 explosion in the sand, eternal radioactive wind,

the end of one war mutating the border into another
that also requires fatal skills of young men because few

dream the atomic bomb gave birth in the Jornado,
historic trail behind the mountain realigned, then cut

off from El Paso, the town surrounded with barbed
wire, the new century kissing car bombs, drug cartels,

massacres across the river, hundreds shot in ambushes
and neighborhood soccer games that always score.

Wake up, I thought, look south to the last cathedral
in Juarez before its exploding bricks hurtle this way.

Make the sign of the cross, open your eyes to one town,
two cities, five centuries of praying in the beautiful dust.

Source: Beautiful Wall, (c. 2015 by Ray Gonzalez, pub. by BOA Editions Ltd.) Ray Gonzalez is a poet, essayist and editor born and raised in El Paso, Texas. His work is heavily influenced and shaped by his Mexican ancestry and American upbringing in the deserts of the Southwest. He is currently a full professor at the University of Minnesota.  Gonzalez served as Poetry Editor of the Bloomsbury Review for twenty-five years and founded LUNA, a poetry journal, in 1998. He received a 2004 Lifetime Achievement Award in Literature from the Border Regional Library Association. You can read more about Ray Gonzalez and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

The God who gives a damn; a poem by Emmy Perez; and the lessons for Sunday, June 24, 2018

See the source imageFIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Teacher, do you not care if we perish?”  Mark 4:38

“Why are you afraid?” A simple question addressed by Jesus to his disciples. The answer seems obvious. The disciples have just left the familiar shores of Galilee for what Mark characterizes as “the other side.” We know from the context that Jesus means the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the country of the Gerasenes. The length of this journey does not appear great on the map, but tackling it with a boat designed chiefly for netting fish just off shore represented a significant risk even in fair weather. Moreover, Jesus and his disciples were leaving the neighborhood in which Jesus had become well known and had built up a substantial following. This was safe territory. The territory across the sea was new ground populated by strangers, many if not most of whom were gentiles. When the disciples exclaim in exasperation, “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?’ I can hear undertones of “I told you this was a bad idea!” The disciples have plenty of good reasons to be afraid, but they also have one good reason not to give into fear. Jesus is with them. He is the one who initiated this venture to the “other side” and he can be trusted to see it through.

The disciples have good reason to be afraid. The threat of the wind and the waves breaking over the boat is real. Furthermore, it could not have been obvious to the disciples that there was much Jesus could do about the storm. It is far too much to expect even a great teacher like Jesus to control the weather. But is it too much to ask that he care? If Jesus can’t be bothered to wake up and help bail, couldn’t he at least offer a few words of encouragement? Are the lives of his disciples so cheap that they merit not even a final benediction before they are swallowed up by the sea?

At the very core of our being, there is a craven fear that perhaps, after all, nobody cares. I see that fear in the eyes of elderly people who manage to outlive their friends, have no family nearby and little in the way of human contact outside of the institutions in which they live. I see it in the eyes of those teens who just don’t seem to fit in anywhere. Lately, I have seen too much fear that no one cares in the eyes of refugee families incarcerated and split up for the crime of wanting a safe and productive life in a land where they need not fear starvation, war and gang violence. It’s the fear that each of us is finally alone in the world and nobody in it or beyond it gives a damn.

According to the scriptures, that fear was placed into our hearts by the serpent who managed to convince Adam and Eve that God did not care about them, that God didn’t have their best interests at heart, that God looks out for God and that they should be like God and do likewise. From that vantage point, life becomes a zero sum game of survival at all costs in a war of all against all. America first, but of course, Americans like me first. Within my racial, cultural and ideological tribe, my family first. In the end, though, it finally boils down to me first. If everyone is finally in it for themselves, then I would be a fool not to put my own interests first. I can’t afford to care because I know that no one really cares for me.

Jesus makes it clear that he does care-as does his heavenly Father. So the disciple’s fear is unfounded. It is tempting to accept the calming of the storm as the end and object of this story. Just have enough faith and you will be safe in any storm. But those of us familiar with the whole gospel narrative know that isn’t the case. We know that the storm on the Sea of Galilee was but a minor squall compared with the storms to come. When Jesus arrives at “the other side,” he will be met by a legion of demons and rejected by a community that wants nothing more to do with him. As he leads his disciples toward Jerusalem, resistance to Jesus grows. We know how this will end. Jesus is going to the cross and he invites his disciples to follow him there. There is no safety in discipleship. Any storm you face could be your last and one of them one day surely will.

The good news in this story-and it is incredibly good news-is that God cares about a dozen fishermen tossed about on their leaky little boat in the midst of the sea. God cares about that old guy in the nursing home that never seems to get any visits. God cares about the kid who cries herself to sleep after another day of bullying at school. God cares about the families that are being ripped apart at our southern border a good deal more than God cares about the policy decisions of a certain biblically illiterate Attorney General spun out of the loathsome religion of Trumpist Evangelicalism. God even cares about the likes of selfish, egotistical, spoiled, privileged white guys like me who were born on third base and congratulate ourselves for hitting a triple. God cares. And because God cares, we had damn well better start caring too.

Here is a poem by Emmy Perez calling us to a deeper level of caring.

Not one more refugee death

A river killed a man I loved,
And I love that river still

—María Meléndez

1.

Thousands of fish killed after Pemex
spill in el Río Salado and everyone
runs out to buy more bottled water.
Here, our river kills more crossers
than the sun, than the singular

heat of Arizona, than the ranchlands
near the Falfurrias checkpoint.
It’s hard to imagine an endangered
river with that much water, especially
in summer and with the Falcon Reservoir

in drought, though it only takes inches
to drown. Sometimes, further
west, there’s too little river
to paddle in Boquillas Canyon
where there are no steel-column walls

except the limestone canyon’s drop
and where a puma might push-wade across,
or in El Paso, where double-fenced muros
sparkle and blind with bullfight ring lights,
the ring the concrete river mold, and above

a Juárez mountain urges
La Biblia es La VerdadLeela.

2.

Today at the vigil, the native singer
said we are all connected
by water, la sangre de vida.

Today, our vigil signs proclaimed
McAllen is not Murrieta.
#iamborderless. Derechos
Inmigrantes=Derechos
Humanos. Bienvenidos niños.
We stand with refugee children.
We are all human. Bienvenidos
a los Estados Unidos.

And the songs we sang
the copal that burned
and the rose petals spread
en los cuatro puntos were
for the children and women
and men. Songs

for the Guatemalan
boy with an Elvis belt buckle
and Angry Birds jeans with zippers
on back pockets who was found
shirtless in La Joya, one mile
from the river. The worn jeans

that helped identify his body
in the news more times
than a photo of him while alive.
(I never knew why the birds
are angry. My mother said
someone stole their eggs.)

The Tejas sun took a boy
I do not know, a young man
who wanted to reach Chicago,
his brother’s number etched in
his belt, his mother’s pleas not
to leave in white rosary beads

he carried. The sun in Tejas
stopped a boy the river held.
Detention centers filled, churches
offer showers and fresh clothes.
Water and a covered porch may
have waited at a stranger’s house

or in a patrol truck had his body
not collapsed. Half of our bodies
are made of water, and we can’t
sponge rivers through skin
and release them again
like rain clouds. Today

at the vigil the native singer
sang we are all connected
by water, la sangre de vida.

Source: With the River on Our Face (c. 2016 by Emmy Perez, pub. by University of Arizona Press). Originally from Santa Ana, California, Emmy Perez earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and her Masters in Fine Arts from Columbia University. Her poems have been published in numerous periodicals. She is an associate professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she teaches in the MFA and undergraduate creative writing programs. She was a Canto Mundo fellow from 2010 to 2012 and a member of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop. Her honors include the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, the James D. Phelan Award. She has also received poetry fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the New York Foundation for the Arts. You can learn more about Emmy Perez and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Job 38:1-11

“Stay away from the Book of Job,” my preaching professor told me in seminary, “unless you are prepared to go the distance.” What he meant, I think, is that preaching Job honestly requires us to deal with the whole messy, troublesome story. And this story is plenty messy and troublesome.

Job, you may recall, was a righteous man. So righteous was he that he not only took care to avoid sin himself, but offered sacrifices on behalf of his children to atone for any sins they might have committed. Job 1:1-5. God rewarded Job’s righteousness with a beautiful wife, wonderful children and fabulous wealth. “Now there was a day,” we read,” when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also was among them.” Job 1:6. The NRSV translates “sons of God” as “heavenly beings” which, though making the text properly inclusive, says more than we actually know. It is presumed that we know who Satan is, though we might wonder at how he manages to slip in and out of God’s court with such freedom. Though clearly adversarial, Satan’s relationship with God seems almost collegial. Their rivalry resembles more the philosophical jousting typical among professors within the same university faculty than cosmic conflict between mortal enemies.

God, it seems, is a humanist convinced that human nature is capable of righteousness and moral progress. Satan, by contrast, is a hardened cynic. To him, human beings are a bundle of nerve endings. They do whatever they do to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. The specimen Job seems to prove God’s position and God cannot help but rub this in a little. “How ‘bout that Job, Heh? Blameless, upright, not an evil bone in his body! Now tell me Satan, doesn’t the existence of a man like that put the lie to your pessimistic outlook on the human race?”

“Righteous, yes. I’ll give you that.” Says Satan. “Of course, he’s got good reason to be righteous, doesn’t he? You reward him well enough for it. Pay me like you pay him and I’ll be righteous too!”

“What are you suggesting?” God inquires, a little uncertainly.

“Oh, just this,” says Satan. Job is righteous because he knows it pays to be righteous. But take away all the goodies, rob him of his wealth, introduce a little tragedy into his life and he will turn on you in a New York minute.” This, by the way is strikingly similar to the tactic the serpent used on Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Can God really be trusted to do right by you? Are the commands he gives you really for your own good? Or is God holding something back? Is there something God wants to keep all to God’s self?” Just as the serpent undermined humanity’s trust in its Creator, so now Satan seeks to undermine God’s confidence in God’s creature. Like Eve, God takes the bait-hook, line and sinker. God gives Satan leave to take everything from Job but his life and health.

If Satan thought he would score an easy philosophical victory here, he was wrong. Job lost his wealth and his children in one fell swoop. Though urged by his wife to curse God and die, Job replies: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Now God can hardly contain himself: “Have you considered my servant Job…he still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Job 2:3. In what God thinks is a victory speech, God has unwittingly conceded defeat. God admits that Satan has “moved” God against his faithful creature. That has been Satan’s game plan all along.

Satan has more dirty work to do, however. “Well,” says Satan, “I must admit that your Job held up much better than I expected. But every man has his price. Job still has his health. Break his body, render him incontinent, deform his appearance and afflict him with chronic pain and he will crack. A human being is but a bundle of nerve endings. Let’s see how well he pronounces blessings when those nerve endings start to hurt.” Once again, God takes the bait and Job is afflicted with bodily sores that disfigure him. At this point, Satan drops out of the story and is heard from no more. God is also off stage until the very end of the drama. In the meantime, Job receives a visit from three friends who come to comfort and advise him.

Job can see no reason for his suffering or the failure of God to respond to his cries for vindication. His friends, however, know full well what the problem is. Job is being punished for his sin. That is the only explanation there can be if we accept as true the theology of Psalm 1, which teaches us that the righteous one “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season,” who prospers in all that he does; whereas the wicked “are like chaff which the wind drives away.” If Job is perishing, it can only be because of some evil he has done. Any other conclusion ascribes injustice to God-which is blasphemy. Naturally, the friends’ theology of God constricts their ability to speak a life giving and comforting word to Job. Job’s insistence upon his innocence only threatens the friends’ deeply held beliefs about how God’s justice works to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Their lengthy poetic argument with Job on this point proceeds for thirty-four dreary chapters, becoming more vitriolic with every verse. The friends seem to be more concerned with defending God’s honor than comforting poor Job. Job increasingly ignores his friends’ arguments and directs his speech to the God who does not answer. Finally, just as the argument seems mercifully to have ground to a halt, one more friend steps out of the shadows to put in his two cents worth. In fact, he puts in more than two cents worth of pedantic blather, lecturing poor Job for six more chapters on his pride and impiety.

Then God speaks, and that is where our lesson for Sunday comes in. God bypasses the friends and speaks directly to Job, peppering him with rhetorical questions that Job cannot possibly be expected to answer. The point seems to be that creation is such a terrible, fearful, beautiful and awesome mystery that no mortal can comprehend it. Human life in all of its complexities cannot be boiled down to simplistic rules of moral cause and effect. The reasons for beauty, terror, joy and despair defy rational explanation. It should be enough to know that the creation is a wondrous place filled with potential for human joy and fulfilment as well as human tragedy. It is not for Job to complain that God did not make the world differently or that God could have made it better.

All of that might fly well enough if only Job’s suffering really were inexplicable. But it’s not. We already know that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with mysteries too deep for human understanding. The reader understands only too well why Job has been so cruelly afflicted. God was induced by Satan to brutalize Job in order to make a point. Worse than that, it is obvious that God is not coming clean with Job. God has Job believing that his suffering lies hidden in mysteries too great for his understanding. In the end, God restores Job’s wealth and gives him more children. The inadequacy of such a remedy is clear enough to every parent who has lost a child and been told by some well-meaning friend, “Well, thank God you’re young enough to have more children.” Children are not fungible goods. So the Book of Job ends as it began-with a lot of very troubling issues.

I have a feeling some folks might be taking offense at my treatment of this great book. In my own defense I can only say that I have chased commentators, preachers and linguists from hell to breakfast looking for a way to derive a positive message from Job. But the only way I have found to make peace with the book is to interpret it as satire from beginning to end. It is, I believe, a cautionary tale about religion run amok. “This,” says the anonymous author(s) of Job, “is what you get from a religion of moral causation, a religion that interprets all events as rewards or punishments for human behavior. (Are you listening Pat RobertsonFrank Graham and Assemblywoman Shannon Grove?) You wind up with people like Job who can find no comfort in their faith. You wind up with people like Job’s friends whose religion can provide no healing or life giving word to those who suffer. You wind up with a god who is unworthy of Job’s worship and trust.

The latter observation is aptly expressed in Robert Frost’s play Mask of Reason, which is based on the Book of Job. The drama takes place years after the events related in the Bible have transpired. God pays a visit to Job and his wife and Job poses the question: “Now after all these years You might indulge me. Why did You hurt me so? I am reduced to asking flatly for the reason-outright.”

God responds: “I was showing off to the Devil, Job, as set forth in Chapters One and Two. Do you mind?”

“No, No. I musn’t,” Job Replies. “Twas human of You. I expected more than I could understand and what I get is almost less than I can understand.”

Mask of Reason, lines 207-269; lines 327-233 printed in Frost, Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston) pp. 473-390.

If there is a positive word in this book, it finds expression in the character of Job. Though Satan succeeded well in turning God against God’s creature, he failed to turn Job from his faith in his Creator. So the question posed by the Book of Job is this: “Is there a God out there worthy of Job’s steadfast trust and confidence?” The book does a fine job of telling us what such a god is not. We must look beyond that book for a portrait of who that God is.

Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.

Our lesson begins at verse 23 and relates the adventures of sea going merchants (who might also have been pilgrims). In addition to being a powerful metaphor for the primordial chaos that reigned prior to creation (Genesis 1:2), the sea was also a very tangible source of terror for the Israelite people. How many Jewish sea captains do you read about in the Hebrew Scriptures? Jonah is the only Hebrew scriptural character known to have gone to sea-and it did not turn out well for him. Yet even the terrifying power of the sea is subject to the voice of Israel’s God.

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Vss. 27-28. These words parallel the cries of the terrified disciples in our gospel lesson and the Psalm as a whole implies the answer to their question: “Who, then, is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Mark 4:41. Of course, for the pilgrims in the Psalm standing safely within the confines of the temple courts, escape from the dangers of the sea seemed no less miraculous and God driven.

These are the testimonies of persons who have experienced in a graphic way God’s saving intervention. That God does not always so act and that there are also ships full of people that go down does not dull the effect of their faithful witness. Rather, it underscores the gracious nature of God’s salvation which is neither earned, deserved, nor can it be expected as a matter of course. People who have experienced God’s salvation from death understand that each morning is a gift of one more day in a finite lifetime. Such humble thankfulness is well expressed in a poem by the late Jane Kenyon:

Otherwise

I got out of bed on
two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Jane Kenyon from Constance (1993)

Moreover, such salvation experiences are not to be understood as special favors reflecting God’s preference for one person over another. Instead, they are occasions for God’s mercy and steadfast love to be manifested to the world. Hence, the command: “Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” Vs. 22.

2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Paul has just finished a very fine articulation of his apostolic mission set forth in II Corinthians 5:16-21. He describes himself as an “ambassador” for Christ; God making God’s appeal for reconciliation through Paul’s ministry. In the name of Christ, then, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” That is, let not the grace of God be without effect. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 341. Quoting Isaiah 49:8, Paul urges his readers to respond faithfully now, for time is of the essence. Vs. 2.

Verse 3 seems to be an abrupt transition. Paul has been speaking of his apostolic mission to the world, but now seems fixated once again upon his detractors’ rejection of his apostleship. Some commentators suggest that the material in II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 belongs immediately after vs. 2 rather than after verse 13. Ibid. 353. There is no question that this material seems wildly out of place where it now is and that II Corinthians 7:2 follows naturally after verse 13 in our lesson. But the transposed section does not seem to fit any more naturally between verses 2 and 3 than it does after verse 13. Accord, Furnish, supra. For my part, I am doubtful that II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is even genuinely Pauline. It seems to contradict entirely the advice given in I Corinthians 7:12-16. If, however, one enlarges the focus to include the whole of Chapter 5, it becomes evident that Paul is simply circling back to the defense of his apostleship begun at II Corinthians 5:11-15. He points out that his credentials are the hardships he has embraced and the sacrifices he has gladly made for the sake of Christ’s reconciling mission. Vss. 4-10. Paul argues that he has done everything possible to earn the trust of the Corinthian church and asks that, as he has opened his heart to them, they similarly open their heart to him.

This passage illustrates how the greatest asset any church leader has is his/her integrity. A pastor that tithes need not apologize for asking the same from his/her congregation. A trustee that takes up the rake need not be bashful in calling upon the rest of the congregation to pitch in with the spring cleaning to avoid the expense of landscaping bills. Nothing takes the wind out of criticism quite as effectively as honesty, transparency and reliability.

Mark 4:35-41

In this gospel lesson Mark continues pressing the $64,000 question: “Who is Jesus?” Of course, those of us reading the gospel already know who Jesus is because the gospel begins in Mark 1:1 by telling us that this is the story of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus knows who he is because the voice from heaven spoke to him at his baptism saying, “You are my beloved Son.” Mark 1:11. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus has to tell them to keep quiet about his identity. Mark 1:23-25. The only people who don’t seem to be getting it are the disciples.

Mark’s telling of this story is rich in allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures suggesting that Jesus is something more than a mere teacher. Indeed, as will later be demonstrated on the Mountain of Transfiguration, he is more even than Israel’s Messiah. The ability to control the sea and subdue storms was regarded as divine. Psalm 89:8-9Psalm 93:1-4Psalm 106:8-9Psalm 107:28-29; and Isaiah 51:9-10. Additionally, the image of “the waters” was a common metaphor for the powers of evil and the trials of the righteous. Psalm 69:1-2Psalm 18:16. Finally, in the mist of such tribulation, the faithful are called upon to express confidence in God’s power to save and deliver. Isaiah 43:2Psalm 46:1-3; and Psalm 65:5. It should also be noted that the ability to sleep peacefully, as Jesus is evidently doing, is a sign of trust in the protective power of God. Proverbs 3:23-24Psalm 4:8Psalm 3:5; and Job 11:8-19. Jesus’ posture of trust evidenced by his sleeping is therefore a potent contrast to the agitation of the disciples. For a fuller discussion of these Hebrew scriptural echoes, see Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 146-148.

It is tempting to criticize the disciples for being such dolts. Particularly after they make the remark, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” vs. 41. Unwittingly perhaps, they are practically quoting from this week’s Psalm. Had they realized what they were saying, they would not have had to ask their question. Yet the problem here is deeper than mere failure to connect the scriptural dots. Surely the people to whom Mark’s gospel is addressed, like us, know that Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, does that knowledge make any difference to them or us? Though we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, is he the first one to whom we turn in the midst of a raging storm? Or do we call out to him only when our strength, our wits and our resources have all failed us and the boat is half swamped? In these troubled and fearful times, we can still hear Jesus speaking to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” vs. 40.